Letter: For safe elections, empower the FEC
The last decade is marked by numerous political stalemates and notable instances of inaction by Congress. Above the noise of divide, the current shutdown of the Federal Election Commission stands out in this time of partisanship as a threat to free and open elections.
Following the Watergate Scandal, the Federal Elections Commission was established as a bipartisan effort to curb corruption and foreign influence in American elections. The FEC panel is required to have a four-member quorum, half of which are Republicans and the other half are Democrats. The role of the quorum is to initiate investigations into violations of campaign finance laws. Today, the FEC is essentially shut down, following the resignation of the vice-chairman, Republican Matthew Peterson; only three commissioners remain.
Every NATO-allied nation reported outside meddling in a recent election. Democracies across the world are guarding themselves against similar attacks. The Mueller Report and hearings exposed the extent to which foreign actors have attacked American elections. Experts believe while the 2018 midterm elections were quiet, the 2020 presidential election will be a target for increased interference.
Often, Russia and Iran do not start the disinformation but spread dishonest domestic campaigns. The elections in Europe this past year give multiple examples to the tactics employed by foreign countries to influence voters using homegrown conspiracies.
Before the shutdown of the FEC, the commission was working to set guidelines to increase clarity over politically sponsored advertisements. Online advertisements were used by Russia to influence Americans during the 2016 election.
Since 2015 the Senate has failed to appoint a single commissioner to the FEC; nominations usually take place every two years. Additionally, one bill has not passed Congress to strengthen election security after the 2016 attacks. Yet, during the last decade, funding from undisclosed donors increased from 1 percent to 47 percent. PACs, Super PACs, and dark money funders are expected to contribute close to $1 billion in the coming 2020 presidential election cycle.
The FEC is not separate from the divisive culture of Washington. The commission stalemated over proceeding to investigate allegations of a Russian operative funding political campaigns through the National Rifle Association. Despite their shortcomings and disagreements, the American public needs the powers of the FEC in case of a national emergency or another targeted attack on the election.
During the 2016 campaign to now, voters from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies are concerned about the security and integrity of elections. Trump voters voice their displeasure with the “swamp” and Democrats decry the evils of “dark money’s” influence on politics. Regardless of political affiliation, the role of the FEC is critical in assuring voters of a free and open election. Russia, Iran, China, and other disinformation actors want Americans to distrust their election system. Transparency, accountability, and the rule of law combat electoral doubt and strengthen our institutions.
Appointment of more commissioners to the FEC will only be a small step towards securing the elections; however, it is a necessary and simple action to protect the seminal right in a democracy. Senate leaders should move quickly to appoint commissioners to the FEC and respond to the House with legislation for protecting American elections.