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Enforcing foreign money ban in U.S. elections on hold without quorum at FEC

The Federal Election Commission's mandate is to ensure that campaign financing is transparent and election laws are obeyed. Intended to have six members, the agency currently has only three -- and as a result, is unable to pursue the hundreds of election-related enforcement matters before it. Judy Woodruff sits down with the chair of the FEC, Ellen Weintraub, to discuss the current limitations.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The 2020 elections are not far away, but right now, the agency in charge of enforcing campaign finance laws, the Federal Election Commission, is largely unable to function.

    The departure of the Republican vice chair last month leaves the commission with just three members today, a Republican, an independent, and a Democrat, when it needs four members to have a quorum.

    Yesterday, Judy Woodruff sat down with the remaining Democrat on the panel, the chair of the FEC, Ellen Weintraub.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chairman Ellen Weintraub, thank you very much for talking with us.

    So, in a nutshell, what should the American people know about what the Federal Election Commission does?

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    Judy, the Federal Election Commission is the original follow-the-money agency.

    We were set up in the aftermath of Watergate to make sure that the American people know who is funding the political campaigns that they are seeing every day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, normally, you're supposed to have, by law, six commissioners. You are down to three right now, a Democrat, a Republican, and an independent.

    What does that mean in terms of what you were able to do and what you're not able to do?

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    Well, the good news is that we have a terrific staff, and they are continuing to come to work and do their jobs every day, and most of the work does get done by the staff.

    But the decisions that the agency has to make, those have to be made by a minimum of four commissioners. And, right now, as you pointed out, we only have three. We have roughly 250 enforcement matters that are in the — somewhere in the hopper, and we need commissioners present in order to conclude those matters and make decisions, so that these things aren't hanging over a politician's head, and the American people understand who has violated the law and who hasn't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what's an example of something that's not getting done?

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    Well, we have over 30 complaints that are sitting in the House right now that allege foreign national money being spent in our elections.

    That is flatly illegal. And they are important allegations that the commission has previously said they would prioritize. But we can't address them right now. And we don't know. Some of them may be completely unsubstantiated, but some of them may be serious allegations that require investigation or sanction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you can't decide on whether to investigate until you have your complement of commissioners?

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in connection with that, the president said in June that he would be willing to accept information about his political opponents even if it was given to him by a foreign government.

    You quickly warned — you put out a statement that this would be illegal. Expand on that. What were you saying?

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    Well, not talking about any individual, but the rule of law is that it is absolutely illegal for anyone to accept or receive or solicit assistance from a foreign government, for any foreign national to assist in our elections.

    We have a flat ban on foreign spending in our elections. It's important for American citizens to know that we are in charge of our own elections. We are the ones making the decisions. We are the ones funding the politicians. We are the ones who ultimately take responsibility for our own government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And another point that President Trump has been making really for a very long time, and that is claimed continued — repeated claims of voter fraud in this country.

    There was a recent USA Today poll that found four in 10 voters have little or no confidence that next year's election in 2020 is going to be conducted in a fair way.

    Should the American people trust that it will be conducted in a fair way?

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    Well, I think election administration is being conducted throughout the country by a lot of dedicated public servants working at the state and local level.

    And they are, I'm sure, going to do their darndest to make sure that the election is carried out properly. But there are a lot of risks that we know about right now. We know that foreign governments are trying to attack our elections. We know that people have difficulty voting sometimes.

    There is one scholar who looked at every election between 2000 and 2014, over a billion votes, and found only 31 credible possibilities of voter fraud.

    Now, the problem with talking about voter fraud, when it is unsubstantiated, is that there is a risk that measures will be adopted that will make it harder, that will impose obstacles on legitimate American citizens exercising their right to vote.

    Right now, if we get over 60 percent participation in any election, that's considered good turnout. And we need to have more people participating, civically engaged and making their choices, so that the government represents them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coming back to the Federal Election Commission, again, you only have three commissioners. You need six. You need four to have a quorum. You don't — you don't have that.

    I assume you have made the case to the White House, we need these appointments.

    What's the response you get?

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    Well, I don't want to talk about any communications that I have had.

    But I have publicly stated, and I will take this opportunity to state again, that we need to get new commissioners on board. It needn't take very long. It could happen very quickly. If the president and the Senate are motivated, we could get new nominees nominated and confirmed in fairly short order.

    The vice chairman, who recently resigned, when he was originally nominated, he was confirmed 12 days later. So we could get back up to speed very quickly, and we should.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ellen Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, thank you very much.

  • Ellen Weintraub:

    Thank you, Judy.

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