House Democrats’ Anti-Corruption Push Resonates Well Beyond the Beltway

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California holds the gavel after being sworn in at the Capitol. 

House Democrats’ sweeping anti-corruption bill may be dead-on-arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate, but HR 1 is already having an impact outside the Beltway.

New York legislators who just approved a slate of election reforms, including early and absentee voting and curbs on corporate political spending, had one eye on the democracy reforms that Democrats have placed front and center on Capitol Hill. Still further reforms, including statewide public financing, are now on the agenda in New York, which is just one of several states pursuing voting and campaign-finance changes in 2019. These follow hard on a string of democracy-related ballot wins in November.

The success of the democracy movement at the state level demonstrates why HR 1 matters well beyond messaging and symbolism, and regardless of its fate in the Senate. The ambitious omnibus bill would expand voting rights, boost small donors and transparency in campaign financing, and curb gerrymandering and ethics abuses. 

The bill does hand Democrats a political talking point by forcing Republicans to go on the record against popular reforms. But it also spells out an agenda for states to follow. And state reforms, in turn, build the case for national legislation, by demonstrating that election and campaign-finance changes can and do work at the state level.

“People in the states watch what’s going on in Washington, and people in Washington are well aware of what’s going on in the states,” says Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, which has pushed for both state and national reforms.

New York’s recently-approved election changes represent a long-awaited breakthrough for democracy advocates who had regarded the Empire State as something of a voting rights backwater. The advent of early and absentee voting, plus new caps on the big corporate campaign money funneled through limited liability companies, came thanks to Democrats’ takeover of the state senate, which under Republicans had blocked such changes.

Now that Democrats control Albany, they’re turning their attention to an even broader reform agenda already endorsed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. This includes tighter lobbying and ethics rules, and statewide public financing in the form of small donor matching funds, which is already in effect in New York City. New York City’s system of small donor matching funds is itself the basis for the public financing proposal included in HR 1, known as the For the People Act.

“With the actions on the first day, New York barely caught up with the rest of the country,” notes Waldman. “If it passes campaign-finance reform on the state level, it becomes a leader nationally.”

Several other elements of HR 1, including automatic voter registration, campaign-finance disclosure rules, and proposals to end gerrymandering by putting redistricting in the hands of independent commissions, are pending in states around the country this year. Five states—Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah—already approved ballot initiatives to establish independent redistricting commissions in 2018. Now Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia are among the states that could follow suit.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, also endorsed legislation this month to throw out the state’s voter ID law, allow no-excuse absentee voting, ban corporate contributions, and impose caps on campaign donations, which in Virginia are unlimited in non-federal races. 

In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has thrown his support behind a bill moving quickly through the legislature that would require “dark money” groups that spend big money on candidates to disclose their donors. Both Murphy and state Senate President Steve Sweeney, another Democrat, are under pressure to take action amid controversies involving their own links to secretive political groups.

This week, Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, announced plans to propose a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to convicted felons. Iowa is one of only two states, including Kentucky, that imposes a lifetime voting ban on felons, though they may individually petition for clemency. A similar ban in Florida was overturned via ballot initiative in November, with overwhelming bipartisan support. Restoring rights to ex-felons is another element of HR 1.

States face their own obstacles in enacting campaign-finance and election law fixes. In Virginia, Northam’s proposed election overhaul will face opposition from the GOP-controlled legislature. In Florida, newly-elected GOP Governor Ron DeSantis has suggested that the constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to ex-felons may require implementing legislation—though its authors took steps to ensure that the measure would be self-executing. In Missouri, the voter-approved plan to place a commission in charge of redistricting has faced pushback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The backlash underscores that the real fight over democracy reform has just begun. But each state that enacts election law, campaign-finance, and lobbying and ethics changes becomes a testing ground for reforms being debated on the national stage. And House Democrats’ plan to push HR 1 as their first order of business once the government reopens—whenever that may be—sends a message to the states that voters care passionately about fixing what’s broken in democracy.

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