Tuesday, February 17, 2015

          Shining Light on Dark Money in Campaign Finance

          Ann Ravel ’74 has begun her one-year tenure as Chair of the Federal Election Commission.

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          The world of campaign finance has become ever more complex since the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was established in 1975 following the Watergate scandal.

          Ann Ravel ’74, who has taken the reins as Chair of the FEC for 2015, is a fierce advocate for making the murky universe of “dark money” in U.S. elections more transparent.

          Ravel has dedicated her career to public service. Prior to her appointment to the FEC in 2013, Ravel served as Chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) where, according to her official biography, she oversaw state campaign finance regulation. Before joining the FPPC, she was the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Torts and Consumer Litigation at the U.S. Department of Justice. She also served for more than a decade as County Counsel for Santa Clara County after working as a staff lawyer there for many years.

          In her new role, Ravel has her work cut out for her. Although the FEC is an independent regulatory agency charged with, among other things, enforcing the limits and prohibitions on contributions, two of the six FEC commissioners are Democrats, including Ravel, one is Independent, and the other three are Republicans—a split that leads to frequent deadlocks and few investigations. As Ravel noted in an op-ed that appeared in the NY Times last year, “the FEC is failing in its job to ensure that voters know who is behind the rapidly proliferating political advertisements made possible by this extraordinary spending.”

          “[Dark money] is a problem for those on the Democratic side as well as the Republican side. It’s not a partisan question for me,” Ravel said in a recent Center for Public Integrity article. In addition to advocating for greater transparency in campaign donations, Ravel is also outspoken about her desire for the FEC to study the increasingly important role of web-based communications in political campaigns. Although meaningful reform is unlikely given the political climate within the FEC and in Congress, she is using her bully pulpit as FEC Chair to raise awareness about both issues outside of Washington, D.C. and hopes to achieve incremental change during her tenure. 

          She is also partnering with UC Hastings’ Institute for Innovation Law to create a program, the "Future of Technology and Democracy: How Tech is Transforming Voting, Elections and Politics," aimed at understanding the changes in technology and their impact on political campaigns and increasing civic engagement.

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