By: David Donnelly, Executive Director, Public Campaign Action Fund
Last November, 102 year-old Miami resident Desiline Victor waited three hours in line to vote for President Obama. Tonight, she’ll sit next to First Lady Michelle Obama during the president's State of the Union Address.
Victor says she is “proud” to attend the speech, but her story is a sad illustration of our beleaguered democracy. A 102 year-old woman shouldn’t have to wait hours in line to vote just to be noticed by someone in Washington, D.C. None of us should.
We’ve got to do better.
With Victor at the First Lady’s side, President Obama is expected to address voting troubles like Victor’s in his speech to Congress, a follow up to his inauguration speech in which he said, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
He should, as the Brennan Center notes, say “we need to further empower our citizens by ensuring fair, equitable and unencumbered access to the ballot box” and advocate for legislation like Congressman John Lewis’s (D-Ga.) Voter Empowerment Act.
Ensuring that voters have a say after Election Day is the other side of the same coin.
Back in 1996, before then-State Senator Barack Obama began working on legislation to reform Illinois’ campaign finance laws, he said “You got these $10,000-a-plate dinners and Golden Circle Clubs. I think when the average voter looks at that, they rightly feel they’re locked out of the process. They can’t attend a $10,000 breakfast, and they know that those who can are going to get the kind of access they can’t imagine.”
He was right back in 1996—and what he said then is even more true today.
He’ll be speaking to two audiences. In front of him will be lawmakers like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who regularly engineers corporate handouts while taking their CEO’s money; freshmen House members who are being urged to spend four hours a day dialing for dollars; and Senators elected just three months ago who are already raising money for their next election. Most of them hate the current system but are unwilling to change it.
The other audience is us. Watching all over the country are people like Desiline Victor. She waited three hours to vote. When it comes to having our voices heard in Washington over the roar of big money, all of us are waiting in line beside her in the figurative sense.
The President should call for an “all of the above” approach to making sure our democracy is truly of, by, and for the people. That means a small-donor driven campaign system like the Fair Elections Now Act or the Grassroots Democracy Act and other policies to address the inequities and the gaping loopholes in our campaign finance law.
Americans overwhelmingly agree that our political system too often works for the money over the many. The President would have the public on his side.