The Man Who Waited 50 Years for This MomentBreaking News
tags: Citizens United, democracy, voting rights, campaign finance, Dark Money, Common Cause, Fred Wertheimer, Soft Money
Some things are worth half a century of effort. Fred Wertheimer has been campaigning for good government and against corruption in Washington since 1971. That year he joined a new organization called Common Cause, founded by John Gardner and dedicated to getting big money out of politics and empowering Americans to participate in the democratic system. In 1974, during the Watergate scandal (which was partly about the corruption of politics by secret money), Wertheimer and Common Cause successfully pushed Congress to pass legislation that created public financing of presidential elections, limited campaign contributions, and established the Federal Election Commission. Two years later, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and reversed some of the law’s spending limits. Decades passed. The bilgewater kept rising. In 2002, as president of Democracy 21—a nonprofit he’d founded in 1997—Wertheimer was instrumental in the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as McCain-Feingold, which banned “soft money” contributions to political parties by corporations and unions.
Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court gutted the law in its Citizens United decision. The sewers flooded.
This is the burden of the good-government campaigner: years of toil out of the limelight, tracking corruption, enlisting allies, drafting legislation, lobbying politicians, educating the press; a moment of opportunity; a breakthrough; then a reversal that sends the rock rolling at least partway back down the hill.
“It’s a long game,” Wertheimer told me recently. “You have to be in this for the long game in order to make progress, because you have to be there at a moment when the opportunity exists to strike and the proposed solutions are on the table.” A lawyer by profession, Wertheimer never abandoned the cause, because he believes that political money is “central to everything else” in American democracy. And now, at age 82, he’s in the thick of the most important battle of his life.
Wertheimer is a principal author of the For the People Act, a bill recently passed by the House along strictly partisan lines and now before the Senate Rules Committee. H.R. 1/S. 1 is the most sweeping piece of election-reform legislation in decades, if not ever. In the past, Congress has addressed campaign finance, voting rights, and ethics as separate matters. This bill brings them together in a comprehensive fashion that could repair voters’ battered trust in the political process and revitalize their connection to it. The bill seeks nothing less than a national democratic renewal.
Some Republicans charge—and some Democrats hope—that the For the People Act will allow the Democratic Party to use its temporary control over the federal government to secure power indefinitely. In fact, the most discussed parts of the bill might be the least politically consequential: those that would essentially federalize state election rules, setting national standards for automatic voter registration and expanded access to the ballot. Members of both parties have long believed that increasing the size of the electorate helps Democrats and hurts Republicans, while limiting its size leads to the opposite result. Like the eternal suspicion of epidemic voter fraud, this belief is apparently impervious to experience—there’s little evidence of a significant partisan edge when voting becomes easier. The 2020 election is just the latest example: It had the largest turnout in U.S. history, and both major parties claimed important victories and suffered unexpected losses.
It’s not that Republicans aren’t trying to disenfranchise Black and other likely Democratic voters—they are, and they’re doing so on the basis of a great lie: that last year’s presidential election was stolen. But targeting one party’s voters for exclusion is not easy. People who want to vote—especially when they’ve endured a long history of exclusion—will usually find a way to do it. And as the Republican Party increases its appeal to less wealthy, less educated Americans, who generally vote in lower percentages, it might well lose a crucial number of its own supporters by restricting the franchise. Republican governors and legislatures in states such as Georgia, Iowa, and Arizona, who are currently engaged in frenzied efforts to entrench their power by creating new obstacles to voting, are acting as if their party just suffered a once-a-century defeat and faces imminent extinction. They are quite likely fighting the wrong war. Republicans “are suffering from a Donald Trump hangover,” Wertheimer said. “He’s still in their minds and their mindset. But if you are trying to protect the right to vote in this country, and the Republicans see that as a threat, that doesn’t make it a partisan issue for the country. It makes it a partisan issue for the Republicans.”