Today’s political discourse and campaign finance system have been poisoned by an influence machine that, for too long, has been able to operate from the shadows. West Virginians are no strangers to “dark money” peddlers attempting to influence our elections. We’ve long endured attack ads and opposition activity from out-of-state groups who are, currently, not required to disclose their donors.
But the problem isn’t just with the negative nature of this electioneering; it is with the secrecy with which millions of dollars can be spent from the dark. Weak disclosure requirements and loopholes that allow entities – including foreign agents and governments – to pump money into our elections have left the scales of our democratic system vulnerable.
While an overhaul of our campaign finance system is long overdue, there is finally a real opportunity on the table for lawmakers to enact targeted reform. The For the People Act (S. 1), a package of campaign finance and election reforms that takes aim at some of the greatest problems plaguing our democratic system today, is moving through Washington. And Sen. Joe Manchin has a ripe opportunity to lead on these issues as debate proceeds.
Perhaps most importantly, this legislation would permanently rid our election system of dark money, closing loopholes that allow political groups to spend without limits and without disclosing their donors. It would also stop foreign governments and agents from secretly attempting to influence the outcomes of our elections and further empower the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to hold violators of campaign laws accountable.
After yet another record- breaking campaign cycle, where tens of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors were spent in high-profile races across the country, West Virginians should be well aware of the dangers of the status quo. And we should recognize that we’re only in for more of the same if the system is not changed. The outcomes of upcoming candidate races at all levels of our government could be swayed by out-of-state actors with no real interest in advancing the interests of West Virginians.
If there were ever a moment for Washington to avoid politicizing an issue, it’s the current debate on campaign finance reform. Dark money-funded influence efforts have been orchestrated against candidates at every point on the political spectrum. And while some in the media may attempt to paint the push for the For the People Act as a partisan effort, it’s impossible to argue that ridding our election systems of foreign and secret influence is in the interest of just one political party. These are commonsense reforms that deserve a commonsense approach from our political leaders in Congress.
These are reforms that West Virginians of all political stripes can and should get behind. We should all hope that Sen. Manchin will exercise his unique political leadership in Washington, as he always does, in the weeks and months ahead. This is an historic moment for our country and an opportunity to enact lasting reforms that would change our democratic process for the better. Hopefully, we’ll see Sen. Manchin seize it.
— Rick Staton is an attorney living in Charleston, having previously served as Majority Leader of the West Virginia House of Delegates. He is a native of Wyoming County.