The Man Who Waited 50 Years for This Moment

A black-and-white photo of Fred Wertheimer standing in front of a group of microphones; in the background a woman holds up a sign reading "Democracy Is Not for $ale."
Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call / Getty

Some things are worth half a century of effort. Fred Wertheimer has been campaigning for good government and against corruption in Washington since 1971. That year he joined a new organization called Common Cause, founded by John Gardner and dedicated to getting big money out of politics and empowering Americans to participate in the democratic system. In 1974, during the Watergate scandal (which was partly about the corruption of politics by secret money), Wertheimer and Common Cause successfully pushed Congress to pass legislation that created public financing of presidential elections, limited campaign contributions, and established the Federal Election Commission. Two years later, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and reversed some of the law’s spending limits. Decades passed. The bilgewater kept rising. In 2002, as president of Democracy 21—a nonprofit he’d founded in 1997—Wertheimer was instrumental in the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as McCain-Feingold, which banned “soft money” contributions to political parties by corporations and unions.

Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court gutted the law in its Citizens United decision. The sewers flooded.

This is the burden of the good-government campaigner: years of toil out of the limelight, tracking corruption, enlisting allies, drafting legislation, lobbying politicians, educating the press; a moment of opportunity; a breakthrough; then a reversal that sends the rock rolling at least partway back down the hill.

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“It’s a long game,” Wertheimer told me recently. “You have to be in this for the long game in order to make progress, because you have to be there at a moment when the opportunity exists to strike and the proposed solutions are on the table.” A lawyer by profession, Wertheimer never abandoned the cause, because he believes that political money is “central to everything else” in American democracy. And now, at age 82, he’s in the thick of the most important battle of his life.

Fred Wertheimer
Fred Wertheimer in 1974 (Charles W. Harrity / AP)

Wertheimer is a principal author of the For the People Act, a bill recently passed by the House along strictly partisan lines and now before the Senate Rules Committee. H.R. 1/S. 1 is the most sweeping piece of election-reform legislation in decades, if not ever. In the past, Congress has addressed campaign finance, voting rights, and ethics as separate matters. This bill brings them together in a comprehensive fashion that could repair voters’ battered trust in the political process and revitalize their connection to it. The bill seeks nothing less than a national democratic renewal.

Some Republicans charge—and some Democrats hope—that the For the People Act will allow the Democratic Party to use its temporary control over the federal government to secure power indefinitely. In fact, the most discussed parts of the bill might be the least politically consequential: those that would essentially federalize state election rules, setting national standards for automatic voter registration and expanded access to the ballot. Members of both parties have long believed that increasing the size of the electorate helps Democrats and hurts Republicans, while limiting its size leads to the opposite result. Like the eternal suspicion of epidemic voter fraud, this belief is apparently impervious to experience—there’s little evidence of a significant partisan edge when voting becomes easier. The 2020 election is just the latest example: It had the largest turnout in U.S. history, and both major parties claimed important victories and suffered unexpected losses.

It’s not that Republicans aren’t trying to disenfranchise Black and other likely Democratic voters—they are, and they’re doing so on the basis of a great lie: that last year’s presidential election was stolen. But targeting one party’s voters for exclusion is not easy. People who want to vote—especially when they’ve endured a long history of exclusion—will usually find a way to do it. And as the Republican Party increases its appeal to less wealthy, less educated Americans, who generally vote in lower percentages, it might well lose a crucial number of its own supporters by restricting the franchise. Republican governors and legislatures in states such as Georgia, Iowa, and Arizona, who are currently engaged in frenzied efforts to entrench their power by creating new obstacles to voting, are acting as if their party just suffered a once-a-century defeat and faces imminent extinction. They are quite likely fighting the wrong war. Republicans “are suffering from a Donald Trump hangover,” Wertheimer said. “He’s still in their minds and their mindset. But if you are trying to protect the right to vote in this country, and the Republicans see that as a threat, that doesn’t make it a partisan issue for the country. It makes it a partisan issue for the Republicans.”

Giving Americans greater access to the vote—through automatic registration, no-excuse mail-in balloting, and restoring the franchise to ex-felons, as well as through measures that aren’t in the congressional bill, such as making Election Day a national holiday—is the right thing to do, regardless of which party benefits. America doesn’t suffer from an excess of civic energy that needs to be reined in and disciplined. It suffers from the widespread view that politics is conducted for the benefit of the well-connected few. Voting is the simplest, most electrifying way that ordinary people can make their voices heard. Anything that unduly inhibits it saps a people’s democratic faith. Anything that enables it brings the governed closer to government. The only images from 2020 that conveyed joy were those of the faces of Americans who came out of isolation during the pandemic and lined up to be counted.

Democrats might be fighting the wrong war, too. The For the People Act would do nothing to reverse the most dangerous piece of the new Georgia election law—the potential power it gives to the Georgia legislature to control and override state and county election boards, obvious retaliation for the fair conduct of last year’s race by election officials. In trying to protect the rights of their party’s voters in the face of suppression efforts, congressional Democrats have failed to address the real scandal of 2020—Republican attempts to politicize the counting of votes and certification of results.

