Thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement for today’s markup of H.R. 412 “To reduce Federal spending and the deficit by terminating taxpayer financing of presidential election campaigns,” and H.R. 195 the “Election Assistance Commission Termination Act.”
Common Cause is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest, and accountable government that works for the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard.
Before the committee members today are two items of legislation that could profoundly impact the way we administer and finance national elections. At stake is the survival of the public financing system for presidential elections and a commission that plays an important role in standardizing and modernizing election administration. In the interest of ensuring a fair, ethical, and accessible system of elections, Common Cause urges this Committee to reject H.R. 195 and H.R. 412.
Common Cause opposes H.R. 412, because it vitiates an important check on special interest money by eliminating public financing for presidential campaigns. The current public financing system needs meaningful reform and should be updated to accommodate the new reality of campaign fundraising after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United. Before the introduction of copious amounts of soft money in the 1990s and the Citizens United decision, the infrastructure worked; campaigns were financed by the public, not by special interest groups. Every major presidential candidate from both political parties used the system for a generation of elections. While the current system is now in need of extensive reform, wholesale elimination of public funding of elections is not the answer. In 2012, outside groups spent over $652 million in the presidential race alone, and campaigns spend an unacceptable amount of resources fundraising to match the Super PACs. This “new normal” means that important issues facing the country take a backseat to keeping up in the spending race. Candidates and campaigns should be focused on issues, not on fundraising.
Public financing of campaigns serves another important purpose: eliminating the appearance of corruption in the office of the President. Put in place following the Watergate scandals, public financing sought to reduce the role of money in elections and prevent the appearance or reality of having a President beholden to special interests. Big money in elections, especially after Citizens United, is corrosive to government accountability and representative democracy. Now is the time to upgrade our presidential public financing system to empower small donors -- not eliminate it.
Common Cause also opposes H.R. 195, the Election Assistance Commission Termination Act, because it would eliminate a resource that is a critical part of the government’s effort to ensure that our elections are fair, efficient, and accessible. Established in the wake of the widespread election administration failures in the 2000 election, Congress created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to address serious problems with our voting system that can suppress voter participation and turnout, including long lines at polling stations and outdated voter registration procedures. The EAC serves every American voter by conducting research, collecting data, and sharing information among elected officials, the public, and interested organizations. The EAC also oversees the distribution of federal funds that assist states and municipalities with election administration.
In December 2014, after over three years without a single commissioner in place, the Senate unanimously confirmed three new commissioners - two Republicans and one Democrat. Although a single vacancy remains, the EAC now has the quorum it needs to address the backlog of business that built up over the years.
Last week, the EAC met for the first time in over four years. It voted to accredit a new voting system test laboratory after a recommendation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The lab will test new voting equipment against the voluntary voting system guidelines, which are themselves in need of attention.
The four year absence of a quorum at the EAC hindered the agency when Americans needed it most. The EAC could not hold public meetings, adopt new policies, or issue advisory opinions. It adopted its most recent voting system guidelines in 2005 – several lifetimes ago when it comes to technology. That’s why so many local jurisdictions ran the 2012 election with outdated, broken voting machines and why so many voters waited in line for hours to cast their ballots.
The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by the general counsels of the Obama and Romney 2012 campaigns, wrote in their report last year that “the standard-setting process for new voting machines has broken down … due to a lack of [EAC] commissioners. … Without a fully functioning EAC to adopt new standards, many new technologies that might better serve local election administrators are not being brought to the marketplace.”
Now that it has a quorum, the Commission can get back to work evaluating and endorsing standards and guidelines that reflect the newest and best methods of election administration.
In light of the many challenges faced by our state and local election administrators and the serious procedural problems that weaken voter access and participation, Common Cause believes that this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to voting rights and fair elections by strengthening the EAC and providing it with the staff it requires to function effectively. H.R. 195 would eliminate an important tool for improving a voting system fraught with problems and should be rejected.
The Presidential Public Funding Program and the EAC are important components of an honest and fair election system that suffer from congressional neglect and gridlock, not from any inherent flaw. Instead of eliminating these important democracy reform tools, members of this Committee and both parties in Congress need to work together to strengthen and expand our public financing system for presidential elections and provide the Election Assistance Commission with the resources it needs to perform its duties.
Thank you again for allowing Common Cause to submit this statement. We look forward to working together to improve the integrity and effectiveness of campaign finance laws and election administration.