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Anna Kellar is the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine.
This week, negotiations are heating up in Washington about the future of the For the People Act, which many have called the most important voting rights, campaign finance and ethics bill in a generation. The bill, which has passed the House, is headed to a vote in the Senate, where its fate may rest in the hands of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other moderates, such as Maine independent Sen. Angus King.
Manchin and King have suggested that, while protecting voting rights is important, the For the People Act may be too broad. In particular, the senators have suggested that the provision to create a small donor public funding system for federal races could be dropped from the package in order to pass the voting rights protections.
Splitting apart the bill would be a big mistake, both in policy and in politics. Without reforming the system that privileges big-money donors and special interest groups, the votes of everyday Americans won’t carry the power they should. Equal access to the ballot, and an equal say over which candidates run for office and win, are flip sides of the same coin.
In a truly inclusive, multiracial democracy, the strength of our voices would not depend upon the size of our wallets. Today, the donor class acts as a gatekeeper: before voters get the chance to decide which candidate to support, a wealthy, mostly white donor class has already decided who they can consider.
The reforms in the For the People Act would raise the power of small donors and make it easier for candidates to run for federal office without being beholden to the wealthiest individuals and corporations.
King has long been a supporter of Maine’s Clean Elections Act for these very reasons. In 2015, he said, “I am deeply worried about the future of our democracy. Its fundamental principle has always been that the people govern. But the massive amount of money that flows into our system today only undermines that by drowning out the voices of everyday people.” By strengthening Maine Clean Elections, King said, “we can return control of our elections to the hands of Mainers, restore faith in our political system, and protect the fundamental principle of having a government that is truly of, by and for the people.”
Changing how we fund elections can interrupt the direct relationship between economic might and political power — it would be an important part of moving closer to an inclusive, multiracial democracy. We fund our voting infrastructure with public money to ensure elections are not captured by private or partisan interests. Funding public election campaigns with public money can ensure public accountability. Most developed democracies make this choice, and for more than 20 years, this is how Maine Clean Elections has worked.
The campaign finance provisions are the most popular parts of the For the People Act, polling well above 80 percent support. Despite the partisan divide in Washington, voters themselves want to see a fairer system that puts less influence in the hands of wealthy donors.
In so many ways, Maine leads the nation when it comes to having a strong democracy and high voter turnout. Many of the voting rights provisions in the For the People Act are already established practice here — same-day voter registration, no excuse absentee voting and paper ballots, to name just a few. But it’s not a coincidence that Maine has also led the way when it comes to reigning in big money. The strength of Maine’s democracy rests on our Clean Elections program and on strong disclosure and ethics laws, as much as on our voting provisions.
Our senators must fight to ensure that all Americans benefit from the same rights. By passing the full For the People Act, they can ensure that all our votes matter, not just those with the deepest pockets.