Fielding a question

Jake Lahut / Sentinel Staff

Ann M. Ravel, a law professor and former FEC chair, takes a question on campaign finance reform from the audience at the Hilltop Golf Course clubhouse in Peterborough Thursday.

PETERBOROUGH — On the second leg of her swing through the Granite State, former Federal Election Commission Chair Ann M. Ravel detailed what she sees as the dilapidated state of the American campaign finance system.

Ravel left the commission in early 2017 after being appointed by then-President Barack Obama in 2013.

The University of California, Berkeley law professor and former commissioner was hosted at the Hilltop Golf Course clubhouse in Peterborough by the Coalition for Open Democracy, a campaign finance reform group founded in 2009 by Doris “Granny D” Haddock.

Haddock, a longtime Dublin resident who died at the age of 100 in 2010, gained nationwide acclaim for her campaign finance reform advocacy. This culminated in a 14-month odyssey, with Haddock walking across the continental United States from Jan. 1, 1999, through Feb. 29, 2000.

The FEC was established after Watergate in 1974, and enforces campaign finance law in American elections through a board of six members, no more than three of whom can be from any one political party. The commission is currently run by Democrat Ellen Weintraub.

But members are unable to form a quorum to do any official business because of three vacancies under the Trump administration.

The deadlock could not come at a worse time, Ravel argues, because of the threats posed to American elections from foreign interference and a lack of domestic confidence in the system due to the influence of big money in politics.

With only three seats filled on the six-member commission — one shy of a quorum — Ravel told the crowd Thursday that it’s essentially open season for corrupt campaigns going forward.

“When there is no active enforcement agency there to make sure that people comply with the laws — this is a cutthroat business, and people realize if there’s not going to be a consequence, then you don’t have to follow the law,” Ravel said.

One example falling into a gray area that would normally be policed by the FEC is that of Andrew Yang’s recent Oprah-esque overture during the most recent Democratic presidential debate.

Yang — whose campaign platform centers around giving Americans a universal basic income or “Freedom Dividend” of $1,000 per month — promised on live television to pay that monthly sum to 10 families who registered in a lottery on his campaign website.

“Normally, if there was a functioning FEC, and if it was functioning when he came up with that plan, he could have asked for an advisory opinion from the FEC, because that’s one thing they’re generally able to do,” Ravel said.

Yang has claimed he had lawyers look over the proposal to make sure it did not violate campaign finance rules meant to prevent candidates from buying votes. But Ravel noted that the gimmick brought attention to the fact that the FEC remains paralyzed.

With plenty of stories to go around on the more serious examples of money as a corrupting force in politics, Ravel shifted to potential solutions.

In a followup interview, she detailed how public financing of campaigns would be the ideal solution, such as with a “Democracy Dollars” voucher system that matches small donations from voters with public funds.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., proposed her own Democracy Dollars plan while she was still running for president in May.

“It is true that nationwide, a lot of people don’t want public financing because they feel like they’re putting [money] into the pockets of politicians who they have sort of an innate dislike for,” Ravel said.

Nevertheless, she said giving voters an opportunity to donate with the heftier backing of matching public funds not only pushes back against the influence of corporations and well-funded special interests, but also gets more people engaged in the civic process.

“When they [donate], they then feel like they’re connected, and more connected not only to the civic life of the city or the state, but many people have said — and there’s been some studies on this issue — when people feel disconnected, they’re more likely to not obey the law, they’re more likely to not care about things like keeping the city clean,” she said.

On the other side of the equation, now that Ravel is running for the California State Senate, she is coming into harsher contact with the realities of American campaign finance incentives.

Ravel focused much of her speech Thursday on how much time members of Congress spend fundraising for reelection when many of them came to Washington, D.C., to craft public policy and fight for constituents. A healthier public finance system, she believes, would free up lawmakers to spend more time doing their jobs instead of sitting in a room making calls for cash.

“Money comes from all over the country now to different races, even local races,” she said. “I know that’s true in New Hampshire as well as California because of the desire to influence both federal policy but also go state by state and make state changes that might influence federal policy.”

With members of the roughly two-dozen-person audience wondering what they could do toward a solution, Ravel offered a simple suggestion: Work the phones.

Calling the D.C. offices for members of Congress and peppering staff with requests for lawmakers to come out more forcefully for campaign finance reform can make a difference, Ravel said, particularly with U.S. representatives facing reelection every two years.

Nevertheless, she conceded there remains little recourse for the general public to replenish the three vacancies in the FEC.

That responsibility rests with President Donald Trump and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Ravel recalled going on The Daily Show to make the casethrough satire.

“I spoke out when I was at the FEC about what a useless agency it was,” Ravel said of the state of the commission amid the partisanship that arose during her time before the quorum broke down. She added that her Daily Show interviewer, Jordan Klepper, asked her which was more useless: the FEC, or a man’s nipples?

“And I remember very much that moment going through my mind, ‘Why did I agree to come on this show?’ “ Ravel chuckled. “But also thinking, ‘I have never given one moment of thought to a man’s nipples.’”

After giving it some consideration Ravel offered her assessment.

“I answered, ‘I’d say they’re comparable.’ “

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.