How abortion rights advocates won every ballot measure this year

Originally published in Vox on November 11, 2022.

Americans voiced their preference for abortion rights on Tuesday, casting votes in support of reproductive freedom everywhere they appeared on the ballot: Kentucky, Michigan, Vermont, Montana, and California.

Counting a pivotal ballot measure Kansas voters weighed in on in August, reproductive rights have been on the ballot in six states since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Each time, abortion rights supporters have won.

While Democratic candidates running on abortion access also did extremely well in their contests this week, the vote tallies indicate that the ballot initiatives were often able to draw even more support than the Democratic candidates, garnering votes from individuals who otherwise cast ballots for Republicans, libertarians, or no candidate at all.

“Organizers communicated in a nonpartisan way and that was key,” said Ashley All, who served as communications director for the pro-choice coalition in Kansas. “Their messaging around personal liberty and reproductive freedom and protecting the constitutional rights of women to make the decisions for themselves resonated because it’s shared American values.”

The organizers also succeeded in winning over voters who may personally oppose abortion or have reservations about it. While a majority of Americans say they believe Roe v. Wade should be upheldroughly one-third of those backing legal abortion do not personally support it. And many who support abortion rights believe it should only be legal in cases of rape or a threat to a woman’s life.

Ethan Winter, the research and strategy director for Families United for Freedom, an abortion rights political action committee, emphasized that the ballot measure campaigns all leaned heavily on persuasion tactics.

“Montana is a heavily Republican state, Kentucky is a heavily Republican state,” he told Vox. “All of these victories depend on Republicans voting for you, on people who self-identify as ‘pro-life’ voting for you.” In Kansas, where Trump won handily in 2020 and registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one, the pro-choice side won by a nearly 20-point margin. Even California’s measure codifying abortion rights in the state constitution passed this week with roughly 6 percent more support than other Democrats currently have on the statewide ballot.

Abortion rights organizers say they hope their successes this year across diverse states inspires other leaders to follow suit. How to get issues on the ballot varies from state to state; in some cases citizens can collect signatures, while in others lawmakers have to approve turning issues over to voters. In Michigan, activists collected more than 750,000 signatures to get their abortion rights measure on the November ballot. In MontanaKentucky, and Kansas, by contrast, Republican lawmakers had voted to place their anti-abortion measures on the ballot.

“Our resounding victory now provides a model for the future of coalition-based reproductive ballot initiatives all across the country,” declared Nicole Wells Stallworth, the executive director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, in a press conference on Wednesday.

“I’m hoping other states are looking at the outcomes of last night,” Jodi Hicks, the head of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told Vox. “And looking at what they too can do and really start polling, message-testing, and laying the groundwork.”

Voters don’t like big status quo disruptions, and overturning Roe was just that

This past summer when Kansas voters went to cast their ballots, advocates for abortion rights were cautiously optimistic they’d have one advantage on their side: status quo bias.

Americans tend not to like big, disruptive changes, which is why political science researchers believe they observe a “status quo bias” when people weigh in on ballot initiatives. Voters often reject measures they perceive as introducing major change.

Anti-abortion politicians in Kansas had proposed an amendment to the Kansas constitution that would have overruled a Kansas Supreme Court decision affirming Kansans’ right to end a pregnancy. Passing the amendment would have given state lawmakers the power to ignore this ruling and legislate a total abortion ban in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

Activists in Kansas, in other words, could frame the amendment as an effort to take away rights Kansans currently enjoyed under their state constitution, something they called extremist, radical, and disruptive. This general electoral instinct to avoid major shifts to the status quo, organizers believe, helped them defeat the amendment in August.

While the abortion ballot choices on Tuesday weren’t quite as straightforward as asking voters whether they want to remove an existing state constitutional protection, organizers did lean on “status quo bias” messaging in their respective campaigns. In Michigan, for example, though Proposition 3 was an affirmative amendment to codify reproductive freedom in Michigan’s constitution, activists framed their language around the idea of restoring the rights of Roe v. Wade, of bringing back the reality Americans had known for five decades.

In Kentucky activists similarly emphasized a theme of restoration. “We focused our messaging on restoring access and making sure things do not go any further in the extremist direction,” explained Rachel Sweet, who led the Kentucky coalition organizing to defeat the anti-abortion amendment.

Abortion rights organizers used state-specific messaging to win

Activists and researchers experimented with different messages and messengers to win their ballot initiative campaigns, deploying themes that were specific to the histories and values of each state.

In Montana, for example, organizers looked to capture the deep sense of pride voters have in their state’s right to privacy. “Montanans of every ideology here are deeply proud of our constitution which enshrines the right to privacy,” said Hillary-Anne Crosby, a spokesperson for the coalition organizing to defeat Montana’s anti-abortion ballot measure. “This amendment really came down to private medical decisions.”

Montana’s referendum — known as LR 131 — was spurred by a bill Republican lawmakers passed last year asking voters to affirm that an embryo or fetus is a legal person with the right to medical care if it survives an abortion or delivery. Under the law, health care providers could face up to 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine if they failed to provide such care.

While Republican lawmakers framed the measure as a moral choice for anyone opposed to abortion, reproductive rights advocates argued that the proposal itself had little to do with abortion and everything to do with palliative care and compassion for bereft parents.

That’s because infanticide is already illegal in Montana, and the idea that infants were being killed after an abortion is intentionally misleading, part of a longstanding effort by anti-abortion leaders to depict “botched abortions” that they say can result in live births.

Under current Montana law, if an infant has a fatal prognosis parents can spend those final and few moments holding their dying child and saying goodbye. Under LR 131, a doctor would have been obligated to take the infant away to attempt medical treatment, even if they knew nothing would work.

