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Fundamental reform must be on the Democrats’ Debate Stage

In just about three weeks, the Democrats will take the stage for the first national presidential primary debate. Reformers must make sure that of the 24 who are now vying for the nomination, the most committed reformers are on that stage.

“The most committed” is a tough category to map in this race. Not since Nixon has the corruption of our democracy been as much the focus of candidates running for president. Almost every one has mentioned it. Some, such as Pete Buttigieg, have gone so far as to say it would be a day one issue — the first issue that his administration would tackle upon taking office.

Yet the real question is what reform would entail. Relatively few have had the courage to endorse the one change that would change the role of money in DC fundamentally: public funding of public elections. Joe Biden has generically; Williamson has called for a constitutional amendment to require public funding. And three candidates have specifically called for “small-dollar public funding” of the sort that was included in the historic H.R. 1 (Sanders, Buttigieg, Gravel).

But only two candidates have defended the one change that would truly change the way campaigns are funded: giving vouchers to every voter to help voters fund political campaigns. Andrew Yang has endorsed a plan to give every voter $100 in “publicly funded vouchers they can use to donate to politicians that they support.” And just a month ago, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand upped the ante fundamentally, by introducing legislation that would give voters up to $600 in an election cycle (one for each race) to fund federal candidates.

Both voucher proposals—if made law—would be revolutionary, and obviously, Gillibrand’s even more revolutionary than Yang’s. Both reach far beyond the only other voucher proposal now in Congress —Representative Ro Khanna’s (D-CA) bill to give voters fifty “democracy dollars”—and both build on a plan that has now worked in two elections in Seattle. Vouchers would fundamentally change the way that at least congressional campaigns raise their money. Rather than candidates spending more than half their time calling the richest Americans, the campaigns would reach out to all Americans for the support that every campaign would need.

Like “Medicare for all” or “free college” in the 2016 cycle, this is an idea whose time has finally come. More and more, Americans are recognizing that nothing serious will happen in Washington unless the swamp gets drained first. And so more and more, voters are demanding that candidates give them a plan for draining that swamp. What could make our representatives care about representing us again? What could pull them away from their Fortnite-like addiction to the whims of the very rich? Because today in America, it is only the very rich who matter to the funding of at least congressional and senatorial campaigns.

It is critical to our democracy that these ideas be on stage in the Democratic debates. It is not yet clear whether they will. The Democratic Party has announced the rules for qualifying for the debates. Under the current version of those rules, a candidate would qualify if she either achieved 1% in three national polls or raised money from more than 65,000 voters spread across 20 states by June 12. Yet if more than 20 qualify under that standard, the party has signaled that it could well move the goal posts. And no doubt, goal post moving has been known to happen before.

That is why it is critical now for those of us in the reform movement to assure that the most committed reformers have clearly qualified for these debates. Yang has met both tests. Gillibrand has met the polling test, but not yet the contribution test.

We need to fix that—now.

I’m not yet sure who one should vote for in the primaries that will begin six months from now. But after more than a dozen years in this fight, I am absolutely sure about the questions that need to be on that stage. We must have the candidates who have the courage to push the most difficult issue to sell, the most important issue to win: public funding. And that convinces me that we in the reform movement must organize now to assure that at least the candidates pushing the most ambitious public funding proposals should be on that stage.

If just 10,000 more stepped up to support Senator Gillibrand by midnight, June 12, we could be confident that her voice would be on that stage as well. Then between the commitment of Yang and the conviction of Gillibrand, America would hear about the one idea that could radically change the corruption that has now buried this democracy.

If you agree with me that it is time for the Democrats to speak openly and honestly about the most important reform that Congress could make immediately, then join me in standing up for that reform. I will support any candidate that makes a POTUS 1 commitment — fundamental reform on day one—so long as that reform includes legislation that would change the way campaigns are funded fundamentally.

Senator Gillibrand has made that commitment more strongly than any other candidate. She needs to be on that stage. Regardless of who you think you will ultimately support, help us make that happen. Even a small contribution counts: make it here. For real reform.

Written by

law professor, activist.

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