It's been over six months since the 2020 presidential election, and Congress remains deeply at odds over how to build on the successes of the election while addressing some of the most significant challenges that were exposed. Intelligence officials warn that autocratic actors continue to engage in covert and overt efforts to influence U.S. elections. And according to at least one expert, the recent cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, which carries gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Texas to New York and moves about half of all fuel consumed on the East Coast, is just the latest reminder that the "core elements of our national infrastructure" remain vulnerable to cyberattack. Considering these events, there remains a strong need for congressional action.
With the Senate's version of the For the People Act at a standstill, and no clear path to passage in sight, Congress should narrow its focus to the individual components of S 1 (as it's also known) that have a better chance of becoming law, to help ensure our adversaries do not successfully interfere in future elections. Such a bill should focus on three policy domains that appear more ripe for bipartisan action: 1) limiting the influence of money in politics; 2) modernizing election infrastructure to increase security; and 3) preventing foreign interference in elections.
Each of these domains contains previously introduced pieces of legislation that originally had bipartisan support. This includes The Secure Election Act and the Prevent Elections Hacking Act, which would provide funds to states to bolster election security and protect election infrastructure from interference; the Honest Ads Act, which requires digital platforms to disclose political advertising; and the DISCLOSE Act, which mandates the disclosure of currently hidden independent election spending, thereby helping prevent foreign adversaries from meddling in America's political system.
These domains enjoy broad public support across the political spectrum. A recent survey found that the provisions limiting the influence of money in politics were supported by 86 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of independents and 80 percent of Republicans. Modernizing election infrastructure garnered 90 percent approval from Democrats, 83 percent approval from independents, and 80 percent approval from Republicans. And the provisions tailored toward preventing foreign interference in elections received 85 percent from Democrats, 82 percent from independents and 82 percent from Republicans.
Most importantly, such a bill could promote voter confidence and provide remedies for some of the toughest problems we continue to encounter with our elections. For example, adopting the Honest Ads Act could curb foreign influence by closing loopholes in online political advertising. Special counsel Robert Mueller discovered that Russian operatives used paid ads to influence the 2016 presidential election and spent more than $100,000 on digital ads in violation of the federal ban on foreign involvement in elections. And passing the Secure Elections Act would further streamline cybersecurity information sharing between federal and state agencies, support effective and efficient auditing, and facilitate a quicker push for the replacement of any voting system that does not produce a paper record of the vote.
State and local election officials continue to be asked to defend their systems against threats from autocratic actors, cyber criminals and purveyors of disinformation. While election officials were invaluable to ensuring a successful 2020 presidential election, many lack the personnel and resources to keep up with the growing risks to our elections systems on their own. Congress is uniquely positioned to help tackle these challenges and it is imperative that it continues to help support election officials and ensure that future elections are accessible, transparent and secure.
For those who believe that congressional involvement is unnecessary, or at least premature, consider what occurred in 2020: The coronavirus pandemic — and Congress' inaction — necessitated an unprecedented bailout of election offices with private money, money that proved essential to preventing an election meltdown, according to numerous election officials throughout the country.
Congressional intervention could help prevent a similar situation from recurring while ensuring our democracy remains resilient from malign actors. Inaction should not be an option.
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Tied to your party's platform. Tied to your party's primary voters. Tied to your party's donors. Tied to your party's leaders. And, of course, tied to your consultants so you can get re-elected.
Our politicians come with a lot of strings attached. Even the most fervent good-governance advocates, such as Stacey Abrams, fall short of acknowledging that even with full voter participation, our system binds and biases politicians from being truly free to represent their constituents.
Closed primaries, for instance, bind politicians to prioritize their partisan primary voters above all other voices. The typical U.S. House member has to be especially attentive to this audience because every two years their job is in the hands of these ideologically extreme individuals. Good-governance advocates could champion open primaries and/or independent redistricting commissions as a means to increase the "value" of votes from the general electorate. However, such reforms would diminish the power of the two major parties and not even people like Abrams dare cross their party's influence.
Seemingly unlimited influence from major donors similarly binds politicians. Money is even more powerful than votes in our current democracy, as pointed out by Katherine Gehl of the Institute for Political Innovation. Once a politician locks up enough votes to get through their primary and the general, there's no incentive to push for more votes. More money, on the other hand, is always useful because those dollars can be shared with other party members — helping make you a kingmaker and, thereby, move you up the party ranks. So if a donor wants a politician or their party to go in a certain direction, the odds are they'll find a way to pivot in that direction.
