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Reforming Our Democracy – What We Learned from the 2020 Election and What Comes Next: An Interview with Lawrence Norden

Lawrence Norden is the director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he leads the Center’s work in a variety of focus areas including campaign finance reform, combatting voter suppression, ensuring that American election administration is safe and secure, and combatting disinformation and foreign interference in US elections. Norden is the author of The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World (2006) and contributed to Defending Democracies: Combatting Foreign Interference in a Digital Age (2021). His work has been featured in programs and publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR, and he currently serves as a member of the Election Assistance Commission Board of Advisors and the vice chair of the Election Security Committee. 

*This interview was conducted on March 28, 2021.

Zach Stern: We talk about the influence of Super PACs and dark money as a matter of corruption, but our current campaign finance system also inhibits policy action on issues such as healthcare or climate change. In what ways do large corporate donations, Super PACs, and dark money prevent action in policy areas that enjoy widespread public support? 

Lawrence Norden: The reason that we talk about money in politics under the frame of corruption is largely because the Supreme Court has designated corruption, or the appearance of corruption, as the only legitimate rationale for restrictions in campaign finance. I don’t think that corruption is the only or even the most important reason to regulate money in politics, although it’s certainly a significant one.

There’s no question that money has a big influence on policy. There’s a reason that major donors, corporations, and wealthy individuals contribute so much money to politics, and it’s not just out of the goodness of their hearts. Through their contribution, they believe they’re getting more of a voice in what policy looks like. So, if you have donors who would be negatively impacted by climate change, minimum wage, or fair housing legislation, they’re going to give money to politicians who they expect to help prevent those policies from being enacted. 

ZS: How different would the United States look right now in a world where Citizens United never happened?

LN: It would look very different. Our campaign finance system was broken before Citizens United, but before that decision we didn’t have Super PACs, dark money, individuals making multiple million dollar contributions, or unlimited corporate spending. All of that seems like a given now, but just over a decade ago, those things really didn’t exist in our campaign finance system.

ZS: Given the unlikeliness of overturning Citizens United, what would the For the People Act mean for campaign finance reform? 

LN: One of the most basic things it does is get rid of dark money. It would require any entity spending over $10,000 on political ads to reveal its big donors, so any big investment in political spending would become transparent in a way that it hasn’t since Citizens United

Even more importantly, it would introduce a public financing system that would lower contribution limits and match donations under $200 at a 6-1 matching ratio. It is a voluntary system, so it’s only for candidates who choose to use it, but I think you would find that a great many candidates would. They would be just as well if not better off than under the current system, but they would be raising money from regular people instead of the special interests and big donors who they’re focused on now. 

We’ve seen how transformational this model can be in New York City. In contrast to federal and state elections, candidates often say that they spend their time in publicly funded elections raising money from their constituents rather than big-money donors. That’s exactly what they should be doing. In the 2020 election, big donors and self-financed candidates provided more than half of the money that candidates raised whereas small donors only provided about 12 percent of the money in that election. What we want to see is candidates focused on regular people, and that’s what the public financing system outlined in the For the People Act would do. 

The For the People Act would also reform the Federal Election Commission (FEC) so that our current election rules will actually be enforced. The FEC is currently so deadlocked that there’s really no policeman on the beat, and candidates and donors have gotten more and more brazen about ignoring the rules that are currently on the books. 

Finally, the Honest Ads Act—a bill that senators Klobuchar, Warner, and Graham co-sponsored—would bring the internet under the current campaign finance regime. The last comprehensive campaign finance reform was passed in 2002 before the internet really was what it is today, so many of the rules don’t cover political ads on the internet the way they do on broadcast TV or print. This is why the Russian government was able to do so much political spending in 2016 without detection—there were no transparency requirements for that spending.

ZS: If the bill is not passed, what would you like to see the Biden Administration do to address issues within our campaign finance system?

LN: There’s only so much that can be done through executive action. The Biden Administration could work to make political spending by government contractors more transparent and work to ensure that federal agencies working in states are able to register voters as they are authorized to do under the Motor Voter Act. But even more importantly, the President should use his bully pulpit to create a type of public campaign to preserve our democracy. After January 6th, there’s an understanding by many Americans that our democracy is quite fragile–the For the People Act is meant to bolster it, and the administration has a major role to play in making this case to the American people. 

ZS: Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren made their decisions not to take money from Super PACs a central tenet of their campaigns, while calling other candidates out for not doing the same. Do you see potential for a version of more informal campaign finance reform through shifting attitudes among politicians and the public? 

LN: I certainly see some possibility there. Many Democrats have sworn off corporate contributions, for example, but at the end of the day, the problems are systemic. Many candidates are going to say, “I don’t want to have one hand tied behind my back,” and that’s fair. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren might not take Super PAC money, but, in recent years, the problem has only gotten worse. If you’re going to solve this problem, you need the kind of systemic solutions that can probably only be achieved through Congress.   

ZS: Democratic candidates who took corporate or big-money donations during the 2020 race insisted that these donations would not influence their commitment to enact campaign finance reform—do you buy this argument?  

LN: The proof is always in the pudding. I take people at their word when they say these donations are not going to prevent them from making changes to the way we finance elections up until the point when there’s the opportunity to prove themselves. Then we see whether they do or not. 

