HR 1 exacts partisan political advantage in exchange for desperately needed voting rights
U.S. democracy is in existential crisis.
The country already suffers from unrepresentative winner-take-all, single-seat-district legislative elections, a two-party duopoly, partisan gerrymandering, the corrupting influence of big money in politics, and an Electoral College and US Senate that give vastly outsized influence to some voters over others. In the case of the Electoral College, it can also prevent the presidential candidate receiving the most votes from being elected.
By Michael Feinstein
March 21, 2021
But now even worse, the nation faces the return of Jim Crow era-type election laws, surgically designed to suppress the vote of millions of Americans, Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian and young voters - perhaps permanently impaling our democracy in all but name only.
The clock to prevent this is ticking. This Congress, with this President, may be the last best chance to pass needed protections and enhancements to our right to vote. And H.R. 1 - already passed out of the House and soon to be heard in the Senate - contains a multitude of those needed reforms.
As a stand alone bill, the voting rights section in H.R. 1 would be landmark legislation. Lamentably, major parts of the campaign finance section of H.R. 1 are dubious and partisan. It appears that to secure desperately needed voting rights, partisan political advantage must be conveyed to the bill’s sponsors. That appears to be the sausage-making behind H.R. 1 - the For the People Act.
Campaign finance political pork
Not surprisingly for a bill authored by a political party to govern its own finances, H.R. 1 would open the floodgates for big money donations to flow into the major parties:
HR 1 vastly increases the role and influence of big donors and big private money
The current individual contribution limit to a federal candidate’s campaign committee - meant to limit the relative influence of big donors - is $5,800 ($2,900 for the primary and $2,900 for the general). H.R. 1 makes a mockery out of this limit by creating a new loophole, via raising from $5,000 to $100 million the amount national party committees can contribute to the presidential candidates.
Donors can already give far more to these party committees - up to $36,500 per year to the national committee and the House and Senate campaign of each political party for a total of $109,500 annually. Now under H.R. 1, wealthy donors can effectively circumvent the candidate contribution limit by giving to the party committees directly and have them funnel the money forward to the candidate, effectively raising the amount big donors can contribute to a candidate to more than $115,000 in a year.
At the same time, this new $300 million donation threshold per party ($100 million from each of three committees) - six hundred times higher - also vastly increases the power of national party committees (and their powerful members) vs. the rest of the voters. And where is the incentive in H.R. 1 for these committees to seek their funding? Via large donations from the rich and the super-rich.
Lest ‘the people’ in the “For the People Act” have too much power, H.R. 1 ensures the rich have their own lane.
H.R. 1 eliminates instead of strengthens full general election public financing
The current public financing system for presidential elections was established in 1974, in response to the financial corruption of the 1972 Richard Nixon presidential re-election campaign. It provides for a 1:1 public matching fund for qualified small donations in the primaries. A candidate that opts into this system can then receive a public grant for the general. In exchange, they agree not to accept any private donations, nor spend more than the grant.
In this way, the general election campaign of presidential candidates would be publicly funded — and only public funded. H.R. 1 abandons that commitment, and replaces it with a system that allow general election candidates to accept unlimited private donations together with public funds.
Public funding matters a lot when you accept a spending limit and don’t take private money. Adding the same amount of public money to mountains of private money means a whole lot less. H.R. 1 advocates argue that this is ‘necessary’, because major party candidates no longer opt-in to the current system, because they can raise far more in private funds. They also caution that to sufficiently regulate campaign contributions and spending, will require a constitutional amendment that can take many years to pass.
But instead of abandoning the principle of full public funding of general election campaigns — and denying the public the opportunity to support truly ‘clean money’ candidates (like a Bernie Sanders if he’d won the Democratic nomination) — H.R. 1 could’ve enhanced the full public funding program by adding a substantial baseline of free television and radio time to candidates accepting the grant.
H.R. 1 also could’ve increasing the size of the general election full public funding grant, tapping a fraction of the country’s almost $5 trillion budget. Instead — showing where its priorities lie — H.R. 1 caps its new public matching funds total to be a fraction of the total private money raised to support each major party candidate.
Then there are the candidate debates. What if there were publicly-sponsored presidential forums/debates that only included candidates who accepted the public funding grant and spending limits? But H.R. 1 doesn’t include any of this. Why not?
Entrench the duopoly, exclude other voices
H.R. 1’ s primary matching funds program is designed to entice top-tier major party candidates to opt-in, and to eliminate any others from having a chance to qualify.
The current donation threshold to qualify for a 1:1 primary election match is to raise at least $5,000 in each of at least 20 states, in donations no larger than $250 each. The public already has supported funding minor party candidates under this formula — Green candidates Jill Stein (2012, 2016) and Howie Hawkins (2020) each qualified for primary matching funds in the last three cycles.
