WHERE I STAND ON THE STATE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY:
We need immediate reform and higher expectations for our lawmakers.
Our republic is broken. Big money has corrupted politics, there are too many obstacles to voting, and undemocratic policies like partisan gerrymandering have made our elected bodies unrepresentative of the American people. And inaction on every single other major issue whether women’s rights, gun control, climate change, growing inequality or criminal justice reform is directly the result of our failed system.
Politics is the only game where the players are also the referees – they set the rules for who gets to vote, where, and when, and, thanks to Citizens United, who gets to pay for access. Since elections are the only performance review for our elected leaders, there's little incentive for incumbents to make those reviews more difficult.
Politics is a marketplace of ideas — without enough buyers and sellers, markets fail to materialize, visions grow stale, and the participants focus on holding their position rather than innovating for the future. If we want new ideas and a new future, we need new candidates and a new electorate. We need more, not less competition.
The voice of the average American citizen is stifled on all sides: the need to finance elections has put politicians in the pockets in private interests and the ultra-wealthy, gerrymandering distorts the will of the people, restrictive voting policies keep too many Americans from being able to vote, and career politicians only listen to a small but vocal group of primary voters, instead of listening to all those they are supposed to represent. Over the last 30 years voting has become harder instead of easier. We need immediate reform and higher expectations for our lawmakers.
Let’s end Citizens United and publicly finance federal elections.
The influence of money is distorting competition and biasing elections. We disagree with the flawed idea that money is speech, and oppose the Constitutional revisionism that has corrupted our democracy. Experts have crafted practical steps to diminish big money’s influence (e.g., systems for citizen funding, 100% transparency in political spending, and eliminating loopholes favoring existing major parties in fundraising). However, a focus on money alone will not transform our political system. The real answer is to reduce the attractive return on investment that donors currently enjoy. Ending Citizens United and implementing publicly financed elections will shift the incentives for politicians to respond to constituents, instead of responding to donors.
The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C. completely changed the landscape of American elections. It further established the legal basis for the idea that “corporations are people” and opened the door for billionaires and special interests to spend unlimited, untraceable money in America’s elections. Now, there’s no accountability at all. No transparency. Billionaires (like the Koch Brothers) and corporations are trying to tip the balance of political power in their favor. A record-setting $6.5 billion was spent in the 2016 elections with more than, with 46% of all dollars spent on federal campaigns coming from Pacs.
Despite her position on the House Financial Services Committee, Carolyn Maloney has taken money from the very financial firms she is charged to regulate. She has taken almost $2 million in her career from the securities & investment industry, and her regular donors include Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Goldman Sachs. Republicans are right to call Democrats hypocrites when we allow corporations to influence our lawmakers in this way.
Between 2010 and 2014 outside spending more than doubled in Senate races, reaching $486 million from external contributors. In 10 competitive 2014 midterm races, outside groups provided 47 percent of total spending, 6% more than the candidates’ 41 percent.
Since 2010, nearly 60% of the $1 billion spent in federal elections by super PACs came from just 195 individuals and their spouses. Thanks to Citizens United, supporters can make the maximum $5,200 donation directly to a candidate, then make unlimited contributions to single-candidate super PACs.
For the 2014 Senate elections, candidates had to raise an average of $3,300 per day, for six years (House candidates needed to raise $1,800 a day in their two-year cycle). The pressure to fundraise means candidates focus on those donors who can provide large donations, to the detriment of their less wealthy constituents. Too many politicians are forced to spend up to 20 hours a week raising money rather than solving our country’s pressing problems.
Politicians of all stripes are beholden to their donors, not the American public. As long as special interest groups and the ultra wealthy continue to bankroll campaigns, they’ll be the only ones getting what they want. Recent research has empirically shown that when the preferences of economic elites and organized interest groups are prioritized, the preferences of the average American appear to have a statistically non-significant impact upon policy change. Although average citizens fairly often get the policies they favor, it is only because those policies happen to be mutually preferred by the ultra wealthy citizens who finance elections.
One way to lessen the amount of money spent in elections would be to limit both individual contributions and overall spending. Those limits, however, have been struck down by the Supreme Court despite 78% opposition from the American public. We need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and we need leaders with the courage to demand it.
Reform cannot wait. We need to amplify the voices of small donors by getting big money out of politics now. That can be accomplished through public financing of elections, which will allow all Americans to have their voice heard in politics, regardless of wealth. In publicly financed elections, the government magnifies the impact of small donors by matching small-dollar donations.
Current proposals for public financing of federal elections gives donors a $25 tax credit for donations of $50, and has the government match contributions at a 5-to-1 ration up to $150, so a $150 dollar donation becomes a $900 donation. Candidates who opt into the system will refuse PAC money, not self-fund, and decline individual donations over $1,000. If the candidate does not receive any donations over $150, they receive a 50% bonus. Public financing has worked well in New York City, and we need to implement this system at the federal level as soon as possible. The future of our democracy depends on it.