In mobilizing support against the referendum, advocates chose to de-emphasize abortion, often not mentioning the word at all. They ran ads featuring neonatologistsobstetricians and pediatricians, and grieving parents who said elected officials wanted to politicize their tragedies. Leaning in on status quo bias, doctors gave media interviews explaining how the proposed amendment would threaten the existing rights of parents and criminalize “the current practice of medicine.”

“We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, we’ve been clear that one of the values of Compassion for Montana Families is uplifting and empowering reproductive and sexual health care,” Crosby told Vox. “But we felt abortion language was a misleading, deceptive thing to be talking about, and we wanted to accurately reflect what the bill in question would mean.”

This doesn’t mean Montana advocates aren’t celebrating the outcome as a victory for reproductive rights. “Conservatives tried to make abortion a boogeyman and people didn’t buy it,” Crosby added.

Vermont organizers also emphasized, in their campaign messaging, doing things “the Vermont way” — referring to the state’s independent and nonpartisan ethos.

Vermont is sometimes seen as this very liberal place because of Bernie Sanders or whatever, but historically Vermont has held a Republican majority as well as the governor’s seat, and Vermonters regularly split their tickets,” said Lucy Leriche, a spokesperson for the abortion rights coalition in Vermont.

Vermont, unlike most other states, also enjoyed 50 years of unlimited and unrestricted reproductive freedom. While states were permitted under Roe v. Wade to restrict pregnancies after viability (typically around 24 weeks in a pregnancy) Vermont lawmakers never did.

“The [anti-abortion] side is very quick to talk about all the bad things that would happen if you don’t restrict abortion rights, but in Vermont we never had any restrictions, so those arguments really do fall flat,” Leriche told Vox. “They don’t stick because we know better.” The measure to codify reproductive rights in Vermont’s constitution passed on Tuesday with 77 percent of the vote.

Abortion rights activists haven’t historically focused on state ballot measures

Shoring up abortion rights on the state level was not something reproductive health advocates prioritized when Roe v. Wade provided a nationwide constitutional protection. Anti-abortion activists would occasionally push state ballot measures, often in deep red states, but fighting them at the polls seemed less critical than challenging them in court for violating Roe.

Ballot measures are a space where there hasn’t been a ton of money on the pro-choice side and I think Families United for Freedom is indicative of more money moving in, and what I hope to be a larger trend,” said Winter. Families United for Freedom raised about $2 million this cycle, contributing $600,000 in Kansas, $275,000 in Kentucky, $500,000 in Michigan and $275,000 in Montana. Rachael Bedard, the PAC’s executive director, told Vox that they partnered with and supported local grassroots organizations, providing them with polling and media support, and avoided “a super-imposed national strategy.”

Sweet, who managed the campaigns in both Kentucky and Kansas, told Vox that their success was driven by the expertise of these local grassroots leaders. “We also had a lot of volunteers who have never knocked doors for a candidate, and they don’t consider themselves super politically active,” Sweet said. “But they are concerned and motivated by this one issue.”

One key research point Families United for Freedom found is that even among voters who supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade, a majority of them want abortion to be legal to save the life of the mother and in the case of rape and incest. Even in a hypothetical scenario in which abortion was illegal, the group found, 16 percent of those who said they approve of the Dobbs decision wouldn’t want the woman who had an abortion to face penalties.

“In other words,” Bedard said, “they disapprove of abortion but less than they disapprove of criminalization.” Winning on these abortion ballot measures, Bedard said, means creating the space for someone to continue living their life as a “pro-life” person, while emphasizing that doesn’t extend to making their neighbor’s choice for them.

“We need to let voters have their own personal feelings about abortion, but invite them to join us in the fundamental belief that women should make the decisions for themselves,” added Ashley All, who joined Families United for Freedom after defeating the Kansas ballot measure. “That is pro-choice and that is a way to really bridge the gap.”


Public Campaign Funding Gains Steam to Counter Big Donors’ Sway

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on September 16, 2021.

When Christina Henderson, a new at-large member of the Council of the District of Columbia, first considered running for office, one of her worries was whether she could raise enough money to be competitive. “I was not independently wealthy. Most of my friends worked in the public sector,” says Henderson, who was previously a staffer on the Council.

But D.C. had begun public financing before the 2020 election cycle. The program provides candidates who agree to accept only small contributions with a 5-to-1 match for every dollar raised from a D.C. resident. Henderson took her chance, won her seat, and credits the program with giving her a path.

“One of the best things, as an elected official who plans to continue to participate in public financing, is that I don’t have to spend my term fundraising or worrying about resources for the next election,” she says. “I can just do my job.”

report in August from the D.C. auditor found the program, which distributed almost $4 million to candidates in 2020, increased both the number of people who ran for office and those who donated to local campaigns.

Public financing of elections has been around for decades in the U.S. Today there are at least 27 programs in states, cities, and counties (most but not all of them Democratic), with models ranging from direct candidate grants to small-dollar matching. Advocates say public financing can stem corruption, empower a public that too often feels marginalized by special interests, and diversify public bodies from school boards to Congress.

The idea has been gaining traction: New York City and San Francisco both moved to bolster their existing programs, and new programs in Baltimore and Portland, Ore., as well as the one in Washington, have gotten off the ground. But there are still questions about how much public financing can mobilize new donors at the local level. And it faces a test in Congress this fall as part of a voting rights package.

November will be the first time Democracy Vouchers are used in a mayoral election in Seattle. Under this program, introduced in 2017, vouchers are mailed to registered voters, who can then donate them to candidates. “Seattle’s model is really unique, because it doesn’t require residents to have disposable income to participate,” says Jennifer Heerwig, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After a nonmayoral Seattle election in 2017, Heerwig and other researchers found that voucher donors were more representative of the population in age, income, and race than cash donors. In 2019, the program’s second cycle, the number of residents using vouchers almost doubled, to about 7%.

This year the top two vote-getters in August’s mayoral primary, Bruce Harrell and Lorena González, redeemed the fewest vouchers among the five candidates who chose to use them, and outside spending soared. The two leading PACs that supported Harrell and González, for example, raised almost seven times more money than the top vote-getters did combined in the last election.