Ultra vires partisan structures within Congress and our state legislatures similarly bind politicians. The decision to grant partisan leaders power over things like committee assignments means politicians are rewarded for being good party soldiers.
Finally, the normalization of career politicians — endlessly seeking another term — means politicians are beholden to their consultants. They pollsters, social media planners, etc. make sure politicians never get too close to going against the grain. These creatures of the partisan industrial complex help everything stay within the party-approved lines.
All of these strings have left the American people with puppets for politicians at a time when we need public servants. All of the incentives encourage politicians to become captured, so we need a generation of public servants with enough of a moral compass to step up, serve, then step aside. These no-strings-attached public servants can pass legislation that's costly in the short run to create a better future. These uncaptured public servants can shun special interests and focus first on what's best for their constituents. These short-term politicians can stop contributing to the partisan industrial complex and actually spend their terms governing, rather than dialing for dollars.
It's a worthy aspiration to make it as easy as possible for people to vote. But so long as money is more valuable than votes and primary votes are more valuable than "normal" votes, full participation would be a pyrrhic victory.
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So-called dark money organizations typically play to the extremes in politics, but one group is trying to build support in the center for its legislative priorities.
WorkMoney, a liberal political advocacy nonprofit, is trying to boost President Biden's multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and jobs agenda. It is spending $2 million on Facebook and Google ads to corral moderate Democrats and Republicans in the evenly divided Senate.
The group is one example of a dark money organization — a politically active nonprofit that is not required to disclose its donors and takes advantage of that leniency. Corporations, individuals and unions may make unlimited donations to such groups, increasing their influence over elections without any accompanying transparency.
WorkMoney describes itself as an organization "dedicated to lowering costs and raising incomes for all Americans, making American life more affordable and American families economically secure." The dark money group was created last year at the height of the pandemic.
CJ Grimes, a long-time union organizer who formed WorkMoney, told CNBC that her group has raised $20 million since its founding. According to the Facebook Ad Library, WorkMoney has spent more than $5 million for paid positions on the social media platform. And during the 2020 election, WorkMoney spent more than $230,000 supporting the campaigns of Biden and Georgia's new Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, per filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The ads running on Facebook encourage viewers to "stand up for American jobs" and contact their elected officials. After clicking on the ad, viewers are taken to a separate website where they can "sign the petition" supporting the infrastructure legislation.
"Many in Congress are hearing from special interests, pushing to cut the parts of this plan that could really get our economy going," the website reads. "It's time to quit the partisan games and invest in real American jobs. Tell your Congressperson: Pass the American Jobs Plan."
Biden's wide-ranging $2 trillion package would rebuild roads and bridges across the country, remove all lead pipes from the nation's water system and invest in other infrastructure projects, while — its proponents claim — also generating millions of jobs. It also focuses on utilizing more renewable energy and addressing racial inequities in the economy. The president has said the legislation should be paid for by raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent — up from the current 21 percent rate but still lower than it was prior to 2017.
The moderate lawmakers WorkMoney is targeting include Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
"WorkMoney members are talking to moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats because they are the ones who are most likely to shape the legislation that ultimately passes," Grimes told CNBC. "These moderates on both sides of the aisle are the politicians who most need to hear from their constituents."
To pass in the Senate, the infrastructure legislation would need the support from all of these moderates, plus at least seven more Republicans, to reach the 60-vote threshold.
In 2020, dark money groups spent more than $1 billion on federal elections, according to OpenSecrets, continuing an exponential growth pattern that began when the Supreme Court opened the floodgates with its 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case.
Dark money had initially benefited Republicans more than Democrats, but the numbers have gone the other way over the past two election cycles.
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Most Americans, across the political spectrum, agree that moneyed interests have too much influence over politics in the United States, yet the Supreme Court has made it difficult to do anything about it.
On this episode of "Toppling the Duopoly," host Shawn Griffiths and Jeff Clements, president of American Promise, discuss overcoming partisan the barriers to approving a 28th Amendment that could reduce the influence of big money.
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