Departing Election Commissioner Urges Trump to Change System

  • Democrat Ravel criticizes dark money in resignation letter
  • Federal Election Commission has been mired in tied votes

A Democratic member of the U.S. Federal Election Commission said she will resign and called on President Donald Trump to fix a system that has allowed unaccountable money to flow into politics “from a tiny, highly unrepresentative segment of the population.”

Ann Ravel said she’ll step down March 1 from a term that would otherwise have run through April 30. Her exit means that Trump can select her replacement, allowing him to influence how election laws are enforced for several years. The panel, which has three Democrats and three Republicans, can’t by law have more than three members of the same party, so Trump wouldn’t be able to replace Ravel with a Republican.

Ann Ravel

Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Ravel, who posted her resignation letter on Medium on Sunday, spoke about Trump’s criticism of the influence of the wealthy during his campaign. She urged him to “prioritize campaign finance reform to remedy the significant problems” of dark money, or contributions from donors who aren’t revealed, and lax disclosure.

“Many of these same concerns have been voiced by Americans of all political views who are angry at the disproportionate influence of big money on government policy,” she wrote. “Our campaign finance system should promote citizen engagement and participation in the political process instead of disenchantment with democracy. People from all walks of life should be able to run for office without having to seek out wealthy donors, or be wealthy donors themselves, and win.”

Ravel called the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which struck down limits on outside political spending, “mistaken jurisprudence” and said it should be “reexamined.”

Deadlocked Panel

The New York Times first reported Ravel’s resignation and said that, during three years on the commission, she’d fought with her Republican colleagues.

In Ravel’s blunt exit report posted on the FEC website, she also suggested that Republican commissioners are unwilling to confront violations. The report is entitled “Dysfunction and Deadlock: The Enforcement Crisis at the Federal Election Commission Reveals the Unlikelihood of Draining the Swamp,” referring to Trump’s campaign promise.

Ravel writes that “a bloc of three Commissioners routinely thwarts, obstructs, and delays action on the very campaign finance laws its members were appointed to administer” -- and that the problem has gotten worse during the past 10 years.

Voting Bloc

Without mentioning political affiliation, Ravel blamed three commissioners’ “ideological opposition to campaign finance law” for cases in which she contended little or no action was taken despite credible accusations that campaign funds were appropriated for personal use, political entities hid donors by masquerading as charities, or foreign donors gave money illegally.

“Because of this, candidates and committees are aware that they can ignore the laws enacted to protect the integrity of our elections,” Ravel said in the report.

The commission says on its website that its structure “was created to encourage nonpartisan decisions,” but critics and even some advocates have said that partisan gridlock stops most enforcement.

A spokeswoman for the FEC didn’t offer additional comment on Ravel’s decision.

Six Nominees

Traditionally, Trump would allow Senate Democrats to choose the next commissioner, but he could ignore that courtesy and rely on the Republican majority in the chamber to confirm an ideological fit -- as long as that person isn’t a registered Republican. And because the five remaining commissioners are currently serving beyond their appointed terms, which the law permits, Trump could sweep out the entire commission, provided he didn’t appoint more than three Republicans.

“This will potentially change campaign finance law as we know it for the federal level,” Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at the campaign-finance reform group Common Cause, said in a telephone interview on Sunday.

Ryan said Donald McGahn, now the White House counsel and a former FEC commissioner, was “largely credited with beginning the destruction of the agency and initiating the proliferation of deadlocked votes.” McGahn might see Ravel’s departure as “a great opportunity to issue the final blow to campaign finance laws,” Ryan said.

A White House spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Lee E. Goodman, a Republican commissioner appointed in 2013 by President Barack Obama, told the New York Times that Ravel’s report is “nonsensical and arbitrary.”

Major Rewrite

Trump “could turn an FEC which deadlocks on policy and enforcement to one which tries to aggressively dismantle the law or becomes partisan and focus enforcement on Democrats,” Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the FEC and now general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a group that favors tougher restrictions on money in politics, said in an e-mail.

McGahn has said that a major rewrite of the FEC’s procedures that he oversaw brought unprecedented transparency and due process to the agency. But critics said it placed too much power in the hands of the commissioners and limited the FEC’s effectiveness.

Whoever is chosen, it’s unlikely the nominee would share Ravel’s approach, said Bob Biersack, a 30-year veteran of the FEC who’s now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog.

“There’s certainly no reason to think that you’d get someone with her orientations to the law and how the process should be regulated,” he said. “The Supreme Court in Citizens United was very strong in terms of disclosure. She absolutely had that orientation -- you could do a lot with disclosure.”

Obama Pick

Ravel was nominated to the FEC by Obama in June 2013, the same year she led a successful investigation as the former chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission into a pair of nonprofits connected to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, the libertarian political donors. The groups agreed to a pay $1 million in fines for not disclosing their donors in violation of the state’s election laws.

Ravel was elected chairwoman of the FEC in 2015 and tried to bring the same kind of enforcement efforts to the federal level, but the agency’s rules often stymied her. On Nov. 18, 2016, for example, the six commissioners split along party lines on whether to proceed with an investigation into Carolina Rising, a nonprofit group that spent $4.7 million from undisclosed donors in 2014 to back the North Carolina Senate candidacy of Republican Thom Tillis in what was then the most expensive congressional race in history. A majority vote by commissioners is required to launch an investigation.

It was one of ten cases during Ravel’s tenure involving dark money groups that backed Republicans, in which the commissioners deadlocked on whether to proceed with investigations.

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