Alex Koren, González’s campaign manager, says they’re seeing a significant uptick in voucher contributions since the primary ended and expect to max out on redeeming vouchers this month. Harrell’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but data shows it’s already maxed out.

Not everyone is sold on the merits of public funding, even in blue cities. In May voters in Austin rejected a ballot proposal that would have established a city voucher program such as the one Seattle uses. Polls suggest voters like the idea of reducing the influence of big money in politics, but they’re less keen to put their own tax dollars toward a solution.

Experts say public-financing programs can suffer from not being generous enough, hampering candidates who might choose to participate—as is the case with the system for presidential campaigns, which no general election candidate has taken part in since 2012. When Republican Doug Ducey ran for Arizona governor in 2014, he declined public financing and was able to raise more than double the amount of his primary competitors who opted in.

“The programs will say, ‘Take these public funds, but don’t spend over this amount or else you’re not eligible to take the public money,’ which is an invitation for all these outside groups to spend tons of money,” says Raymond La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “And that’s exactly what happens.”

HR 1, the comprehensive voting rights bill the House of Representatives passed in March, has a provision for voluntary 6-to-1 matching for small congressional campaign donations up to $200. To avoid political blowback from using taxpayer funds, it would be financed through a new fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, and settlements with banks and corporations. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new fees would reduce the federal deficit by almost $1 billion over a decade. HR 1 would also authorize a voucher program to be piloted in three states, where voters would receive $25 to donate to congressional candidates.

Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, the lead sponsor of HR 1, says there’s “good momentum” for the public-financing provision. While key Senate swing voter Joe Manchin of West Virginia has expressed reservations about the size of HR 1, he co-sponsored a compromise bill that Senate Democrats introduced on Sept. 14 that included 6-to-1 small-donation matching. Even a trimmed-down package may not garner the 10 Republican votes it would need in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has attacked the public-financing proposal specifically as “piles of federal dollars going to yard signs, balloons, and TV ads for candidates at least half of Americans disagree with.”

Federal public financing may hinge on the fate of the filibuster. “I think whatever represents real reform, sadly, by definition, will be something that the current Republican leadership in the Senate will stand against,” Sarbanes says. “If that’s the reality we face,” he says, “then you have to look at resetting the rules. And I think that conversation is ongoing among Senate Dems.”

As Democrats Push Vote-By-Mail Measures, Local Governments Are Leading The Charge on Safe Voting

Originally published in The Intercept on April 20, 2020.

ON TUESDAY NIGHT, jurisdictions in two pivotal swing states are set to approve new vote-by-mail measures to help ensure citizens can safely cast ballots amid the global coronavirus pandemic. The initiatives — which come in spite of the Republican-held state legislatures in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that have refused to cancel in-person voting — can serve as a road map for other progressive cities and counties looking to take quick action as the November election nears.

Ensuring  people don’t have to choose between their health and voting has become a top priority for leaders seeking to reduce the spread of Covid-19. From a political standpoint, Democrats also see the expansion of vote-by-mail as necessary to beat Donald Trump, where they believe higher voter turnout will redound to their benefit. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, along with Michigan, are key to that strategy, as those are the states that delivered the 2016 election to Trump. The president, too, seems to understand the potency of vote-by-mail, as he has recently been spreading lies about it, despite himself having voted absentee this past March and in the 2018 midterms.

“It is critical and time-sensitive that localities and states implement vote-by-mail in advance of upcoming elections and they must get adequate federal funds to do so,” said Sarah Johnson, director of Local Progress, a national network of progressive municipal elected officials.

In Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, nearly 19,000 people voted in-person in the state’s infamous April 7 primary, with some having to wait hours in line to do so, a situation that was all but guaranteed to contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Now, a winner of that election is leading the charge for safe voting in the city during primary elections in August, as well as the November general election.

Marina Dimitrijevic, a former county supervisor and the former state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, was elected as an alderman on Milwaukee’s Common Council. On Tuesday night, at the first meeting of the council’s new term, Dimitrijevic will be introducing legislation to mail absentee ballot applications to the city’s roughly 300,000 registered voters, along with a prepaid postage envelope to mail the applications back in. The legislation, which is already supported by 13 of Milwaukee’s 15 aldermen, also has the endorsement of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Tony Evers, whose efforts to postpone the April primary were blocked by the Republican legislature and the courts.

Dimitrijevic’s idea is modeled off a successful program deployed by two small and wealthier Milwaukee suburbs, Whitefish Bay and Bayside, which mailed absentee voter applications to all their registered voters ahead of the April 7 primary. According to state data, roughly 60 percent of Whitefish Bay voters cast absentee ballots for that election, more than any other city in the state.

While Milwaukee voters will have to pay for postage for their actual ballots, Dimitrijevic plans to push for an expansion of secure lockboxes around the city where voters could drop off ballots if they didn’t have stamps, a number of which were already in place for the April 7 election. (The bill gives city leaders 30 days to hash out details for the program.)

According to Dimitrijevic, the safe-voting measure will cost Milwaukee between $100,000 and $150,000 — primarily the cost of postage — which the aldermen and mayor hope federal stimulus money could help cover.

“This will protect the lives of the 300,000 registered voters in Milwaukee and undercuts the Republican assault on Wisconsin’s democracy,” Dimitrijevic, who started working on the bill within 24 hours of her April 13 victory, told The Intercept.

Priscilla Bort, a Wisconsin Working Families Party organizer, said she expects to see other localities follow suit throughout the state, pointing to Madison as one city that already is planning similar legislation. “We see this as a critical pathway to win in November,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, council members in Allegheny County, the second most populous county in the state, are also set to vote Tuesday night to send absentee ballot applications and prepaid postage to all registered voters.

