This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Last week, in one of the most consequential speeches of his presidency, Joe Biden lambasted the spread of voter suppression laws in states across the country.
“Democracy or autocracy, that’s what it comes down to,” the President explained. In this way, Biden accurately depicted the stakes of the GOP’s ongoing efforts to make it harder to vote and easier to overturn elections.
The struggle over the right to vote has taken center stage in the halls of Congress in recent months. After its adoption in the House, the Senate is now considering the For The People Act (S.1), the passage of which the President called a “national imperative.” If enacted into law, S.1 would not only thwart anti-voter tactics — it would make casting a ballot easier, more accessible and more secure.
The For The People Act has been stalled in the Senate since last month. Democrats attempted to begin debate on the bill on June 22, but Republican Senators filibustered the motion to proceed, thwarting its progress. Fortunately, S.1 still has a real chance of passage — despite Republican efforts to kill it. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has made it clear that he reserves the right to bring the bill back to the Senate floor at any point, and recently indicated that he may do so soon.
The hurdles remain significant, of course. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) has said he opposes the bill as written, but grassroots activists have brought him back to the negotiating table and he even voted to proceed to debate with all his Democratic colleagues last month. And the filibuster, of course, also looms large, as a small handful of Democrats remain reluctant to reform the arcane anti-democratic rule.
But pressure is mounting. The Declaration for American Democracy, for example, a coalition of over 200 organizations, is coordinating a major grassroots effort to get the For The People Act across the finish line. And another large coalition, Fix Our Senate, is working to reform the filibuster. Unlike the grassroots activism at the beginning of the year, mobilizations now are laser-focused on the impediments to S.1’s passage, and there has been more of an emphasis at the activist level on nonviolent direct actions to generate media attention and increase the pressure. On Monday, dozens were arrested with the Poor People’s Campaign while protesting to end the filibuster, pass S.1, restore the Voting Rights Act, and raise the minimum wage. And yesterday, another group of activists, including Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), was arrested near the capitol building at an event organized by Black Voters Matter. They were also advocating for S. 1 and the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
Given the bold voter protections of S.1, many news organizations and pundits have referred to it as a “voting rights” bill. And it’s true that it contains dozens of innovative policies like automatic voter registration, same day registration, standardized early voting and vote-by-mail — all of which protect our right to vote and strengthen our democracy.
But the beauty of the For The People Act is that it’s defense of democracy goes even further.
In addition to setting national voting standards, S.1 mandates independent redistricting commissions to end congressional gerrymandering in all fifty states. It establishes new ethics standards for Congress and the Supreme Court. And perhaps most transformatively, the legislation would strike a blow against big money in our political system by creating a voluntary small donor public financing program for congressional elections. (The bill would also reinvigorate the existing public financing program for presidential elections.)
American democracy has long been fundamentally undermined by the power of wealthy donors in our political system. But the flood of big political money reached unimaginable levels in 2020. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that over $14 billion was spent in that election, crushing all previous spending records. Large individual donations and spending by self-funded wealthy candidates accounted for over half the total. The voices of small-dollar contributors were swamped by the deluge of big money.
The For The People Act’s public financing program would be a game-changer in political fundraising, bringing us closer to a government of, by, and for the people. The program is simple. It would match small donations to eligible congressional candidates at a rate of 6-to-1. That means a $10 contribution would be matched by $60 from the government, translating to a $70 donation to the candidate. Participating candidates would have to reject donations over $1,000 and would be limited to contributing less than $50,000 of their own money.
Contrary to misinformation floated by GOP politicians and dark money groups, the public financing program would cost taxpayers nothing. Instead, S.1’s “Freedom From Influence Fund” would pay for the entire program by levying penalties on corporations who break the law and on wealthy tax cheats.
Public financing of election campaigns is a proven-to-work policy. It is constitutional, and it has been successfully implemented for years in states like Connecticut and Maine, cities like Berkeley, New York City, and Albuquerque, and counties like Montgomery in Maryland. Public financing empowers small contributors, enabling them to offset the power of mega-donors. And since Supreme Court jurisprudence gutted restrictions on independent spending in Citizens United, and will likely further undermine future efforts to control election spending, public campaign financing is one of the few remaining tools to fix our broken campaign finance system.
Americans know that the way we fund our elections is broken. Big donors — most often male, white and very wealthy — are unrepresentative of the population. Yet their donations get them the political access that is denied the rest of us. One extensive political science study in 2014 found that the average American has “near zero” influence over public policy.
While the policy priorities of big contributors are heard, those of others are ignored. It’s hardly a surprise that Congress refuses to address climate, gun safety, healthcare, civil rights and countless other issues, despite overwhelming public demand for reform. And when elected officials neglect to act on what most Americans care about, they feed the cynicism, distrust and political alienation that poison democracy.
Furthermore, the power of big political money denies good candidates willing to run for public office. Without the ability to raise millions of dollars, potential congressional candidates know they are likely to lose. Women, people of color, young Americans and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately prohibited from seeking office by the money race. While today’s members of Congress are overwhelmingly millionaires, too many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
Americans understand the importance of reigning in big political money. A recent poll from Data for Progress and Equal Citizens shows that S.1’s public financing program has broad support. People know that public campaign financing is imperative to ending the control of our political system by a wealthy elite.
Our nation needs the For The People Act. Without it, the future will be defined by extreme partisan gerrymandering, aggressive and discriminatory voter suppression measures and an even larger role for big money in politics.
Time is running short. But a better democracy is now within our grasp. The only question is whether we will collectively continue to fight for it, until it is won.
Adam Eichen is Executive Director of Equal Citizens and co-author of Daring Democracy (Beacon Press, 2017).
Joan Mandle is Executive Director of Democracy Matters.