Election and Campaign Finance Reform
Improving our Elections Process
On November 6, 2012, voters turned out in record numbers across the country to exercise the most fundamental right of our democracy: the right to vote. Unfortunately, many found themselves in long lines, in some cases waiting hours after the polls closed. In certain states, reports indicated that polls didn’t open on time due to a lack of election workers; in others, people reportedly waited upwards of five hours due to a shortage of voting machines, election workers and ballots.
As a former Secretary of State, I find it indefensible that these issues continue to plague our elections in the 21st Century. They present distressing barriers to participation in our democratic process, particularly among minority voters, members of our Armed Services, people with disabilities and seniors.
To address these continuing challenges, I am co-leading the FAST Voting Act with Congressman Gerald Connolly (VA-11), which would provide grants to states to improve their elections process, including access to same-day registration, early and absentee voting, poll worker training, and effective voting practices for members of the U.S. Military and individuals with disabilities. I am also an original cosponsor of the Voter Empowerment Act, to provide improved access to ballots, protect the integrity of our voting systems and ensure accountability in our elections.
Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) is one of the seminal pieces of American civil rights legislation. Following the end of Civil War, segregation flourished in the south since so-called “Jim Crow” laws prevented African Americans from having a say in the local political process, and the federal government refused to intervene. The VRA changed this policy for good: no longer would Congress stand by as citizens were denied their most fundamental rights.
The VRA has been so successful, in fact, that some of the covered jurisdictions feel it is no longer necessary. Shelby County, Alabama, sued Attorney General Eric Holder in 2011 on the grounds that Section 5 of the VRA was unconstitutional because the issue it had been crafted to address no longer existed. Section 5 of the VRA requires “covered jurisdictions,” those with a proven record of voter discrimination, to “pre-clear” changes to election laws or voting regulations with the Department of Justice (DOJ) or a panel of federal judges. In a 5-4 ruling issued in June, the Supreme Court held that Section 4(b) of the VRA, which set forth the criteria for jurisdictions covered under Section 5, was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that the criteria in question had not been sufficiently updated in the decades since original passage; while pre-clearance itself might be constitutional, the areas in which it was in effect were arbitrarily determined.
I vehemently disagree with the Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The Court’s legal reasoning was notably lacking, as the Court refused to address the standard to which it was holding the federal government. This was especially evident because the Court completely ignored the “massive legislative record” Congress amassed while debating reauthorization of the VRA in 2006. As a Representative who strongly supported that bill, I can say unequivocally that Congress was not acting arbitrarily in choosing to retain the Section 4(b) criteria, and I am extremely disappointed in the overreach the Court has displayed in invalidating this provision.
Congress is currently exploring ways to develop new criteria that would hopefully meet the Court’s unelucidated standard. The DOJ has also indicated that it will aggressively pursue Section 2 violations as well as explore options to “bail-in” repeat offending jurisdictions under another, little-used section of the VRA. The urgency of this effort has been made all too clear with the passage in North Carolina recently of a law that restricts registration and early voting and requires photo ID at the polls.
Campaign Finance Reform
I am firmly committed to removing the influence of money from elections.
The rising cost of political campaigns is a serious cause for concern in the United States, as some qualified candidates are discouraged from running for office because they do not have the financial means to do so. Furthermore, the exorbitant cost of campaigns has increased the role of political action committees, interest groups, and political parties through unregulated soft money donations.
In its controversial Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court overturned long-standing legal precedents, effectively allowing virtually unlimited corporate and special interest spending in elections. The eventual result of this and subsequent Supreme Court rulings was the emergence of Super PACs – political action committees permitted to accept unlimited contributions and make unlimited expenditures aimed at electing or defeating federal candidates.
I am proud to be a cosponsor of the DISCLOSE Act, which would require timely disclosure by Super PACs that spend money on campaign advertisements and would require lobbyists to disclose their expenditures to these groups. It would also force corporations to disclose campaign expenditures to their shareholders and would obligate Super PACs to disclose their top five donors in each ad. To further enhance oversight of corporate spending in elections, I am also a cosponsor of H.J. Res. 23, which proposes a Constitutional amendment clarifying that corporations are not entities entitled to the personal rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Further, in order to remedy the High Court’s overarching opinion that allowed unprecedented amounts of money to flow into the political system, I cosponsored a Constitutional Amendment that would grant Congress and the states the power to regulate campaign contributions in federal and state elections, respectively.
Finally, in an effort to curb the influence of money given directly to candidates, I was an original cosponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act last Congress. This sensible, overdue legislation would create a voluntary small donor matching funds system for congressional elections. To qualify, congressional candidates would have to raise at least $50,000 from more than 1500 contributors. No individual would be able to donate more than $100. Candidates who met these criteria would receive a primary and general election grant in addition to 4-to-1 matching funds for small donations.
Changing the way we conduct business in Washington and making our government more transparent and accountable to the public is one of my highest priorities. We must ensure that national policy decisions are based on the power of ideas and not the power of money.