Rotman is director of money in politics and ethics for Common Cause, one of the nation's oldest democracy reform advocacy organizations. From 2006 to 2011 she was the first director of Connecticut's public campaign financing program and before that was deputy general counsel of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
When working-class Americans embrace the possibilities born of democracy, it often highlights that our government of, by and for the people is a work in progress. This is certainly the case when it comes to empowering working-class Americans to compete for a congressional seat. Just ask Nabilah Islam.
Islam ran for Congress in Georgia last year without a living wage or medical insurance. The Federal Election Commission then lacked the quorum required to issue an advisory opinion, requested by the candidate, as to whether she could use campaign funds to pay for health insurance.
So Islam had to go without coverage while campaigning for elected office last spring, during the first surge of the Covid-19 pandemic. (She finished third in the Democratic primary for an open House seat north of Atlanta.)
This scenario was unsafe for her. And it was unhealthy for our democracy.
Congressional candidates who represent the diversity of America — Islam only recently turned 30 and would have been the state's first Muslim member of Congress — must be able to seek office in Washington without worrying about a living wage or health insurance. Only 2 percent of the members of Congress have working-class backgrounds, and millionaires make up more than half of Congress, even though they amount to fewer than 5 percent of the national population.
Consequently, public policy decisions made by Congress too often reflect the interests and preferences of the wealthy instead of the priorities and views of the vast majority of Americans. Historical economic inequity along the lines of race and gender has translated to a lack of political representation for Americans of color and women.
Big Money still determines who can run for office and win, and what elected officials must work on when they get into office. Possibility is born of democracy, but Big Money has our democracy in a stranglehold. We must make it easier for everyday Americans to represent us in Washington.
Islam is now petitioning the FEC, which finally has a quorum so it can resume regulating the campaign finance system, to make clear that candidates may tap their campaign accounts to pay for health insurance. She is also asking the agency to strengthen rules that have long allowed candidates to draw a limited salary from their campaigns while running for federal office; Islam wants the regulations altered to include a living-wage floor as part of the the salary formula to make the funds available from the beginning of a candidate's campaign.
This would be a great start toward elevating opportunities for working-class Americans to run for Congress, and my organization supports her petition enthusiastically.
We need to go even further. Congress must pass the For the People Act, which passed the House last month as HR 1 and is now awaiting debate in the Senate as S 1, because the legislation would help curb the dominance of wealthy special interests drowning out the voices of working-class people.
Our system is out of balance and wealthy special interests now use their power to amplify their own voices and drown out the voices of everyday Americans.
Small-donor programs such as the one included in the For the People Act, and the one I led in Connecticut, work to combat these inequities and elevate the policies that favor large swaths of everyday Americans. (The legislation in Congress would establish a voluntary public financing system for congressional candidates, under which donations up to $200 would be matched six-fold, so long as the candidates agreed to forswear almost all Big Money contributions.)
Following implementation of the Connecticut program, the state became the first in the nation to enact sweeping health care coverage for its service workers.
Real people have been excluded from democracy by a disproportionate number of millionaire members of Congress. Working Americans embody our nation's hope, possibility and promise.
These are the voices we need seeking elective office in Washington and across the country, and it is time we take every step necessary to end the millionaire's club. Nabilah Islam's efforts at the FEC are a great start.
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Carlson is a high school science teacher in the rural farming town of Royal City, Wash., and a volunteer for RepresentUs, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for a broad array of democracy reforms.
I was blessed to be born into a family that taught and modeled conservative values. My parents and grandparents showed me — not just with their words, but with their deeds — the values of honor, integrity and heeding the wisdom of our ancestors.
These values have shaped my personal and political choices my whole life. I have always voted for the candidate who I thought best represented these values, which I will readily admit has usually led to me voting for Republicans.
My conservative values also lead me to support the For the People Act — the comprehensive voting rights and democracy reform legislation now pending in the Senate after being passed by the Democratic-majority House, albeit without a single GOP vote.
I truly believe that conservative values make the strongest case for this bill.
Consider the conservative values of honor and integrity. Many modern politicians lack either one. This is because honor and integrity are not assets, but rather liabilities, in a system that relies on such things as partisan gerrymandering and dark money.
Gerrymandering allows the politicians in power to pick their voters, custom-drawing their own electoral districts so they can coast to re-election year after year — without honoring their commitment to represent all the people they have pledged to represent.
Dark money is the term for the ocean of cash — more than $1 billion during the 2020 campaign — that nonprofit organizations are able to spend on politics without revealing the identities of their donors. Candidates who benefit from dark money have an obvious competitive edge over those not beholden to these special interests.
Given these two advantages, is it any wonder Congress had an average 24 percent approval rating in the last year but a 90 percent re-election rate last fall?
The For the People Act (also known as HR 1 and S 1) addresses these issues by turning over the drawing of congressional districts to independent commissions instead of politicians, and by requiring trade associations, unions and other politically active nonprofits to disclose who's giving them money and what campaigns they are funding — which, incredibly, is not required right now. (The scandal, as they say, ain't what's illegal.)
Once politicians are required to actually earn the votes of those they represent — and can no longer rely on rigged districts and secret money sources to stay in power — we will see honor and integrity filter back into the institutions that were designed to represent us.
When discussing this legislation with my conservative friends and family, the single biggest objection they raise is that the bill would seize power from states and local governments and put it in the hands of a remote and bloated federal government. "What could be more sacred to the conservative values than the right of a community to manage its own affairs?" they ask.
This is a valid concern. Its resolution comes from looking through the lens of another conservative value: the wisdom of our ancestors.
States will still run their own elections. The bill sets some basic rules to protect voters and the security of our elections nationwide. History shows this balance is necessary.
Following the Revolutionary War, our country first framed a government dedicated to the principle of complete local autonomy. The outcome under the Articles of Confederation was disastrous, spurring a constitutional convention to revise and repair the system.
The wise James Madison realized that corrupt factions had a much easier time gaining control over a local government than a central government — the phenomenon that caused the collapse of the Greek democracies and the Roman Republic. He believed a strong central government would provide an important check and balance on the worst impulses of local control.
In "Vices of the Political System of the United States," Madison made this argument powerfully.
"Place three individuals in a situation wherein the interest of each depends on the voice of the others, and give to two of them an interest opposed to the rights of the third. Will the latter be secure?" he asks. "The prudence of every man would shun the danger."
He then suggests that if the number of people is expanded to 3,000, the danger would be substantially reduced, concluding: "A common interest or passion is less apt to be felt, and the requisite combinations less easy to be formed, by a great than by a small number. The society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests and pursuits of passions, which check each other."
For that reason, he and the other Framers designed a Constitution with a central government, one that has lasted over 230 years.
I have no doubt that Madison — along with Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington — would fully support enactment of the For the People Act. And while I may not agree with a number of the positions held by my state's senators, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, I am happy to note their support for this legislation.
Conservatives should want politicians with honor and integrity, and a government that heeds to the wisdom of our ancestors who wrote the Constitution. The For the People Act takes us in that direction. And for that reason, I call on my fellow conservatives across the country to support this bill and to encourage their senators, in both parties, to vote for its passage.
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The Georgia Republican Party and a conservative nonprofit have come under scrutiny for allegedly violating federal campaign finance law during the state's Senate runoff elections in January.
A pair of good-government groups, the Campaign Legal Center Action and Common Cause Georgia, filed a complaint Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission alleging that True the Vote, which says its mission to restore confidence in elections by combating voter fraud, illegally coordinated with the Georgia Republican Party ahead of the runoffs.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, True the Vote is prohibited from donating directly or indirectly to a political committee. Because it coordinated with the Georgia GOP, the complaint alleges, both parties violated campaign finance rules.
In December, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht announced in an email to supporters and in a press release that the Texas-based organization would assist the Georgia Republican Party with the runoffs. Her group helped with signature verification training, ballot curing support, a voter hotline, absentee ballot drop box monitoring and other election integrity initiatives.
Federal law prohibits corporations from making contributions — which include "coordinated expenditures" — to a political committee (other than a super PAC). The complaint alleges that the services True the Vote provided constitute expenditures and because they were done at the request of and in coordination with the state GOP, the activity amounts to prohibited in-kind contributions.
"It doesn't matter if True the Vote expressly urged voters to elect Republicans, the relevant legal question is whether True the Vote spent money 'in connection with an election' and coordinated that spending with the Georgia Republican Party," said Brendan Fischer, CLCA's director of federal reform. "The evidence shows that it did."
True the Vote did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the time the partnership was announced, Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer wrote that he was grateful for True the Vote's help in fighting for election integrity. "The resources of True the Vote will help us organize and implement the most comprehensive ballot security initiative in Georgia history," he said in the press release.
While working with the Georgia GOP, True the Vote challenged the eligibility of more than 364,000 voters ahead of the runoffs, claiming those voters may have recently moved and therefore weren't eligible to vote. In response, Stacey Abrahm's voting rights group Fair Fight filed a lawsuit alleging True the Vote's challenge amounted to voter intimidation.
A federal judge ultimately denied Fair Fight's request to stop the challenge, but expressed "grave concerns" about True the Vote challenging hundreds of thousands of voters' eligibility so close to the runoffs.
CLCA and Common Cause Georgia went further, filing a complaint.
