Will Obama Heed Advocates' Call to Act on Dark Money and Voting Rights?

Will Obama Heed Advocates' Call to Act on Dark Money and Voting Rights?

President Obama used his final State of the Union address to call for a “better politics”—declaring, “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.” He added, “We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. We need to modernize it for the way we live now.”

Six months later, campaign-finance reform advocates and others say time is running out for Obama to take bold action before Election Day. Outside the White House on Wednesday, a broad coalition of progressive groups called on Obama to follow up on his pledge by signing an executive order to require companies with federal contracts to disclose their political spending. The groups also want him to put more pressure on Congress to strengthen voting rights.

“With the clock ticking down on President Obama’s tenure in the White House, it is vital that he issue a clarion call for far-reaching reform, including legislative action and a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s devastating Shelby County and Citizens United decisions,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a public policy watchdog group. “But he must do more than call for action; he must take what the remedial action he can, most importantly by issuing an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending.”

The range of groups joining the cry for action—including civic reformers Public Citizen and Common Cause; civil rights advocate NAACP; environmental group, the Sierra Club; labor union, the Communications Workers of America—reflects an emerging strategy to build a more cohesive democracy reform movement. The coalition’s agenda includes not only an overhaul of campaign-finance laws, but also voting rights and redistricting reforms. This new collaboration among groups on the left made a big splash in April by launching Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening, a week-long string of protests and civil disobedience on Capitol Hill.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder that rolled back protections against voter discrimination, a demand for Congress to enact a legislative remedy has become a more central part of progressives’ government-reform agenda. The coalition wants Obama to use the presidential bully pulpit to call for change and insist that Congress pass voting rights reform before November.

“Today we continue to fight for change on many fronts, but an array of restrictive voting laws are keeping regular Americans shut out of the political process with the goal of suppressing the voting rights of people of color, seniors, students, and low-income Americans,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau director. “As we face the first presidential election in 50 years without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, Congress must act now and pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Voter Empowerment Act.”

The coalition also called on Obama to sign an executive order that would require companies with federal contracts to disclose political spending. The order has long been a top priority for watchdog groups like Public Citizen and Common Cause, who argue that spending disclosures would be a critical first step to shining light on the increasing amount of undisclosed “dark” money in elections. The White House reportedly was close to moving on the order in 2011. But since then advocates have been unable to convince Obama to sign the order, though there have been times where the White House was rumored to be on the verge of signing off on it.

To establish a legacy of action on money in politics—and to help uncover dark money in this year’s election campaigns, Obama needs to sign-off on this plan immediately. “With the stroke of his pen, President Obama can shift the entire national debate from billionaires and boardrooms to what each American needs to do to engage and fight back,” declared Scott Swenson, a Common Cause vice president. “It’s time for the president to match his eloquent pleas for ‘a better politics’ with action to deliver it.”