The applications would be to vote in Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary on June 2. The legislation would require all mail-in ballot applications to be sent to registered voters by May 8, and would have a deadline to return them by May 26. Voters who return the applications would receive ballots in the mail along with prepaid postage.

The ordinance, drafted by Allegheny County Councilperson Bethany Hallam, has the support of Allegheny’s influential County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The council is composed of 12 Democrats and three Republicans, and the Democratic majority almost always passes measures that have Fitzgerald’s backing.

Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state legislature recently rejected a provision, proposed by a Democratic state representative from Philadelphia, to mail all registered voters absentee ballot applications. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by a 5-4 margin, and Trump won the state narrowly by 0.72 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has been mailing Pennsylvania Republican voters absentee ballot applications, and despite Trump’s denouncements, has been calling vote-by-mail “easy, convenient, and secure.”

While Hallam’s ordinance would only apply to the primary on June 2, she told The Intercept her hope is that it will eventually be extended to the general election, and that it would become  a permanent fixture for Allegheny County.

“I think it’s on us as elected officials to make it as easy as possible and I think this is something we need to do every single election,” she said.

There are roughly 894,000 registered voters in Allegheny County, and Hallam said about 360,000 voted in the 2016 primary. In terms of ballpark cost, she said they’re estimating bulk mail rates of 30-33 cents a person. With prepaid postage, she noted, the government only pays the cost if the application or ballot is actually sent back in.

THERE ARE SIGNS similar measures will expand across the United States. In Broward County, the second-most populous county in Florida, officials have also recently committed to sending vote-by-mail request forms with prepaid postage to registered voters who haven’t already asked for them. Like Wisconsin, Florida held its presidential primary in-person on March 17, over the objections of public health officials who urged state officials to postpone it; two poll workers in Broward County later tested positive for coronavirus. The Broward County absentee request forms would be for Florida’s August primary, which includes school board and judicial races, and the November presidential election. According to the Sun Sentinel, other Florida counties like Palm Beach and Miami-Dade are considering similar measures.

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, said his group is talking to leaders all over the country about expanding vote-by-mail initiatives. “From a national standpoint we’re attempting to ensure that Congress put aside at least $4 billion in a new stimulus package for a robust vote-from-home program,” he said. “But where we’re able to pull those levers like in Milwaukee, we will.”

The political pressure is so high that even in New Hampshire — a state that has both downplayed the risks of coronavirus and long fought efforts to make voting easier — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu recently announced that voters would be able to do mail-in voting for November’s election.

Last year Sununu vetoed a bill that would have allowed no-excuse absentee voting in New Hampshire, something permitted in two-thirds of all states. New Hampshire election officials have agreed to allow concerns about Covid-19 to qualify as a “disability” under the state’s authorized excuses this year. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire by a margin of just 0.4 percentage points.

Nearly Every Member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Still Takes Corporate PAC Money

Originally published in The Intercept on October 14, 2018. Co-authored with Ryan Grim.

In April, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced that it was going to be drawing a line: Its political action committee would no longer accept corporate campaign donations.

“If we are going to end the influence of corporations and special interests in government, we have to start by not relying on their support,” said caucus co-chair Mark Pocan, D-Wis. “Only by being fully independent of their financial influence can we prioritize people over corporations.”

The development was largely ignored by the press, but for those who heard about it, the move raised an immediate question: Wait, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was taking corporate money?

Yes, it was. And not only did the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC accept corporate contributions until recently, but also, almost all of its 78 members — including Pocan — still take corporate money individually, even as their caucus shuns it. Just four caucus members who will be returning to the House next session have pledged to decline corporate funds: Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; and David Cicilline, D-R.I.

That number, however, is about to balloon to as many as 40 or more, as a wave of successful progressive insurgents — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jahana Hayes, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — are poised to join the House of Representatives.

The new push to go cold turkey on corporate cash is creating tension within the caucus, as progressive members take offense at the implication that their votes might be influenced by big money. “People feel like you’re saying that they are bought and sold — and some are, but many aren’t,” Jayapal told The Intercept. “It’s not like everybody who takes corporate PAC money is bad or only does what the corporations want. … But that’s not what this is about. It’s about re-establishing trust with voters, changing the system, working from multiple angles.”

But while the voting records of Congressional Progressive Caucus members are better on democracy reform issues compared with those outside the caucus, that might be setting the bar too low. Aaron Scherb, the legislative affairs director for the watchdog group Common Cause, told The Intercept that 17 of the 28 members of Congress who earned perfect scores on his organization’s “Democracy Scorecard“ are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But there are 78 representatives in the caucus, meaning that nearly 4 in 5 caucus members actually failed to earn a perfect score.

“So,” Jayapal explained, “I try to say to people, ‘Look, this is the system that we’ve had, it just doesn’t need to be the system that we always have. So it’s not bad that you’re doing it, because that is what has been the case.’ [I] try to not make it about shaming and blaming, but about, ‘Okay, we’re trying to fix this.’”

While Jayapal is trying to coax her colleagues with carrots, the ballot box is acting as a stick. In September, Rep. Michael Capuano, a longtime progressive from Massachusetts, was bested in a primary contest by his opponent, Ayanna Pressley, who made Capuano’s acceptance of corporate money a key campaign issue.

An analysis by The Intercept of the 2017-18 campaign cycle reveals that the vast majority of CPC members are similarly vulnerable, taking not just money from union and advocacy group PACs,  but significant sums of corporate PAC cash as well. Not coincidentally, given the reliance on big money, hardly any members of the CPC rely on small individual donors.

Capuano hadn’t faced a serious political challenger since he was first elected in 1998, and he’s long been considered one of the most progressive members of the House. Though Pressley, a Boston city councilor, ran her campaign as a progressive insurgent, beyond her disagreement with Capuano over whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ought to be abolished or reformed, there were not many areas where she could distinguish herself from him on a policy level. But her pledge to swear off corporate PAC money, coupled with Capuano’s refusal to do so, created enough daylight between them to run through.