The parts of the For the People Act getting less attention are among the most important. The law would end gerrymandering in congressional elections—a perennial form of political corruption—by empowering independent state commissions, instead of partisan legislatures, to draw district lines. It would also create public financing of federal elections—not just presidential but also, for the first time, congressional—by matching small contributions of up to $200 at a rate of six to one, paid for with fees and penalties imposed on banks and corporations for illegal acts. It would force disclosure of the sources of “dark money” spending, hold digital advertising to the same transparency standards as that of print and broadcast, and reduce the membership of the Federal Election Commission from six commissioners to five in order to break gridlock. The bill is the most significant piece of legislation in the long, squalid history of legal corruption in Washington.

Campaign-finance reform is popular among Americans of all persuasions, but it is maddeningly elusive. Power and money are on one side, and ordinary citizens—their voices amplified by advocates like Wertheimer—are on the other. No wonder the game is so long. The last major campaign-finance reform before the Watergate-era law was the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925. If you include McCain-Feingold, that’s just three major pieces of legislation in almost a century. Americans know the extent of political corruption, and they hate it, but voters seldom pay close attention to the complexities of what is essentially a process issue framed in technical language. Almost everyone is for reform, but hardly anyone cares enough to vote on that basis.

Politicians care. Campaign finance is more personal for them than any other issue. “If I go in there to lobby about climate change or a dam in a state, the member is being lobbied on matters that affect his or her constituents,” Wertheimer said. “If we’re lobbying about campaign finance, we’re lobbying about matters that affect the member directly.” It isn’t surprising that some congressional Democrats are reportedly unhappy with parts of the bill.

Earlier campaign-finance bills, including McCain-Feingold, received significant Republican support. But that ended when Mitch McConnell, an implacable opponent of reform, became the Republican Senate leader in 2006. After that, Republicans who had once supported reform flipped. In 2010, the year of Citizens United, not a single Republican voted for a law requiring the disclosure of nonprofit political contributors that 48 Republican senators had supported 10 years earlier. They looked at their fundraising totals, compared them with the Democrats’, and saw no reason to make a change. “McConnell took the lead,” Wertheimer said. “They gathered Republicans around the idea that we have a huge financial advantage on political money now and we ought to maintain the status quo.”

But the problem for Republicans is that their own voters still support reform by large numbers. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer obtained an audio recording of a January conference call between conservative activists and a McConnell adviser who were trying to figure out how to defeat the election-reform bill. A researcher funded by the Koch organization gave the group the bad news: “The most worrisome part, which Grover [Norquist] mentioned at the very beginning of his presentation, is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description of H.R. 1.” He added, “‘Stop billionaires from buying elections’—unfortunately, we found that is a winning message for both the general public and also conservatives.” The only way to defeat the bill, the researcher went on, was for Republicans to use “under-the-dome-type strategies”—meaning legislative maneuvers in Congress.

Their main legislative strategy is the filibuster. That will be enough to prevent passage of the bill as long as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia continues to oppose repealing the filibuster. Every Democratic senator except Manchin is a co-sponsor of the election-reform bill. In late March, he came out in favor of some parts, including most of the campaign-finance provisions. “Now more and more lawmakers spend their time dialing for dollars, instead of legislating for their constituents,” Manchin said in a statement on the bill. (In the 2020 federal elections, campaigns spent a total of $14.4 billion—twice as much as in 2016.) “This never-ending battle to raise money to spend on reelection campaigns cheapens our elections to nothing more than financial transactions. That is why I have and will continually support changing our campaign-finance rules.”

Manchin believes that the bill must be bipartisan to have legitimacy. He suggested that a slimmer bill, with the provisions he supports, would have a better chance of gaining Republican support. Wertheimer, who has seen far more failure than success over the past 50 years, is skeptical. “The Republicans do not want a bipartisan solution,” he said. “They want to kill this bill. They are not going to negotiate over major provisions of this bill in any form of good faith,” given that they oppose both the voting-rights and campaign-finance pieces. He thinks that it would be a mistake to split up the bill, which would also split up its supporters. Passage depends on a change, even a onetime exception, to the filibuster rule. “So the choice that Senator Manchin is going to wind up having to make is whether he will join with the Democrats in allowing this bill to be voted on by a majority, or whether he’s going to join with the Republicans to block all of this legislation from being passed on the theory of a bipartisan solution that the Republicans have no interest in and will not pursue.”

The bill’s supporters inside and outside Congress are tapping into outrage over the new voter-suppression efforts in Georgia and other states—“This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle!” President Joe Biden recently exclaimed—to build pressure on holdouts like Manchin to pass national election reform on simple-majority lines. Both parties have raised the rhetorical stakes of the bill to existential levels: It will return millions of Black voters to the days of segregation, or it will let Democrats steal their way to permanent power. In this highly partisan fight, there is no moral equivalence. One side is for expanding democracy, and the other side is for restricting it. But both sides are framing the fight as a political death match that will mobilize their officials and activists. Meanwhile, the part of the bill with overwhelming popular support—campaign-finance reform—risks going down to another defeat.

“This bill would be an enormous boost for the country, and for the ability of people to get decisions made without the Washington system of using big money,” Wertheimer told me. Twenty-eight years passed between the two campaign-finance laws that he helped to write—the first in 1974, the second in 2002. “I don’t think I have 28 more years. So we gotta get this done now.”