Why it’s up to states and cities to protect our democracy

Federal Election Commission member Ann Ravel shares a laugh before her first meeting in 2013.
Federal Election Commission member Ann Ravel shares a laugh before her first meeting in 2013. CQ Roll Call via AP

There is ample reason to conclude that the new Trump administration and Congress may roll back some of the laws that were intended to protect our democracy, including those ensuring equal access to the ballot and limiting the disproportionate influence of money in the political process.

As a member of the Federal Election Commission, I have seen stalemates paralyze the agency, leaving it unable to act on matters that affect the integrity of the electoral process. Despite the obvious risk we have of foreign money illegally influencing our elections, the FEC has not been able to muster the votes necessary to even get public input on a rule to respond to this reality.

Because the prospects of federal action are bleak, it will take sustained efforts at the state and local levels to advance the values of an open, transparent and inclusive democracy. By banding together, states can ensure compliance with laws that are meant to encourage participation and a fair political process.

Last year, I proposed that the FEC recommend congressional reform of the barely used presidential public financing program, which is funded by a voluntary tax checkoff and designed to increase civic participation and reduce candidates’ dependence on large donors. The commission did not pass the recommendations, which would have responded to 87 percent of Americans who favor changes so that wealth does not determine political influence.

But on a positive note, my home state of California enacted a new law authorizing the state and municipalities to institute public financing systems.

People throughout the country are voicing concerns about the political system. Last fall, voters in Missouri and South Dakota passed new campaign contribution limits and reforms to conflict-of-interest rules. Maine passed “ranked choice voting” to change how candidates are elected to office. Alaska passed automatic voter registration to lower barriers to voting. In Berkeley, Portland, Ore., and Howard County, Md., municipal candidates will soon be able to participate in new voluntary public financing programs.

California Forward’s 50 State Solution project provides a platform for reform leaders and policymakers to boost participation in good government efforts. It will encourage a vast amount of creative experimentation to see which models produce better results. In late January, participants from across the country will convene to learn from each other and discuss bipartisan strategies for success. Changes on the ground will enable solutions to prevail at the federal level, too.

Democrats and Republicans alike are incredibly frustrated with the political status quo. Polls tell us that frustration, cynicism and anger dominate our political dialogue. Commitments by leaders throughout the country are needed to move our democracy toward openness and transparency. I, for one, commit to working with California Forward and others toward these goals and encourage you to do the same.

Ann M. Ravel is a member of the Federal Election Commission and former chairwoman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. She can be reached at