On the campaign trail, Capuano suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar position. He’d never had to seriously defend his fundraising haul before. His voting record, he insisted, spoke for itself. But Pressley highlighted the infusion of corporate funds flowing into Capuano’s coffers, especially from industries like biotech. In the latest two-year cycle, Capuano raised $388,000 from corporate PACs.

Capuano’s Congressional Progressive Caucus colleagues back in Washington, D.C., watched him go down, knowing that they, too, share his appetite for corporate money — and, potentially, his fate.

The movement to get money out of politics has fueled a massive, rapid, and poorly understood sea change — one that’s come to a head in the 2018 cycle. According to End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform political action committee, 208 candidates took the “no corporate PACs” pledge this cycle. Of those candidates, 124 won their primaries, including big names like Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat challenging Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, and Ocasio-Cortez, the insurgent candidate from New York City who ousted Joe Crowley, one of the top Democrats in Congress. (End Citizens United endorsed Crowley in the primary, despite his long record of taking corporate contributions, not expecting him to face a real challenge.)

Polls showed that Conor Lamb’s vocal opposition to corporate PAC money helped him eke out a victory in a district that Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. And in a Pennsylvania district to Lamb’s east, Jess King has made her refusal to take corporate PAC money, and the GOP incumbent’s reliance on it, a defining feature of her campaign, helping her bring her opponent’s lead down to the single digits in a district that Trump carried by 26 points. The defining line in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign zeroed in on that distinction: “We’ve got people, they’ve got money.”

Meanwhile, all 78 candidates endorsed by the Justice Democrats — a progressive political action committee, 26 of whose endorsees are still in the running — have sworn off corporate PAC and corporate lobbyist money. And already, presidential hopefuls like Kamala HarrisCory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have responded to the growing hunger for campaign finance reform by announcing that they’ll no longer take corporate PAC contributions — an easier decision for them since corporate PACs aren’t likely to weigh in on presidential primaries anyway.

Polling has repeatedly shown that a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents view the influence of big money in politics as among the biggest threats to democracy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has pledgedthat tackling corruption will be job No. 1 if Democrats retake the House and she becomes speaker.

But while elected officials — especially self-identified progressive ones — recognize the need to publicly back efforts to get money out of politics, incumbents will privately complain among themselves about the growing pressure to turn away long-standing donors, and big donors at that.

“Some of the most progressive members of the CPC will say their corporate contributions have never affected their votes, but they need to take trade association dollars or corporate PAC money because they represent poor districts that they don’t think has a donor base to make up for it,” said one Democratic House strategist.

“I’ve heard this particularly with folks of color,” said Jayapal, “that they have very minimal sources to get money from, and they traditionally haven’t been part of the overall [fundraising] system. But I think the beauty of getting corporate money out of politics is, it actually opens it up to everybody. In many ways, it’s a democratizing factor for traditionally marginalized communities.” Jayapal acknowledges that she thinks “it can take time to transition into that.”

This year’s primary upsets are beginning to change the political calculus, but longtime incumbents haven’t typically felt pressure to reject corporate PAC money. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., came to Congress as an insurgent herself, beating a nine-term Democratic incumbent in 1992. Now, she says, she would “love to get to the point” where she doesn’t have to accept corporate money, but her energies have been largely focused on Puerto Rico. “Since I didn’t have a primary,” she added, “I am not paying attention to that.”

Without electoral pressure, incumbents like Velázquez have had little incentive to spend the energy to create a small-dollar fundraising base, or even one that can subsist on big money from individuals without corporate PACs. Privately, members of Congress also argue that it is unrealistic to expect all of them to be able to attract the kind of small-dollar support for which Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and O’Rourke are famous.

“The way I would put it is, there’s a consensus that candidates ought to be raising their money from small donors, but it’s also the case that only a subset of candidates really click with small donors,” said Mark Schmitt, a former congressional aide and current political reform director at New America. “There’s only one Beto, and he gets attacked because his money pours in from out of state. There’s just some candidates who that’s never going to happen for, and they could be perfectly good progressive candidates, but not the attractive, charismatic type that might fuel small-dollar backing.”

And even O’Rourke has acknowledged that some degree of his ability to raise money relies on the intense disdain for his opponent, Cruz — a dynamic that also benefited Randy Bryce in his race against Paul Ryan. When Ryan retired, Bryce’s fundraising dropped significantly.

Some candidates who don’t share the superstar appeal of Sanders or O’Rourke argue that rejecting corporate cash could be tantamount to unilateral disarmament against Republicans in the general. “You would not want corporate PAC money used to destroy you in a general election, so it’s really going to depend on the landscape of each district,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., when asked if he would pledge not to take corporate PAC money.

Nasim Thompson, the communications director for Justice Democrats, has little patience for these types of excuses. “Those small-dollar donations are a reflection of grassroots support on the ground. And it’s not easy work, it’s very hard work, but it’s what we should expect of our electeds,” said Thompson. She adds that it’s the candidates who are not doing that hard work that are “compromising the entire system.”

Jayapal put it like this: “You don’t have to be an organizer; you don’t have to go out and make inspiring speeches. You just have to be authentic and show that you really care about the people that you represent and ordinary people, and that you want to take on the system of corruption in politics, and I think anybody can do that,” she said. “It is inspiring just to take the step.”

Although corporate PAC contributions have been the focus of the national political conversation, corporate PAC money, it turns out, amounts to a relative drop in the bucket of the large-dollar donations sloshing around American politics. “I sometimes ask people, ‘Well, how much do you get?’ And often, it’s a fairly small number,” said Jayapal.

