Over the past four years we have seen a broad progressive movement emerge on a grand scale. Although it did not stop Bush on Nov. 2, this relatively new movement was able to deliver at least a 49 percent vote against the ultra-right. Key components, including the AFL-CIO, NOW, the NAACP, and others, have already begun strategizing as to how to move forward.

The ultra-right has already launched a counter-offensive. The IRS has threatened the NAACP, and the Service Employees International Union has been targeted for investigation for violation of election laws.

Unfortunately, the Federal Elections Campaign Act contains rules that severely curtail, and even make illegal, certain aspects of this coalition. The rules have been in effect since the early 1970s, but the negative provisions were strengthened, under the guise of eliminating “special interests” from financing elections, by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (aka the McCain-Feingold Act).

McCain-Feingold purports to make elections fair and free from the control of “special interests,” by capping donations from individuals and organizations, curtailing “soft money” — money that goes to issues-oriented advertisements that favor one candidate over another — and so on. The law is long and complex, but some “highlights” are in order.

The amount of money that a political action committee (PAC) or political party district or local committee can contribute to a campaign for federal office is limited to $5,000 (for now — it is indexed to inflation). Therefore, the maximum a union can give to a campaign committee is $10,000 — $5,000 from a local and $5,000 from the international. These spending limits include “donations in kind,” meaning that if a union lends its hall for use by a campaign committee, the amount it would cost to rent the hall is taken out of the amount the organization’s PAC can contribute.

While there are fewer than 100 labor PACs that could give money to a federal campaign, there are hundreds or thousands of corporate PACs. This puts the unions at a multi-million-dollar disadvantage.

Also, the maximum an individual can give is $2,000. Most workers can’t afford to give this much, but individuals tied to corporate interests certainly can.

Moreover, these rules do not stop news organizations like Fox News from nakedly campaigning for certain candidates.

A case study of how the law weakens progressive campaigns is the Frank Barbaro for Congress campaign in Brooklyn and Staten Island, N.Y., in which I volunteered.

The Barbaro campaign was initiated by labor and attracted to it all the sectors of the population necessary to build a real people’s movement. It enjoyed support from nearly all of the main unions in New York City, the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered community, the African American community, women’s groups, and others. Three political parties, including the Democratic and Working Families parties, endorsed Barbaro. Richmond County (Staten Island) is the most heavily unionized county per-capita in the nation. All of this should have led to a powerful, united coalition, and a sure victory.

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

While election law allows unions to do political activity amongst their membership, anything outside of that is considered a campaign contribution. Also, it is illegal for unions, political parties, and campaign committees to coordinate. For example, while the campaign and labor unions may all have their own phone banking operations — the campaign calling members of the community in general, and labor calling its own members — the two entities are banned from sharing their lists to avoid calling some people three or four times and missing other people entirely.

A Barbaro volunteer who is a union member came into the office with a piece of literature that had been mailed to his house from the state AFL-CIO, and said that someone from his union had also visited his home. Apparently, this mailing had gone out to all union members on the island, and many union families had been visited, but we had no way of knowing who. If we had been allowed to coordinate with labor, we would have been able to focus on members of the community who were not already being reached by their unions.

In effect, at least three separate campaigns were run, barred by law from coordinating with each other — the Barbaro campaign itself, the Working Families Party, and the vast armies of labor. With their resources pooled, this could have been an invincible coalition. But because of current election laws, it was fragmented and redundant.

While we must fight to abolish the Electoral College and to count every vote, we need to reform federal election law so that it truly defends the people from the multi-million-dollar corporate interests, yet allows a people’s coalition to emerge in an organized fashion.

Dan Margolis is on the staff of the People’s Weekly World.