I believe, for the most part, that people who run for political office do so based on a core set of convictions that they have in serving their constituents and the people of the United States, but the way our political system works means that this influence is not always conscious. The necessity of spending time with big donors and the realization that big donors are necessary to run your next campaign has got to have an influence on the way we do policy in the United States.

ZS: Switching gears a little bit, what would the For the People Act mean for election security? 

LN: The biggest thing the For the People Act does is get rid of paperless voting machines, which experts and the intelligence community have been saying for years is an unnecessary vulnerability. If a voting system doesn’t have a physical record of every vote, there’s no way of retrieving votes as they were intended to be cast in the event of a cyber-attack, virus, or software malfunction. You could even manipulate election results without any way of checking against it. There’s been a gradual move away from paperless systems because of these security risks, but there are still some states that use paperless machines in their polling places.

More generally, the bill would also spend hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to our election infrastructure to make it more secure. It would fund risk-limiting audits, widely considered the best kind of audit of paper ballots to make sure the results that machines provide are accurate. It would also create federal standards for electronic poll books which can also be security vulnerabilities. 

Importantly, the bill not only authorizes $1 billion upfront to upgrade and secure our election infrastructure, but also $175 million every two years to continue making upgrades and maintaining standards. 

ZS: Why do we continue to underfund election security?

LN: I will say that it’s one of the few areas over the last few years where there has been some bipartisan agreement. The only election-related funding Congress has provided since the 2016 election has been for election security, but it hasn’t been nearly enough money. 

Republicans in Congress have in a knee-jerk way opposed federal funding for elections, even for election security. Many of them have stuck to the argument that they don’t want a federal takeover of elections, but that might be changing. A good number of Republicans in the last couple Congresses recognize election security as part of Congress’ responsibility in protecting the nation. 

Securing funding for election administration at the state and local level is also difficult because it is not something that you generally run a campaign on. Things like school funding and garbage pickup have much more salience for voters. 

In general, we don’t invest in elections, and election security is an election investment. We don’t invest much at the state level and hardly at all at the federal level. I’m hopeful that this bill means we’ll start to see more consistent funding. 

ZS: In what ways does election security increase voting access? Does access also increase election security?

LN: Interestingly, the two are often presented in opposition when in fact they are mutually reinforcing. Going into the 2020 election, my team and I were very worried about the security of our election infrastructure, but by Election Day we were feeling pretty good because people were voting by mail and voting early. The worst case scenario for our election infrastructure would have been an attack on our power grid, voting machines, or electronic poll books, but by spreading out voting through early voting and vote by mail, the risk was also being spread out. That’s a security measure because there’s no one point to attack on election day the way there has been in previous elections. Attacks on voter access are also an attack on election security. 

ZS: How do you balance the push for improving our election security with the need to instill faith in our elections in a climate where Trump and others in the Republican party have sought to undermine the legitimacy of these systems for their own political gain?

LN: That’s a needle to thread, no question about it. The best way you can do that is to make sure we’re investing in election security to show people that there is a commitment to security. Our elections have become much more secure and transparent over the last several years. I think emphasizing those good practices both reinforces confidence in the system and pushes all jurisdictions around the country to adopt them. In 2016, for example, about 20 percent of people were voting on paperless systems. By 2020, that number was only five percent. This was partly because more people voted by mail, but it was also because a succession of states recognized that we can’t use this paperless equipment anymore. The truth of the matter is that there are some people you will never convince because they don’t want to be convinced, but the more we talk about good practices and where they’re happening, the more we can simultaneously increase confidence while pushing better practices around the country. 

ZS: What lessons does 2020 offer for future elections in terms of election security?

LN: My number one lesson is that the more options you have for voting, the more resilient our elections will be. It was also incredibly helpful that in all of the states that were at issue, everyone was voting on paper and they conducted post-election audits in all of those states. 

A third lesson—and maybe the biggest of all—is that we have to devise a better way to respond to disinformation. The hacking of people is a bigger threat than the hacking of our infrastructure. We need more transparency and better education for everyone about how our system works. We also need to anticipate what types of disinformation we are going to see and attempt to neutralize them in advance. Finally, we need to give election officials more prominence while ensuring that they can remain independent and continue to put voters first. An unfortunate outcome of the 2020 election has been that election officials, who were a bulwark against disinformation and attempts to delegitimize the election, are now under attack themselves, facing legislative efforts to criminalize certain actions and even getting death threats.

ZS: In what ways did the private sector save the 2020 election? Do you see this as a solution that could be leaned on long-term? 

LN: I can’t tell you how many election officials I spoke to who said that they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did without private sector help. The private sector provided hundreds of millions of dollars to buy protective gear for poll workers, offer additional polling places, and run public information campaigns—all of which was massively important.

I do think there may be an ongoing role for the private sector around encouraging employees to volunteer as poll workers and doing voter education, maybe by giving them paid time off. At the same time, we never want to be in the situation again where we’re relying so heavily on the private sector for basic services that the government should be providing. Ensuring that poll workers have protective gear against Covid-19 or buying drop-boxes so that people can safely and securely drop off their mail ballots, for instance, cannot be left in the hands of the private sector long term. These kinds of things are basic government functions. That’s giving too much power to the private sector when elections are supposed to belong to the people. That said, this was an extraordinary circumstance, and their help was needed, so everybody should be grateful that the private sector came through.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.