In 2016, for example, just 6 percent of the $6.5 billion spent on the presidential election came from corporate PACs — two-thirds of which went to Republicans. The vast majority of money flowing into elections comes from wealthy individual donors. Even Congressional Progressive Caucus members who have sworn off corporate PAC money, like Khanna and Jared Polis (who is currently running for Colorado governor), rely predominantly on individual donations from the rich. Gabbard, too, has a broad national base of donors, and gets a boost from wealthy American Hindus eager to support the first Hindu in office. Tlaib and Abdul El Sayed, both of whom took the pledge, similarly benefited from high-dollar donations from Muslim communities nationwide.

Corporate PACs are more likely to support incumbents than primary challengers, which is good news for insurgents, who can run on the politically popular message of opposing corporate PAC money while also recognizing that they were unlikely to be beneficiaries of those dollars to begin with.

Still, advocates for campaign finance reform say the level of upfront, personal sacrifice isn’t really the point, because candidates who pledge to take no money from corporate PACs are communicating a greater level of commitment to reform than their opponents. Pledges also make it harder for them to walk back their commitments later on, when, as incumbents, they’re more likely to feel pressure to draw a greater share of their funding from corporate PACs. Pressley, who fundraised from corporate PACs while she was a member of the Boston City Council, pledged in Septemberto continue refusing corporate PAC money into the general election, and also once she’s in Congress.

“There’s no such thing as a pristine or incorruptible human being going into Congress, so part of our role is to continue that accountability for all members, including for Justice Democrats themselves,” said Thompson. “We need to make sure that drift doesn’t happen, and Justice Democrats aren’t immune to those pressures.”

Adam Bozzi, communications director for End Citizens United, predicts that “20 or 30 or 40” candidates who reject corporate PAC money will win their House races this November, and that “a couple more senators” will soon join the seven who have already done so. (Those senators are Warren, D-Mass.; Sanders, I-Vt.; Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Harris, D-Calif.; Booker, D-N.J.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.) These candidates “are not going to be bullied around” in Congress, Bozzi said. “That, plus the presidential primary, will lead to candidates pushing each other on these issues,” he added.

The hope is that the growing pressure will force the Michael Capuanos of the future to see that rejecting corporate PAC money is not only the most ethical choice, but the most politically attractive one as well.

“Corporate PAC money is a significant amount of money, but it’s not insurmountable,” said Bozzi. So-called “Red to Blue” Democrats who won in Republican-controlled districts last cycle, according to Bozzi, received an average of $16,000 each from corporate PACs. Democratic incumbents in competitive races last cycle received about 11 percent of their funding from corporate PACs, while the average for Democrats overall was closer to 19 percent.

Schmitt hopes that the focus on corporate PAC money will kickstart a more serious conversation about public financing — a consequential reform which can be accomplished without overturning Citizens UnitedThis past May, House and Senate Democratic leaders unveiled their “Better Deal for Democracy” package, which includes a plan whereby candidates would receive a 6-to-1 match in public funds for every dollar raised from small donors. The reform proposals were spearheaded by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who has sworn off corporate PAC money for the past seven years. Sarbanes’s package has received the backing not only of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but also more moderate Democrats like Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

“If you’ve been in politics for more than five minutes, you get tangled up in the money — everyone knows that,” Sarbanes told The Intercept. “The real question is: What are we going to do about it? If we get back the gavel in November, we will want to move quickly on this reform agenda.”

Republicans, for their part, are not that concerned. Rep. Tom Cole, a member of House Republican leadership from Oklahoma, told The Intercept that it’s a “fantasy” to think that voters care much about corporate PAC money. “As long as it’s legal, and you’re not getting hauled in front of the FEC [Federal Election Commission] for violating the law, I’ve found very few vote on that basis,” he said. “It’s not like they give you television time for free, you know, or let you mail your mailers out for free. So, I’m sorry, it just takes money to communicate. That’s nobody’s fault. That’s just the way the system is. So, taking money out just means you’re not going to win. If people want to make that a virtue, that’s fine, but usually the person that has the most resources wins about nine times out of 10.”

Any voter who does make it a litmus test, he added, was never going to vote for him in the first place.

Christie Blusters His Way Through CPAC Appearance

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 27, 2015.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wasn’t going to let something like record-low approval ratings get him down as he took the stage Thursday afternoon at CPAC’s annual gathering in National Harbor, Maryland. Exuding that Sopranos-style confidence that’s earned him notoriety, Christie, sitting on the CPAC stage for an interview with conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham,  dismissed the idea that, compared to other potential presidential candidates in the crowded Republican field, he’s not well-positioned to run for president. (A January survey conducted by Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register showed Christie was the first choice candidate among just 4 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers.)

Asked by Ingraham if such numbers disturb him, Christie retorted, “Uh, is the election next week?”

He continued: “I’m not worried about what polls say 21 months before [the election],” going on to point out that he won gubernatorial races twice in a blue state when everyone thought it was initially impossible.

All right—it’s evident that Christie can hold his own through tough on-the-spot interviews questions, perhaps better than some of his competition—(think Scott Walker’s recent ‘gotcha’ gaffe). Perhaps that’s why he declined to make a speech to the CPAC crowd, preferring to do only the on-stage interview. (Other dignitaries and potential candidates delivered brief remarks, followed by an on-stage interview.) But it’s still not clear what distinguishes Christie from other more moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush.

“[I]f the elites in Washington, who make backroom deals” pick the Republican presidential nominee, then Jeb Bush “is definitely the front-runner,” Christie said. By contrast, if “the people of the United States,” looking for someone who they can actually connect with, pick the candidate, the governor said, then he will do just fine.

Meh. Though Christie likes to come off as your everyday dude, his anti-elitism shtick just doesn’t hold when one actually looks at his receipt stubs. For an ostensibly ordinary guy, the governor has a big habit of traveling lavishly, drinking fancy Champagne, and quietly dumping the expensive bills on the taxpayer. (In 2013, New Jersey residents paid over $10,000 for Christie to travel with his wife and aides to the New Orleans Super Bowl.)