H.R. 1 program would replace the 1:1 match with a 6:1 match, but simultaneously increase the minimum amount of donations by 500% to a minimum of $25,000 in each of 20 states. It would also increase the minimum number of contributions to reach it by 625%, by lowering the size of donations that can count toward reaching the threshold from $250 to $200 (making it even harder on minor party candidates — who are mostly excluded from candidate forums and media coverage and have a far smaller base of well-funded donors to draw from — by disqualifying 20% of the $250 donations they are able to raise.)
The effect of this change would be to eliminate a threshold that is demonstrably reachable by minor party candidates and replace it with one reachable likely only by top-tier major party candidates.
Without presidential primary public matching funds, minor party presidential nominees will have fewer resources to promote their messages. They and their parties will also have a harder time getting on the ballot. Because of onerous ballot access laws passed by Democrats and Republicans, minor party presidential candidates already often have to qualify themselves and their parties via expensive petition drives, on an election-by-election, state-by-state basis — and these petition drives are often supported by matching funds — a practice long recognized by Federal Elections Commission Advisory Opinions as a proper use of these funds.
Without matching funds, minor parties and their presidential candidates are unlikely to appear on the general election ballot in many states. Without state party ballot status, neither may many minor party, down-ticket state and congressional candidates. Also in many states, to maintain ballot status, minor party presidential candidates must receive a certain percentage of the general election vote. But they can’t if they aren’t on the ballot.
As a result, minor parties will begin to disappear under H.R. 1, clearing the field for the major parties — at the same time polls show support for a ‘third party' in the U.S. at an all-time high.
Functionally, there is no need to eliminate the 1:1 threshold to add the 6:1 threshold. They could both exist as options in H.R. 1 — unless a goal of the legislation is to minimize/eliminate minor party competition. The same thing is true with the general election - an improved version of the full public funding grant could be one option, alongside the new private/public one proposed in H.R. 1.
In removing the general election public funding grant, H.R. 1 also eliminates the other existing opportunity for minor parties to benefit under the current public financing law, where any party that receives between 5% and 25% would get a pro-rated portion of the public funding in the next election that the major party candidates do. Greens and Libertarians have long argued that a vote for their candidates helps them to get to 5%.
Lest this reason to support one of today’s ‘third parties’ continues to exist — or if a charismatic well-known figure wants to run for president to help start a new party, like Ross Perot did in 1996 — H.R. 1 takes that away too. And it does so just as states are starting to use ranked-choice voting for president, which takes away the ‘spoiler’ vote-splitting dynamic that Democrats use to argue against voting minor party, and instead makes it more likely for voters to give their first ranking to minor party candidates, meaning they’d reach the 5% threshold more easily.
The other objective in raising the primary election matching funds threshold appears to be to ensure that only a limited number of Democrats qualify for it, to eliminate those pesky others who stay in primary race “too long.”
Democrats complained about having over 20 ‘name’ primary candidates in 2020, as Republicans did when having more than 15 in 2016. But under the U.S. duopoly electoral system, each major party is a forced marriage of people who don’t agree on key policies. In a viable multi-party democracy — which H.R. 1 legislates against — there would be more viable parties with more clear identifies and platforms; and parties could focus on which candidate best represents their more established point of view, rather than which divergent viewpoint within the party wins control of the party’s ballot line.
Unless the voting rights section of H.R. 1 passes, U.S. democracy goes into free fall. Given state legislative Republican efforts to gut voting rights even further, it is highly unlikely that at least ten U.S. Senate Republicans will join Senate Democrats and independents to vote to pass H.R. 1, in order to reach the 60 votes necessary to override the expected filibuster.
That’s part of why Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams is arguing that bills regarding voting rights should be exempt from the filibuster. Most Greens would agree that voting rights should be exempt, but that does’t justify the campaign finance deform section of H.R. 1 — which removes voters’ ability to fund 100% clean money and grassroots campaigns via matching funds, while increasing the role of big money in elections, and limiting voter choice to vote for other than major party candidates — the latter which itself is a de facto form of voter suppression, by removing a positive incentive for many voters to vote.
Real political transformation would be to enable a viable and more representative multi-party democracy, including by enacting multi-seat district, proportional representation elections for Congress as part of H.R. 1, along with a larger House of Representatives to promote better per-capita representation. H.R. 1 could’ve also provided financial support to states to enact ranked-choice voting for president.
But masters of lesser-of-evilism, Democrats have set up the Devil’s bargain in H.R. 1 — accept a further entrenched duopoly in exchange for your right to vote. Apparently good government, voting rights and campaign finance reform groups are on board with throwing minor parties and their voters under the bus, because there is ‘nary a peep about this from these groups as they lobby for H.R. 1’s passage.
Well-played by the Democrats. Make minor parties and their voters the enemies for standing up for their right to exist and to vote for the candidates they support, and to maintain full public financing of general elections. Associate them with the ‘evil’ Republicans and others who are trying to deny your right to vote. Look the other way at minor party members’ concerns, and treat those who don't buy into limited duopoly choices as 'road kill’
Apparently that is what ‘For the People’ means in our democracy today.
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State
Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress
Title: Four suspects, vote sellers
No date recorded on caption card
George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)