"Corporations are not supposed to act as arms of campaigns, and since coordinated spending is just as valuable to candidates and political parties as direct contributions, coordination between outside spenders and their preferred political party must be strictly policed and enforced," the groups wrote in their press release about the complaint.
It will now be reviewed by FEC staff attorneys, who will develop a report and recommendation to the six commissioners about whether there is reason to believe the law was violated.
But this won't likely be a quick process. While the complaint's review will only take a few months, it could sit in the FEC's backlog of pending cases for as long as two years, Fischer said, since the agency has been slow to move on such issues.
If the FEC fails to take action in a timely manner, CLCA and Common Cause Georgia could sue the agency in order to have the complaint addressed more expeditiously.
"This is a striking example where the violations were hiding in plain sight," Fischer said. "We hope and expect that the FEC would enforce the law here and penalize both True the Vote and the Georgia Republican Party for this unlawful coordinated activity."
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This is part of a series advocating for parts of legislation soon to be proposed in the House, dubbed the Protecting Our Democracy Act, designed to improve democracy's checks and balances by curbing presidential power.
American democracy is resilient. Last November's election "was the most secure in American history," according to the Department of Homeland Security. In the face of immense challenges — threats of foreign interference, rampant disinformation, risks posed by the pandemic — election administrators, organizers, attorneys and advocates worked together to protect the vote. Americans voted in record numbers, casting their ballots safely by mail, drop box and in person.
But the work to secure our elections is not over. Recent investigations have revealed vulnerabilities from foreign actors to political campaigns themselves. Email accounts and cell phones of congressional and campaign staff, for example, can be hacked by foreign actors, who have now grown in number and expanded well beyond those from Russia. Other threats are detailed in the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee findings of last year, the final report from special counsel Robert Mueller and a 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment.
Congress must take a comprehensive approach to foreign interference in our elections to bolster confidence in our democratic institutions. Fortunately, the Protecting Our Democracy Act includes two provisions that are on point.
The first would require political campaigns to report to the FBI and the Federal Election Commission offers of illegal campaign help from foreign governments, foreign political parties and their agents. Put simply, if you are running for office and a hostile foreign power — such as a Russian government headed by Vladimir Putin — offers your campaign dirt on your political opponent, you ought to alert the authorities. A version of this proposal, by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, has already passed the House once, last year
The second would clarify that federal law prohibits accepting opposition research and other non-public information from foreign governments when that information is given to influence an election — irrespective of its monetary value. This reaffirms existing law, which has been left under-enforced by the FEC and the Justice Department, prohibiting campaigns from accepting money or any "other thing of value" from foreign principals.
These concerns are not theoretical. For example, Mueller's report detailed how the "Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion." His "investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome" and that the Trump campaign "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."
The most notorious example is the infamous June 2016 meeting during which senior campaign officials met with a Russian attorney in Trump Tower, anticipating they would receive derogatory information on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from the Russian government to help the Republican candidate. This meeting came about after the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., received an email about the "Crown prosecutor of Russia'' and an offer to "provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Trump Jr. responded in an email that "if it's what you say I love it."
These foreign government efforts to interfere in a presidential election ought to have been reported to law enforcement. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing in 2019, Mueller testified it should be the responsibility of political campaigns to inform the FBI whenever they receive such an offer from a foreign government. He said he "would think that's something they would and should do" because knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is "a crime in certain circumstances" that undermines democracy and our institutions.
The new legislation would make such an affirmative duty-to-report the law of the land.
Federal law prohibits any person from soliciting from foreign nationals — including a foreign government — a contribution of money or other thing of value in connection with an election. This includes opposition research, the very sort of purported dirt that Russia offered the Trump campaign in 2016. As FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub wrote, "information can qualify as a thing of value," and "political campaigns pay millions of dollars to acquire polling data, contact lists, and opposition research services."
Mueller confirmed that a "campaign can be assisted not only by the provision of funds, but also by the provision of derogatory information about an opponent. ... A foreign entity that engaged in such research and provided resulting information to a campaign could exert a greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate, than a gift of money."
Still, Mueller noted that there are challenges in valuing such promised information — in other words, putting a dollar figure on it — to meet certain thresholds for violations of federal campaign finance law.
The House legislation clarifies that for purposes of the foreign money ban, a thing of value includes opposition research, polling, or other non-public information relating to a candidate for election, regardless of whether such information has monetary value.
The bill would shore up elections from interference by hostile foreign governments. Although the 2020 election is fresh in the rearview mirror, the 2022 campaign will be upon us before we know it. These problems must be addressed now. These reforms are an essential and comprehensive approach to strengthening our democratic institutions.
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