It was the New York Times that first reported the story about Christie’s spending habits, and Christie made several digs,saying that he “doesn’t care at all” what the paper’s reporters have to say about him. “I’m still standing,” he boasted. He even joked that he gave up the New York Times for Lent.

In an attempt to please a crowd that wasn’t necessarily disposed to see him as a true conservative, Christie noted that he had vetoed funding “five times” for Planned Parenthood, and that among the people he thought should “sit down and shut up” were those in the White House.

Christie’s bluster has some appeal, but there’s only so long that he can use it to avoid owning up to some of his massive leadership failures. His state finances are out of control. New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times on his watch. The state’s pension fund has lost billions of dollars. Just 37 percent of New Jersey voters have a favorable opinion of him. And, as I wrote in the winter issue of The American Prospect, he cancelled one of the most important and desperately needed infrastructure projects in the nation—a decision that threatens the safety of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey commuters.

It’s a tough record to run on.

The Importance of the Youth Vote

Originally published in the JHU Politik on 11/5/12

In 1971, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This guaranteed that all American citizens ages 18 and older could vote in U.S. federal elections. Today there are 46 million people who fall into the so-called “youth voting bloc”—consisting of those between the ages of 18 and 29—and make up 21% of the eligible U.S. voting population. Take those numbers and compare them to the mere 39 million seniors who are eligible to vote.

In spite of our numerical advantage, youth are often disparaged for being apathetic and ill informed by politicians who do not believe in young peoples’ willingness to vote. However, the fact is that we represent a major subset of the electorate and should represent ourselves as such.

There is hope. Youth voting turnout has gone up in the past several election cycles. According to the Center For Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth turnout in 2008 rose to 52%, an increase of 4 percentage points from the 2004 presidential election. We also know, thanks to research conducted by Richard Niemi and Michael J. Hanmer, that voting turnout among college students is traditionally higher than that of non-college educated youth. Despite these positive trends, youth turnout, college educated or not, still lags behind all other age demographics.

The question remains: Why? Why do so many young people choose not to not engage in our democratic process?

Some people argue that youth are engaging, albeit in different ways. For example, our generation volunteers in record numbers. According to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, young people volunteer at nearly twice the rate of adults, 55% to 29%. Additionally, this study found that altruism is the driving motivator of youth volunteerism. Young people strongly agreed with statements such as, “I would like to help make the world a better place,” and “It’s important to do things for others.” We do want to improve our communities, but it seems that some want to bypass “politics” along the way.

For many young people who are volunteering but not voting, politics has come to be seen as something distasteful, smarmy, petty, and synthetic. Even readers of the JHU Politik, students that have an interest in politics, may still sympathize with the way many of our peers have come to view politics. Our political process is often characterized by financial corruption, thirst for power, and dishonesty.

Even if this position is understandable, it is not an excuse to disengage. For the sake of social change and for the sake of the survival of our democratic system, citizens have to take ownership of their responsibility to vote. The onus is partially on the politically active youth to do a better job of explaining to them why they should vote. However, ultimately as citizens it is our responsibility to participate.

As President Garfield said in 1877, “Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.”

The youth of this country need to demonstrate that if they want to change the world through altruistic aspirations, which we know they do, then it is impossible to do so without also engaging in the political process. Community service and volunteering is important, but, as the old truism goes, you cannot end world hunger by serving soup in a soup kitchen. We’ll never get stronger environmental conservation laws by cleaning up a park one day on the weekend. We’ll never shed the need for inner-city tutors unless we legislate serious educational reform. Those things have intrinsic value, but to make lasting changes we need to work within our existing, although imperfect, political system.

It is not only our responsibility to vote, but also to help make that message clear to all U.S. citizens. So tomorrow, please vote and help everyone you know to vote as well.

In Response to a Defense of Voter ID Laws

Originally published 9/23/12 in the JHU Politik.

I write this piece in response to Christopher Winer’s opinion featured in last week’s issue entitled, “Making Your Vote Count Through Voter ID Laws.” Winer argues that Voter ID laws are “common sense”, that they would work to “inspire public confidence” in our electoral system, and that the laws really pose only a “minor problem” to voters who lack proper identification.

I beg to differ.

I am from Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in this upcoming election; Pennsylvania is also currently the state with the strictest Voter ID law in the country. While not all states with Voter ID laws have the same requirements, I will focus on Pennsylvania here because it’s often at the center of this national debate.

Winer insists that although these laws might at the most be a “minor infringement of freedom,” overall they are ultimately worth it.

First it is worth considering, why would they be hypothetically “worth it?” One might answer: these laws work to prevent in-person voter fraud. However Pennsylvania has already ruled in court proceedings that there has been no evidence of an issue with in-person voting fraud in the state. So these laws are quite a risky “preventative solution” to a non-existent problem.

For many, obtaining an ID is truly difficult. This summer I worked at home as an Organizing Fellow on the Obama re-election campaign; the confusing and continually revised Voter ID law was a key concern for voters and organizers on almost a daily basis. I recall one instance where a frustrated middle-aged man came into the Obama office, identified himself as a high school English teacher, and asked in exasperation, “Where can I find a DMV that actually issues these IDs? I moved here recently and I’ve driven to four different DMV centers today and none of them offer photo ID services!” This anecdote was extremely telling. This man, who had the money, time, and means to travel to at least five different DMVs, still struggled greatly to obtain an ID. A majority of individuals who lack proper identification have none of these three things.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, nine rural counties have no DMV centers at all. In an additional 20 counties containing 1.5 million people, Driver’s License centers are open three or fewer days a week. (13 counties have DMVs only open one day per week.) Also, only seven out of 67 total counties have more than one DMV center.

In the Pennsylvania lower-court decision on this issue, Judge Simpson wrote that the number of registered voters without valid voter ID falls “somewhat more than 1 percent and significantly less than 9 percent”, or in other words, anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 registered Pennsylvanian voters.

I agree with Winer that we should clean up the voter registration rolls, among other things. We should be working to enforce laws for problems we have, not problems we don’t have. Stephanie Singer, chair of the Philadelphia City Commission (which runs elections in the city) argues that the voter ID law specifically creates more problems than it fixes. “If this legislature were serious about [voter fraud], they would be funding poll worker training, data forensics, [and] aggressive investigation of the voter registration lists,” Singer tells KYW Newsradio.

What I find most ironic about Winer’s piece was his suggestion that in order for the government to reimburse travel costs to the DMV, individuals should present a utility bill or a bank statement to prove they are who they say they are. Or in other words, the forms of identification that used to be acceptable and legitimate enough to vote now are only good enough to get reimbursed.

You know what would inspire public confidence in our electoral system for me? If we advocated for a system where registered American citizens were easily able to exercise their right to vote—ensuring that we really have moved past the dark days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and unabashed disenfranchisement of women and minorities. If people think we need Voter IDs in order to instill confidence, then over the next few election cycles let us work to phase that process in responsibly. But if we want to ensure that all registered citizens will be able to cast their ballot in the upcoming election, we must admit that there is no way this nation will be ready to handle the proposed ID laws by November 6th. It is simply logistically infeasible.

The New PA Voter Law

I’ve been hearing a lot of things lately about the new Pennsylvania Voter ID Law (or “Voter Suppression Law” as some call it.) This new law while championed by some as a civic necessity for ensuring safer and more valid democratic elections, is opposed by major organizations like the ACLU, NAACP and the AARP. They argue that this law adds more hurdles to voting and will thus ultimately infringe certain voters, particularly minorities and the elderly.


(Received this in my inbox today)

I looked into it and this is what I’ve discovered:

So just generally:
With this new law, a voter must present a valid photo ID at the voting booth every time he or she votes. Prior to this law, photo ID was only required the first time a voter appeared to vote in their district. After that, they were allowed other forms of ID, including utility bills and government checks.

Types of acceptable identification from:
….the US Government (such as a passport)
….the Commonwealth of PA (such as a driver’s license)
… a PA care facility (such as a nursing home)
….a municipality to an employee, or
….a PA higher education institution (such as a college or university)

The ID must have an expiration date and it can’t be expired unless it’s a military ID, or if it’s a PA driver’s license, it can be expired up to one year.
(Jonah Mann sent me this article, that as of now under the current law, college IDs from Drexel, Penn State, Lasalle and Point Park universities cannot be used as identification for voting because they lack expiration dates.)

If you don’t have a photo ID at the time of voting, but you do possess one, (left it at home or something) you can still vote on a provisional ballot, and if you show up at the county board of elections office within 6 days of the election to show them your ID, they will count your vote.

Under this new law:
The PA government is required to issue free photo IDs to those that apply for them. The condition is that they must additionally have some alternate proof of identification (Passport, birth certificate, etc)

People argue that this law is a good thing because it can prevent voter fraud. However, the amount of voter fraud is unclear.

For instance, there is voter fraud not related to voter impersonation, which photo IDs would not help to prevent. According to the Brennan Center, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” They argue that most cases of voter fraud “can be traced to causes far more logical than fraud by voters,” including clerical or typographical errors, mismatched entries, and simple mistakes on both ends.

However, others argue there are indeed instances of voter impersonation. But the situation is ambiguous because the amount of voter impersonation convictions could very well be much less than what actually exists.

An example is the 1960 Presidential election between Richard Nixon and JFK where there was alleged to be a lot of voter fraud.  Here’s the full summary. Essentially convictions are hard to come by in our judicial system, and despite the lack of a single conviction, (over 650 were brought to trial) it doesn’t mean voting impersonation fraud didn’t exist or is unimportant. In fact, just the opposite. If Nixon had won two of the states that were being disputed, Illinois and Texas, he would have been President instead of Kennedy. So whether or not there was voter fraud, there was heated voter fraud controversy, and these new laws could help with situations like that.

Challenges with the Law:
So then why do groups like the the NAACP, ACLU and AARP oppose this law so much? The Obama campaign criticized the measure as “a costly bill to address a non-existent problem” and Democratic lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union vowed to challenge this law in court.

People argue the law will disenfranchise minorities who often can’t afford to make the trips to obtain necessary documents required to gain proper identification. This could also hurt the elderly, who often physically cannot make the trip to renew and update their exisiting photo identification. According to Karen Buck of the Senior Law Project, 18% of the elderly do not have photo i.d., but that number is surely higher if you also count those with expired photo IDs.

Stephanie Singer, chair of the Philadelphia City Commission (which runs elections in the city) argues with others that the law creates more problems than it fixes. She said, “If this legislature were serious about [voter fraud], they would be funding poll worker training, data forensics, aggressive investigation of the voter registration lists.”

Governor Corbett who signed the bill into law, described the new law as a preventive measure. The new law and photo requirement will be in full effect for the November 6th election.


It should be noted that a similar case for the state of Indiana was brought to the Supreme Court in 2008. The Supreme Court ruled that the voter ID law did not violate constitutional rights. The law “is amply justified by the valid interest in protecting ‘the integrity and reliability of the electoral process,'” Justice John Paul Stevens said in an opinion that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy. But in dissent, Justice David Souter said Indiana’s voter ID law “threatens to impose nontrivial burdens on the voting rights of tens of thousands of the state’s citizens.”

In my opinion, if the government is requiring all of its citizens to have proper identification, then they should take on the responsibility of helping those who have difficulty getting them, get them. Democratic organizations are already gearing up on photo-ID education campaigns. But for something as important as this, I don’t think it should come down to partisan efforts, and should instead be a concerted national campaign, rather than a Democratic one. I also have serious doubts about how easily elderly folks will be able to get out to renew their expired identification.

photo credit: