This intervention from abroad did not end there: The director of national intelligence has warned Congress that Russia “perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence ...
The government’s role in reform needs a reorientation. A better model for the times could be built by putting less emphasis on elaborate, restrictive and increasingly futile regulation and instead providing public resources — and where necessary, facilitating access to private funding — for critical electoral functions. The goal would not be to supplant the political market, but to correct for its inadequacies.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has already called on the government to provide resources to states and localities to secure their voting systems and guard against cyberattack for the midterms. This is only one example of the need for the government to fund repairs to the withered campaign finance process.
For example, candidates for national office are now entirely dependent on private funding. The federal government once offered matching funds and grants for presidential campaigns, but public support withered. The sums available through this program dwindled, and as campaign costs soared, few candidates had any reason to elect this option over private fund-raising. In 1986, Congress eliminated a tax credit for small donations that had been in effect for 14 years and claimed by millions of taxpayers. The government has also ineffectively regulated the rates charged to candidates for television and cable advertising, which is a significant factor in the astronomic campaign costs that drive frenetic fund-raising. A refreshed reform initiative could include among its aims bringing these programs back to life.
This reform model should also address the catastrophic failure of government at all levels to support modern, dependable access to the polls and a reliable vote count. States and localities that hold elections scramble for funding. President Barack Obama’s Commission on Election Administration reported, and election administrators repeatedly warn, that we are facing a breakdown in voting machinery as our equipment rapidly wears out. And to this impending crisis must now be added the urgent concern with securing voting systems against foreign and domestic hacking.
We often hear a simplistic objection to providing public resources in support of the democratic process: It’s “welfare for politicians.” The answer lies in a step-by-step approach of targeting public support for specific, vital electoral functions. Funding to safeguard the electoral process and replace voting machinery should enjoy bipartisan public support. Both parties would benefit from assistance in conducting voter registration programs and in sponsoring candidate debates. In addition to government assistance, in the form of cash grants or tax credits, the government could also channel private financing to achieve specific goals, such as through regulatory relief to facilitate the ability of particular political actors, like the parties, to finance specific activities and strengthen their position relative to the super PACs.
There remains the hard task of devising transparency rules appropriate to the changing modes of spending to influence elections. Recent experience also underscores the need to shore up the ban on foreign-national spending to influence elections and the disclosure of foreign government programs that seek to influence United States government policy.
But the government has the affirmative obligation to underwrite or facilitate the financing of certain basic costs of a functional, flourishing democracy. It cannot leave all of these expenses to the market and to the private contributors who make up so small a share of the population. And it should act now — before the United States is spending less than the Kremlin on our elections.
Bob Bauer is a professor of practice and distinguished scholar in residence at New York University School of Law and served as a White House counsel under President Barack Obama.
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