By Howie Hawkins and Michael Feinstein
Should a major political party use a voting rights bill to rid itself of minor party competition? That appears to be happening with the recently introduced Freedom to Vote Act (S.2747), now before the Senate.
A pared-down version of the For the People Act, S.2747 would eliminate public funding for presidential campaigns by terminating the Presidential Election Campaign Fund — a post-Watergate era reform meant to reduce big donor influence in presidential races by providing an alternate public funding source for campaigns.
For over 30 years, this reform was embraced by major and minor party presidential candidates alike. But in recent cycles, only Green Party nominees qualified for presidential primary matching funds. Major party presidential candidates have eschewed both presidential primary matching funds and general election grants — because these programs limit the amount of private funds candidates can spend if they accept public funding — and because the amount of public funding is not enough for major party candidates who now raise hundreds of millions in private funds.
These matching funds have been critical in helping Green Party presidential candidates pay for expensive petition drives to meet onerous state ballot qualification requirements established by Democrats and Republicans — a use affirmed by the Federal Election Commission. In many states, being on the ballot and achieving a certain result for president is even required for minor parties to retain ballot status. Without these funds, the Green Party would disappear in many states.
Exit polls in 2016 showed that 61 percent of those voting for Green presidential nominee Jill Stein would have stayed home if she was not on the ballot. Green and other minor party candidates bring more voters to the polls. Party suppression is a form of voter suppression. It is what authoritarian governments do. It is what the Democratic Party is subtly proposing to do via this bill.
We support S.2747’s provisions that would preempt the new anti-democratic Republican state laws promoting partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, partisan election certification, and intimidation of voters and election administrators. We support the bill’s provisions that make voting easier, including automatic voter registration, vote by mail, 15 consecutive days of early voting and Election Day as a national holiday. We support its requirements to disclose dark money.
But lamentably, S.2747 fails to address two primary anti-democratic elements of our electoral system. Voting rights should include the right to vote for someone who represents your views, not just the lesser evil. But ballot access for minor parties and independents in the United States is far more onerous than in other electoral democracies. The U.S. needs a “right to the ballot law” establishing reasonable ballot access requirements in state and federal elections.
Then there is our outdated single-member district, winner-take-all plurality voting system that systematically excludes diverse voices and political minorities from their fair share of representation, and leaves large number of voters in each legislative district without anyone representing their views. The Fair Representation Act would create multi-party democracy based on proportional representation in the House through ranked-choice voting from multi-member districts, and would eliminate gerrymandering and “the spoiler” dynamics in the process.
But we must protest the public finance provisions of the Freedom to Vote Act — which in knocking minor parties like the Greens off the ballot, would transfer the money now in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund into a public funding program for the House reachable almost exclusively by only upper-echelon major party candidates.
Greens vigorously support public funding of elections. But this voting rights bill should focus on voting rights. Public funding should be addressed in separate legislation with a full airing of all the implications for minor as well major parties and voter choice. Therefore, we urge the Senate to eliminate S.2747’s public financing section. Not only is it unfair to minor party and independent candidates — and the voters who support them — but the bill will be harder to pass because no Republican will vote for public funding. And if not enough Republicans support the bill, it would be hypocritical for Democrats to seek a filibuster carve-out for voting rights, when the bill contains such blatant partisan self-interest.
Millions of Americans are under-represented under our current system. Let’s pass the Freedom to Vote Act without its flawed public campaign funding section, then enact needed electoral reforms that will make the U.S a more representative and inclusive multi-party democracy, including public campaign funding, fair ballot access and proportional representation.