Opinion: Sarbanes’ H.R. 1 Has Poison Pill to Kill Minor Party Competition

Poison Pill
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With much fanfare among voting rights, electoral reform and good government advocates, H.R. 1 — the For the People Act — has passed the House and is now on the way to the Senate.

Authored by Maryland’s own John Sarbanes (D-3rd), H.R. 1 is an omnibus electoral reform bill allegedly intended to strengthen voting rights, enhance campaign finance reform, and address government ethics and corruption in politics. Together with H.R. 4 — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — H.R. 1 is a pillar of the Democrats’ response to our country’s democracy crisis.

But democracy for whom?

H.R. 1 contains a poison pill designed to reduce political competition and voter choice by weakening minor parties, at exactly a time where, according to a recent Gallup poll, support for a third party is at an all-time high.

Ever since then-presidential candidate Barack Obama shunned the federal public matching funds program in 2008, among all parties’ general election candidates, only Green Party presidential nominees have applied for and qualified for these funds. H.R. 1 would solve this minor party/Green Party “problem” by raising the threshold to qualify for matching funds beyond the realistic ability of Greens (and other minor party nominees) to reach.

This move to disempower minor parties and their voters is cloaked within the promise of a new and improved matching funds program, designed to entice major party candidates to opt into the program, with the promise of substantially increased funding.

The current donation threshold to qualify for a 1:1 match is to raise at least $5,000 in each of at least 20 states, in donations no larger than $250 each. The public already supports funding minor party candidates under this formula. Green candidates Jill Stein (2012, 2016) and Howie Hawkins (2020) each qualified for matching funds in the last three cycles.

The new H.R. 1 threshold would replace the existing 1:1 match program with a 6:1 match, but would simultaneously increase the minimum amount of donations by 500% to a minimum of $25,000 in each of 20 states. It would also increase the minimum number of contributions to reach it by 625%, by subtlety lowering the size of donations that can count toward reaching the threshold from $250 to $200. This would make it even harder on minor party candidates — who are mostly excluded from candidate forums and media coverage and have a far smaller base of well-funded donors to draw from — by disqualifying 20% of the $250 donations they are able to raise.

The real-world effect of eliminating the existing 1:1 threshold would be to eliminate a matching funds threshold that is demonstrably reachable by minor party candidates and replace it with a category reachable likely only by top-tier major party candidates. This sleight-of-hand will lead people to think Democrats are for increased public funding, but apparently only for themselves.

Without presidential primary public matching funds, minor party presidential nominees will have fewer resources to promote their messages. They and their parties will also have a harder time getting on the ballot.

Because of onerous ballot access laws, minor party presidential candidates already often have to qualify themselves and their parties via expensive petition drives, on an election-by-election, state-by-state basis — and these petition drives are often supported by matching funds.

Without matching funds, minor parties and their presidential candidates are unlikely to appear on the general election ballot in many states. Without state party ballot status, neither may many minor party, down-ticket state and congressional candidates. Also in many states, to maintain ballot status, minor party presidential candidates must receive a certain percentage of the general election vote. But they can’t if they aren’t on the ballot.

As a result, minor parties will begin to disappear under H.R. 1, reducing voter choice and representation. That itself is a de facto form of voter suppression within H.R. 1, by removing a positive incentive for many voters to vote. Apparently, voter suppression is bad if it affects Democratic voters, but not Green voters.

Functionally, there is no need to eliminate the 1:1 threshold to add the 6:1 threshold. They could both exist in H.R. 1 — unless a goal of the legislation is to minimize minor party competition. The higher threshold also ensures that only a limited number of Democrats qualify for it, to eliminate those pesky others who stay in primary race “too long.”

In the end in H.R. 1 Democrats appear to only want public financing for their own top-tier candidates. Quite a deal with public money if you can get it, while simultaneously taking away the public’s ability to fund grassroots campaigns via matching funds if it wants.

In November 2020 in Baltimore City, first-time Green candidate Franca Muller Paz’s impressive 36% against Democratic incumbent Robert Stokes Sr. in City Council District 12 shows many voters want more alternatives on the center-left, even in a Democratic stronghold like Baltimore. The same sentiment for more representation exists across the political spectrum, all over the country, in many races and on many levels.

Real political transformation would be to enable a viable and more representative multi-party democracy, including by enacting multi-seat district, proportional representation elections for Congress as part of H.R. 1, along with a larger House of Representatives to promote better per-capita representation.

H.R. 1 should also provide specific financial support to states to enact ranked-choice voting for president, which eliminates the “spoiler” issue by allowing voters to rank their choices, increasing voter choice. Instead by further limiting voter choice, H.R. 1 further locks in lesser-evilism, and voters having to vote their fears instead of their hopes.

While it’s probably too late to include proportional representation for Congress in H.R. 1, legislators of conscience should insist the H.R 1 is amended to put back in the 1:1 matching funds program at the lower threshold. Sarbanes — and especially Maryland’s Jamie Raskin (D-8th) who voted to forward H.R. 1 out of the House Rules Committee — should come forward and say they missed this aspect and support an amendment to restore the option for 1:1 matching funds.

H.R. 1 should not be a partisan tool to further entrench the major parties. Not if it is called the For the People Act.

— MICHAEL FEINSTEIN

The writer is a former mayor and city councilmember in Santa Monica, Calif.; a former co-chair of the Green Party of the United States; a co-founder of the Green Party of California; and a 2018 Green candidate for California secretary of state.