We need solutions to prevent and circumvent the impact of gerrymandering.
The redistricting that occurred in 2010 made congressional districts less competitive. The lines were drawn to either protect certain parties or dilute the voting power of certain groups, and had a direct bearing on which issues legislatures choose to tackle or ignore. Partisan gerrymandering unfairly protects incumbents, distorts the impact of actual voters, and prevents real political progress when voters demand it. More seats are affected by partisan gerrymandering now than at any point in the last five cycles of redistricting.
The current federal guidelines for how districts should be drawn require only that each district have roughly the same population (largest and smallest within 10% of each other), that minority voters have an equal opportunity “to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice” in accordance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Some states, like Montana and Iowa have stricter standards for creating more equal districts, as well as their own additional requirements for redistricting. Common requirements include that districts be contiguous and compact, that communities of interest (groups of people with common political, social, or economic interests) be considered in drawing district lines, and that lines be drawn to account for political boundaries between cities, towns, etc.
In general, states vest redistricting authority in either state legislatures, independent commissions, or politician commissions. The vast majority of states rely on state legislatures to draw district lines, and the Governor of these states typically has veto power. Only 6 states use independent commissions, and only 2 use politician commissions for congressional redistricting.
There will always be drawbacks with any redistricting plan: the more districts are designed to be compact and maintain county voting lines, the more likely they are to be dominated by one party; the more districts are designed to be competitive, the more likely that representation will be distorted; the more competitive a state makes its House districts, the more power states that protect their incumbents gain in Congress. Independent nonpartisan commissions coupled with requirements like those used by Iowa are our best chance at forming fair districts that give all voices a chance to be heard.
Embracing alternative solutions could circumvent the impact of gerrymandering. Proportional voting, would eliminate strictly “red” or “blue” blue districts, fairly reflecting the spectrum of voters. This would allow voters to be free to make their choices without fear of "spoilers." Breaking the stranglehold of partisan redistricting on our politics will break the stranglehold of long-term incumbents, special interest groups, and wealthy donors who distort and manipulate our democracy.
Voting must be as easy as possible to ensure greater participation.
Voting rights are under attack nationwide as states pass voter suppression laws. These laws lead to significant burdens for eligible voters trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right. Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans—particularly black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities—to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. These measures include cuts to early voting, voter ID laws, and purges of voter rolls. All of these impact citizens’ ability to vote and voter turnout-resulting in districts being redder or bluer than they really are, silencing critical voting populations.
Despite normal protocol, the Brooklyn office of the NYC Board of Elections purged its voter rolls of nearly 200,000 voters prior to the 2016 election simply because they had not voted since 2008. Many voters showed up at the polls for the primary election and were told they were ineligible to vote, despite being listed as a registered voter on the state’s website. It has been suggested that voter suppression was the main reason behind Trump winning Wisconsin.
Currently on the table is a Homeland Security reauthorization bill that would allow Trump to dispatch Secret Service agents to polling places nationwide during a federal election, including federal elections in which Trump himself may be a candidate. This provision would allow armed federal agents to patrol neighborhood precincts and vote centers. This would foster a fearful environment surrounding voting—something expected in dictatorial regimes, not in our democracy.
We need to remove the unfair participation barriers that Americans face and increase voter engagement. Much of today’s election system was developed more than a century ago. It needs to be updated to sustain a healthy democracy. Every other industry has spent billions of dollars to create secure, convenient, innovative consumer technologies, from Apple Pay to online banking to mobile-based insurance and mortgages. Access to voting, however, has moved in the opposite direction, creating increasing barriers for a growing number of people. In our antiquated electoral system, all ballots (except for absentee) must be cast on a single day.
As Americans’ lives become more complex — for many each day is a struggle to balance the needs of work and family — confining voting to a single 8- or 12-hour period is not practical or reflective of how most voters live. Additionally, the limited time that polls are open for can lead to numerous problems, including long lines that form as poll workers — who perform the job infrequently at best — struggle to cope with hordes of voters. At least 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, have laws enabling citizens some opportunity to vote early and in person without an excuse--New York is not one of these states. Benefits of early voting include reduced stress on the voting system, shorter lines on Election Day, improved poll worker performance, greater access to voting and increased voter satisfaction, early identification and correction of registration errors and voting system glitches..
New York is one of a handful of states that doesn’t allow mail-in or no-excuse absentee voting, constituting one of the most restrictive voting policies in the country. At least 22 states have provisions allowing certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. As of January 2017, three of the 22 states—Oregon (2000), Washington (2011) and Colorado (2013)—hold all elections entirely by mail. California (2016) will begin holding all-mail elections in 2018. Voting by mail increases voter convenience and satisfaction, provides financial savings, and increases turnout. This change simultaneously increases voter participation, saves millions of dollars and makes the postal service relevant again, all benefits desperately needed by public finances and America’s civic health.
