After witnessing this year’s presidential race, few deny existing fundamental problems of money and politics. To many, the 2016 campaign has cast a light on the glaring need for campaign finance reform and have brought the issue to national attention. One of the leading figures in the struggle for reform is Commissioner Ann M. Ravel of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), who spoke about the issue in a lecture sponsored by Democracy Matters and the Political Science and International Studies Departments on Monday, April 5.
Ravel hails from California, where campaign finance reform promptly became a staple issue of her rising career. She worked as the Chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission beginning in 2011 until transitioning to the FEC in 2013. In her time as Vice Chair and subsequently as Chair in 2014 and 2015, respectively, Ravel primarily worked to regulate the impact of campaign financiers and lobbyists on federal elections and addressed ethics and conflicts of interest regarding those elected to office and public employees.
The effort to reform campaign funding, though now an issue at the forefront of the ongoing election cycle, has only recently entered the progressive activist agenda. Democracy Matters Co-President Sophie Gonsalves-Brown ’16 explained in an emailed statement, “The media, candidates for President and other elected office, and the public are talking about money in politics to an unprecedented degree.” Although the issue is well-documented, it is new to many social justice campaigns. As Ravel noted, “84 percent of Americans of all political parties say that money has too much influence in our political system, but many of those think nothing can be done about it…”
The figure suggests that awareness of the role that super PACs and dark money play in elections is as widespread as the problem itself. Many, however, remain disillusioned with the system and pessimistic towards potential solutions. Ravel also discussed the degree to which these issues plague the campaign finance sector. “Unfortunately we’re seeing in our election today that something like 40 percent of the contributions that are given, it’s estimated, are dark money. That is they are not being disclosed, so nobody knows who the source of those contributions is,” Ravel explained.
This is just one aspect of a larger condition in which the FEC is unable to regulate campaign donations. Ravel said, “We’re in a situation now at the Commission where for any issue that has any major consequence in the election today, we are unable to enforce the law at all, because there is a group of commissioners who act as a block and they can always impede any activity on any of these significant issues.”
As Ravel pointed out, this nationwide phenomenon itself implicitly contributes to the severity of the issue, as political participation rests at the heart of the potential to create change. “What’s happening is that the disaffection is becoming exacerbated because people aren’t voting,” she remarked. “People aren’t contributing, and so the ability to change the dynamic is more problematic if that happens. And also…it is then more difficult for the poor, middle income or minorities or women to get elected to office, because there are so few people who can afford to run for office.”
Democracy Matters Co-President Sam Beckenhauer ’18 agreed that campaign finance reform may indeed be a necessary building block towards progress in other social causes. “I hope that campaign finance can serve as an umbrella under which all of the issues we care about can be resolved. Our voices as students have been muted due to the corrosive influence of money in politics,” he wrote in an emailed statement. For Beckenhauer, Ravel’s experience at the FEC is important to understand the ways in which money in politics impacts whose voices are heard. He continued, “Structurally changing how government operates will lead to different policy results. The wealthy understand this best. That is why they lobby and donate to get the results they want.”
This election cycle, organizations with chapters at colleges and universities nationwide, like Democracy Matters, have helped to propel the issue into the national spotlight. Executive Director of Democracy Matters Joan Mandle ’66 commented, “This is a critical time for our movement to reach out to the general public and demonstrate that there is hope that change can occur.”
Mandle went on to express satisfaction at the growth of such movements here on campus. “[Democracy Matters] at Vassar is raising consciousness about the damaging effects of big private money in politics and mobilizing students to join with others in the growing movement to create a financing system for campaigns that can create a democracy of, by and for the people, not the big funders.”
According to Ravel, signs of progress can already be seen, as proposals with newfound potential to address campaign finance reform begin to gain traction. “There are a few pieces of legislation that Congress can vote on that will do a great deal to regulate campaign donations and to increase transparency in where candidates and elected officials’ money comes from,” Gonsalves-Brown explained. “Bills like the Government for the People Act (introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD)) and the Fair Elections Now Act (sponsored by Sen. Durbin (D-IL)) would go a long way towards improving the system.”
In fact, the campaign finance reform movement has also manifested more locally in the work Democracy Matters is currently doing for the surrounding City of Poughkeepsie. Beckenhauer explained, “Democracy Matters has been in contact with the Poughkeepsie City Council to pass legislation on the amount private contractors can donate and receive contracts in return.”
Whether or not the budding campaign finance reform movement will amount in substantive change is yet unclear. In spite of such uncertainties, however, Ravel maintained that an active optimism will be an essential tool in the arsenal of those seeking to promote justice. “There are a lot of ways of participating, making your voice heard, talking to Congress and encouraging others to also become active,” she remarked. “If we’re all participating and making our opinions on these issues known, [change] can be engendered. There’s no question.”