April 2022: Capitol Hill Citizen: Congress stiff arms third parties: Public funding measures are not inclusive

By Howie Hawkins

Published in the Capitol Hill Citizen
April 2022

The voter access and election protection measures in the voting rights bills that have passed the House would provide much-needed federal standards for more inclusive, transparent, and honest elections. But the public campaign funding proposals in these bills are not inclusive. They would put third-party and independent candidates at a disadvantage.

The original For the People Act raised the threshold for qualifying for presidential primary matching funds by five times, from $5,000 in contributions of $250 or less from at least 20 states ($100,000 total) to $25,000 in contributions of $200 or less from at least 20 states ($500,000 total). 

Richard Winger wrote in Ballot Access News (February 2021) that it is unlikely that any of the minor party candidates who have ever qualified would have under this new standard. It also eliminated the general election campaign grants to qualified candidates, which in practice meant the major party nominees. 

The next, slimmed-down version called the Freedom To Vote Act proposed to completely eliminate the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and transfer its funds to matching funds for qualifying House candidates. 

The commercial media did not report on the elimination of this major post-Watergate reform. Good government groups like Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and Public Citizen were silent.

The most recent version in January 2022, the Freedom To Vote: John R. Lewis Act, eliminated all references to presidential campaign public funding, leaving the existing program in place. 

But will that remain the case when Congress returns to the next version of a voting rights bill?

All three versions had the same new matching funds program for House candidates. To qualify, a candidate must raise $50,000 in at least 1,000 contributions of $200 or less. This standard is beyond the reach of most Green Party candidates for the House. 

Of the 544 Green House candidates who filed with the FEC over 15 election cycles between 1992 and 2020, we found that only one who would have definitely met this qualifying threshold and only a handful more who might have barely qualified.

The presidential public funding program was used by all major party presidential candidates until 2000, when George W. Bush declined to use matching funds and 2008, when Baraka Obama was the first to decline both matching funds and the general election grant. John McCain was the last major party nominee to use the program. 

Since then, major party presidential nominees have forgone public funding because qualifying for the funds requires limiting private funding. The public funding has become too little for major party candidates who can raise far more money from private sources. 

My Green Party presidential campaign in 2020 was the only one to apply for matching funds in 2020. The program could be reformed by increasing the grants and the private funding limits to adapt to the higher costs of today’s campaigns. 

Instead, the legislation has proposed put the public funding beyond the reach of the Green Party candidates who still use it. Matching funds have been vital to funding costly ballot access petition drives. If third parties are unable to access matching funds, they will not be on the ballots of many states.

It is in the public interest to support third parties with public campaign financing because historically third parties have played a major role in bringing neglected issues and policies into the national debate.

The Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican parties forced the question of slavery abolition into presidential elections. In the Gilded Age that followed, the farmer-labor populist parties put such reforms as anti-monopoly, railroad, and banking regulation, public utilities, public greenbacks in place of private bank notes, and the progressive income tax into the center of national debate. In the first 35 years of the 20th century, the Socialist Party and a host of local and state progressive, farmer-labor, and union-based labor parties elected thousands of candidates to local, state, and House offices. 

These third parties led the way to reforms like direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage, fair labor standards, and Social Security. More recently, the Green Party’s signature policy in the 2010s, the Green New Deal, has been taken up by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

The matching funds model of partial public funding is a retreat from the “Clean Money” model of full public campaign funding in the form of equal public campaign grants for qualified candidates, which campaign finance reform movement pushed in the 1990s and 2000s. 

The Clean Money model was subsequently adopted for state elections in Maine (1996), Arizona (1998), North Carolina (for statewide judges, 2004-2012), and Connecticut (2005), although Connecticut has much higher qualifying thresholds for minor party candidates. 

Senator Joe Biden co-sponsored a Clean Money, Clean Elections Act for full public funding of Senate elections in 1997. The momentum of the 1990s Clean Money movement seems to have even carried over into presidential candidate Joe Biden’s online platform: “Biden will fight for a constitutional amendment that will require candidates for federal office to solely fund their campaigns with public dollars, and prevent outside spending from distorting the election process.”

A problem with the matching funds model it increases funding disparities between candidates. For example, a candidate who barely qualifies in the proposed matching funds program with $50,000 raised in small donations will receive a 6:1 match, bringing the total to $350,000. A candidate who raises $100,000 will have $700,000 in total. The disparity would increase seven-fold from $50,000 to $350,000.

In the next round of voting rights legislation, the voter access and election protection should be advanced independently of public campaign funding reform. It should be considered in separate legislation after a full discussion of all the implications for minor as well major parties. 

A truly inclusive democracy would give voters the right, once they have their ballots, to vote for who they want. It would give candidates, as well as voters, reasonable access to ballots. It is long past time for members of Congress legislate federal Fair Ballot Access standards along the lines of the Fair Elections Act proposed in 1989.

An inclusive democracy would employ ranked-choice voting and proportional representation to end the “spoiler effect” that is inherent in single-member-district, winner-take-all elections. This prevailing system creates strong incentives to vote negatively for a “lesser evil” instead of affirmatively for a most-preferred candidate. The Ranked-Choice Voting in Presidential Elections Act proposed in an article in the Winter 2020 of Harvard Law and Policy Review would effectively replace the Electoral College with a ranked-choice national popular vote without requiring a constitutional amendment. 

The Fair Representation Act (HR 3863) introduced in the House by Congressman Don Beyer (D-Virginia) would create proportional representation in the House through ranked-choice voting in multi-member House districts as well as ranked-choice voting for Senators.

These reforms for an inclusive democracy – full public campaign funding, fair ballot access, ranked-choice voting, proportional representation – would give every voter a free choice among all political viewpoints and every political viewpoint would receive its fair share of representation in proportion to its voter support.

Howie Hawkins was the Green Party candidate for President in 2020.

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April 10, 2022

Howie Hawkins 2020

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