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Klobuchar should, for the public trust, amend the For the People Act

For integrity’s sake, HR1/S1 needs to be clean of political conflicts of interest. But in its campaign finance section, it is not.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Hannah McKay

At no time since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act have voting rights in the United States been under greater threat.

In the 10 years preceding the November 2020 elections, 25 states passed laws restricting the ability to vote. Since November 2020, Republican state lawmakers have introduced more than 250 additional bills in 43 states to restrict voting, most surgically designed to suppress the vote of millions of Americans — especially Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian and the young.

Into this existential crisis for our democracy, the U.S. Senate Rules Committee will take up the For the People Act (HR1 in the House, S1 in the Senate) today (March 24), with the hearing and committee chaired by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

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Needed reforms

HR1/S1 is an omnibus elections reform bill that contains a landmark new voting rights section that would restore and expand voting rights for millions of Americans — perhaps before it is too late and they are lost for decades.

Klobuchar has been an early and staunch supporter of the bill, ever since it was the first bill House Democrats passed after gaining a majority in the November 2018 elections. She also campaigned for president on it; at the January 2020 We the People electoral reform event in Des Moines, Iowa, Klobuchar said it would be the first bill signed into law in her presidential administration.

In May 2019 Klobuchar came to campaign in Santa Monica, California, where I’ve lived most of the time since I left Minnesota for Southern California in 1982. I went to see her speak at the Santa Monica Main Public Library. In her comments, Klobuchar connected progress on climate change, health care and gun control to the need to reform elections, in order to address the negative effects on policymaking of dark money, gerrymandering and voting restrictions. All these reforms, she said, were contained in the For the People Act.

Today with a 50/50 divided Senate, Klobuchar favors eliminating the 60-vote filibuster to pass the For the People Act. “We have a raw exercise of political power going on,” she says “where people are making it harder to vote…you just can’t let that happen in a democracy because of some old [filibuster] rules in the Senate.”

Conflicts of interest

If the bill’s supporters are going to make this argument — and they should — then for integrity’s sake, it needs to be clean of political conflicts of interest. But in its campaign finance section, it is not. For that reason, Klobuchar should ask for the bill to be amended: The bill creates a new loophole for big donor money to be routed through national party committee to candidates, by increasing from $5,000 to $300 million the amount that national party committees can contribute to a presidential candidate.

This sixty thousand times increase means that donors who under current law can only give up to $5,800 to a candidate — but who can give up to $109,500 annually combined to the national committee and the House and Senate campaign of each political party — could have that $109,500 funneled directly to the candidate via the party.

Klobuchar rightly praises HR1/S1 for addressing dark money in other parts of the bill. But this new big-money loophole is in effect new dark money. “Dark” because campaign finance disclosures will show the $300 million donation from the political party, but not connected to the individual donors who contributed to it — nor will it make clear anywhere that these big-money donors effectively circumvented the individual contribution limits that the rest of us live by.

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This new loophole 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 the bill for these committees to seek their funding? Via large donations from the rich and the super-rich.

When winners write the election rules

The For the People Act also goes out of its way to weaken minor parties, and undermines public financing of elections in the process.

It raises the presidential primary election public matching funds threshold by 500%, so that minor party candidates will likely no longer qualify for it.  This means fewer resources to promote their messages, and fewer public policy alternatives presented to voters. Without these funds, minor party presidential candidates will also have a harder time getting on the ballot.

Michael Feinstein
Michael Feinstein
Owing to onerous ballot access laws already passed by Democrats and Republicans, minor party presidential candidates often have to qualify themselves and their parties via expensive petition drives, on an election-by-election, state-by-state basis. These petition drives are often supported by matching funds — a practice long recognized by a series of Federal Elections Commission Advisory Opinions.

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 this bill, reducing voter choice and representation.

The new 500% higher threshold is part of a new presidential election matching funds program in the For the People Act, designed to appeal to top-tier major party candidates. It offers a 6:1 match up to qualifying donations if they can raise the higher amount, compared to the 1:1 match under the current system — the latter which apparently isn’t enough to attract them, because only Green Party nominees have sought and earned primary matching funds in the last three elections. Fair enough. But functionally, there is no need to eliminate the 1:1 threshold to add the 6:1 threshold. They could both exist within a two-tiered system — unless a goal of the legislation is to minimize minor party competition to the major parties.

Eliminates public funds grant program

The bill also eliminates the existing general election public funds grant program, where if a minor party receives at least 5% of the vote, it earns limited general election public funding in the next election. Greens and Libertarians have long argued that a vote for their candidate helps them reach this 5% and build their party. Lest that incentive to vote for an existing “third party” remain — or if a well-known figure wants to run for president and reach the 5% to help start a new party, as Ross Perot did with the Reform Party in 1996 —  the bill takes that away too, exactly a time when polls show support for a “third party” in the U.S. at an all-time high.

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Again, there is no reason the existing 5% threshold and program could not be left in place as part of a new two-tiered system (along with whatever new option HR1/S1 wants to add) — unless the goal is to make it even harder for minor parties to get a foothold in the system.

The bill’s attack on minor parties also comes as more states are starting to use ranked-choice voting (RCV) for president. RCV takes away the “spoiler”/vote-splitting dynamic that Democrats use to argue against voting Green (they don’t say much about voting Libertarian), and instead would make it more likely for voters to give their first ranking to minor party candidates, meaning they’d reach the 5% public financing threshold more easily, if the threshold is not eliminated by HR1/S1.

Loopholes will further undermine confidence

With the country painfully divided after the November 2020 elections, it’s critical that the For The People Act is seen as truly that — for the people — by as many people as possible. Loopholes in the bill that promote big money and eliminate competition to the major parties will only further undermine confidence in our elections.

An underdog past candidate herself for president, Klobuchar should resonate with the struggle of minor party candidates to be heard.  As a national political leader seen as a pragmatic straight shooter, Klobuchar is also in a unique position to help get the For the People Act over the finish line.

It will be easier to make the argument to eliminate the filibuster to pass the For The People Act if the bill is clean.  Having someone like Klobuchar coming out to clean it — despite it giving clear new partisan advantage for her party — would only strengthen the argument that the bill is good for all Americans.

Michael Feinstein — a graduate of St. Louis Park High, Class of 77 and Carleton College, Class of 82 — is a former Mayor and City Council in Santa Monica, California; a co-founder of the Green Party of California; a former co-chair of the Green Party of the United States; and a 2018 Green candidate for California secretary of state. 

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