Many states allow certain voters to electronically submit their absentee ballots. Sending voted ballots electronically—via fax, email or web portal—is most often reserved for voters who fall under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). Especially after the 2016 election, there has been a public outcry about the security of digital voting, pushing back against the march of progress.
Blockchain technology is the answer to security fears, and could revolutionize voting and elections. The technology can simplify the voting process by verifying voters’ identities and ensuring that they are legally allowed to vote. Blockchain enables agreement on the final count because individuals can count the votes themselves, and the blockchain audit trail verifies that no votes were changed, removed, or illegitimately added. There are already a number of startups who are pioneering voting systems using this technology. Recently, blockchain voting was successfully employed to allow Colombian expatriates to vote, and Australia and Canada have promised pilot programs. We already trust secure digital systems with our banking, and trusting secure digital systems with our voting is the only logical, pro-innovation next step in improving access to voting in our country.
Counterintuitively, studies indicate that Boomers and Gen-Xers are the groups that would most prefer voting by mail or digital voting, Millennials value in person voting more than any generation since the Greatest Generation.
Term limits are necessary for healthy competition in our democracy.
Roughly three quarters of Americans on both sides of the aisle support some sort of term limit. To grow and innovate, we must regularly inject new voices into our democracy. Installing term limits, however, is an uphill battle: for limits to be approved, Congress would need to voluntarily vote itself out of a job. Additionally, federal term limits have been ruled unconstitutional, and it would take a constitutional amendment to change this.24
There are a number of states that currently impose term limits on their state legislators. These states have demonstrated a few things about the impact of term limits: they stimulate electoral competition and enable nontraditional candidates to run, but they weaken the legislature, and promote policies that advance limited government.
While fostering competition and nontraditional candidate participation, efforts to enact term limits must include protection against the possible weakening of legislatures that could occur as a result. Imposing term limits up to 12 years would preserve some seniority structure and institutional memory without handing power over to the executive branch and lobbyists.
The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that our political system isn’t broken. Washington is delivering exactly what it is currently designed to deliver. The real problem is that our political system is not designed to serve the modern public’s interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industry allies.
We must set high expectations for the results we see from our government.
Citizens should expect four outcomes from a healthy political system—ours currently delivers none of them. We should collectively demand:
...Practical and effective solutions to solve our nation’s important problems and expand citizen opportunity.
Solutions are policies that address important problems or expand opportunities for citizens. Solutions actually work and make things better in practice, they address reality, not ideology. Practical and sustainable solutions are not uni-dimensional, but nuanced, and integrate the range of relevant and important considerations involved in virtually every good policy. Solutions weigh and balance points of view across constituencies, and make sound tradeoffs in integrating them. Real solutions almost always require compromise and bipartisanship. While their importance seems obvious, solutions are almost non-existent in America’s political system today.
...Real action. Legislation that matters is legislation that is enacted and implemented. Unfortunately, in the current system the vast majority of promises made by candidates and political leaders never get acted upon. Little serious legislation is even advanced, much less passed.
...Reasonably broad-based buy-in by the citizenry over time. Good solutions should be able to gain reasonably broad-based acceptance and consensus across the population over time. While there will never be 100% support for any policy, true solutions (which most often involve bi-partisanship) are those that can eventually be accepted by a range of constituents across the political spectrum. For this to happen, political leadership is required and must—at times—be ahead of popular opinion (that’s why it’s called leadership). Political competition should educate, unite, and inspire citizens, not divide them. Today, politics is dividing us, not bringing us together.
...Respect the Constitution and the rights of all citizens. In our democracy, good solutions reflect the rights and interests of all Americans, rather than simplistic majority rule. While sometimes this complicates political solutions, it is part of what has made America the remarkable country it has become.
I would also support the following measures:
Establish nonpartisan top-four “jungle” primaries. The current partisan primary system shifts both campaigns and governance toward the extremes. States should move to a single primary ballot for all candidates, regardless of affiliation, and open up primaries to all voters, not just registered party voters.
Institute ranked-choice voting with instant runoff in general elections. This system will ensure that no candidate is elected with less than majority support, resulting in the election of candidates with the broadest appeal to the most voters.
Institute nonpartisan redistricting. Drawing legislative district boundaries must be non-partisan to eliminate artificial advantages for the party in control.
Eliminate partisan control of House and Senate rules and processes. Legislative and governance rules must align the process with the public interest and reduce the ability of parties to control Congressional deliberations and outcomes simply for partisan gain.
Eliminate Incumbency Protection. Incumbents benefit from a deeply entrenched system designed to protect them from competitive elections. Across all reforms, from fighting big money to dismantling gerrymandering, we must target the built-in advantages that shield long-term incumbents from participating in the democratic process.
Open up competition, without waiting for structural reforms. The top two parties should always be operating under a potential threat from competitors that better serve the public interest. These innovations should be implemented now rather than waiting the decade or more it may take to implement all the structural reforms needed.