How to bolster federal elections

How to bolster federal elections
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Today the Senate will consider the nominations of three new commissioners to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC has a critical role. It is the only government agency exclusively charged with enforcing and administering the nation’s anticorruption laws, such as those requiring transparency in political spending.

Yet for most of the 2020 election cycle, the FEC has been without a quorum and unable to enforce the law. President Trump failed to promptly nominate FEC commissioners, and he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are only acting to restore the FEC’s quorum now, in the lame duck session.

Restoring the FEC’s quorum is important. But that’s not enough: in order for the FEC to be effective, it needs a quorum of commissioners who are committed to the mission of the agency and dedicated to upholding the laws that protect the voices of all Americans, not just political insiders and special interests.


These hearings are an opportunity for the Senate to closely scrutinize each nominee. The Senate should only confirm commissioners who are committed to enforcing the anticorruption laws that govern the campaign finance system. Failing to do so will only perpetuate the agency’s dysfunction.

The FEC is led by six commissioners nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, no more than three of whom can be from the same political party. The FEC needs the support of at least four commissioners to enforce the law, so just three commissioners can paralyze the agency.

Over the past decade, that is precisely what’s happened. Presidents typically defer to the nomination recommendations of party leaders in Congress, and McConnell, an avowed opponent of campaign finance laws, has made a point of only recommending Republican commissioners who are ideologically opposed to the FEC’s mission, like Don McGahn. Because presidents from both parties have failed to make fixing the FEC a priority, McConnell’s three-commissioner ideological bloc has mired the agency in gridlock and dysfunction.

As a result, the FEC has allowed special interests across the political spectrum to break the law with little recourse. Even in the face of clear violations of federal election law, the FEC has failed to act, with the agency routinely deadlocking and failing to reach the required votes necessary to open an investigation.

The FEC refused to investigate a shell corporation that gave nearly $1 million to a super political action committee. It later turned out that a foreign fugitive had laundered the super PAC contribution through the shell corporation. In an illustration of the ideological (rather than partisan) nature of the divide, three Republican commissioners refused to open an investigation into a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC that openly admitted to coordinating with her campaign in 2016 in ways that broke federal laws. It remains to be seen whether the FEC will give a similar pass to violations in the 2020 cycle.


The FEC’s failures over the past decade have led to an explosion in secret spending and our politics increasingly rigged in favor of special interests, and senators should remember that during today’s confirmation hearings. Seventy-one percent of voters across partisan lines said they want the agency to take a more active role in enforcing campaign finance laws to reduce political corruption and hold political candidates and their donors accountable.

Senators should use their questions during the hearings to gain an understanding of the nominees’ commitment to upholding the mission of the agency and of their support for protecting voters’ right to know who is trying to influence our vote and our government. Senators should ask the nominees what they will do as commissioners to identify and close the loopholes that leave space for undetected foreign interference in our elections.

The FEC structure needs a permanent overhaul. However, when Joe Biden takes office, he could take steps to improve the agency by pledging to only nominate highly qualified FEC commissioners who are committed to the agency and its mission.

The Biden administration could immediately start working to help the agency fulfill its mission by establishing a blue-ribbon, bipartisan panel of experts from diverse backgrounds to recommend a list of potential FEC nominees, Republican and Democrat, who are committed to the rigorous, even handed enforcement of campaign finance laws. Biden should commit to making the panel’s recommendations public, giving them great weight, and providing a written explanation for any decision to depart from them.

Trevor Potter (@TheTrevorPotter) is the president of the Campaign Legal Center who has served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission.