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Electoral reform in the United States

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Title: Electoral reform in the United States  
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Subject: Deliberation Day, Voting rights in the United States, American Anti-Corruption Act, Electoral geography, Electoral reform in the United States
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Electoral reform in the United States

Electoral reform in the United States refers to efforts to change American elections and the electoral system used in the United States.

Most elections in the U.S. select one person; elections with multiple candidates selected by proportional representation are relatively rare. Typical examples include the U.S. House of Representatives, whose members are elected by a plurality of votes in single-member districts. The number of representatives from each state is set in proportion to each state's population in the most recent decennial census. District boundaries are usually redrawn after each such census. This process often produces "gerrymandered" district boundaries designed to increase and secure the majority of the party in power, sometimes by offering secure seats to members of the opposition party. This is one of a number of institutional features that increase the advantage of incumbents seeking reelection. The United States Senate and the U.S. President are also elected by plurality. However, these elections are not affected by gerrymandering (with the possible exception of presidential races in Maine and Nebraska, whose electoral votes are partially allocated by Congressional district.[1])

Proposals for electoral reform have included overturning Citizens United, public and citizen funding of elections, limits and transparency in funding, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), public or citizen funding of news, a new national holiday called "Deliberation Day" to support voters spending a full day in structured discussions of issues and candidates, abolishing the U.S. Electoral College or nullifying its impact through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and improving Ballot access for third parties, among others. The U.S. Constitution gives states wide latitude to determine how elections are conducted, although some details, such as the ban on poll taxes, are mandated at the federal level.[1]

Cost of problems with the current system

The cost of getting elected, especially to any national office in the US, has been growing. The Federal Elections Commission estimated that "candidates, parties, PACs, super-PACs, and politically active nonprofits" spent a total of $7 billion in 2012. The liberal magazine Mother Jones said that this money was used "to influence races up and down the ballot", noting further that the cost of elections has continued to escalate.[2] The 2010 congressional elections cost roughly $4 billion.[3]

Spending averages just under $3 billion per year for the 4-year presidential election cycle.

This is small relative to what the major campaign contributors, crony capitalists (whether allegedly "liberal" or "conservative"), receive for their money.[4] The Cato Institute found corporate welfare totaling $100 billion in the 2012 U.S. federal budget.[5] This includes only direct subsidies specifically identified in the Cato Institute research. It does not include indirect subsidies like tax breaks,[6] trade barriers, distorting copyright law beyond the "limited time" and other restrictions mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and other distortions of U.S. foreign and defense policies to benefit major corporations and people with substantial financial interests outside the U.S.[7]

Other studies have estimated between $6 and $220 return for each $1 "invested" by major corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals in lobbying and political campaigns.[8]

This rate of return helps escalate the cost of elections. To obtain the money needed for their next election campaign, incumbent politicians spend a substantial portion of their time soliciting money from large donors, who often donate to competing candidates, thereby "buying" access with the one that wins.[9][10]

This $3 billion per year is about $10 for each of the 316 million people in the US, $23 for each of the 130 million people who voted in 2012.

Electoral Reform Proposals

Josh Silver's "Cure for political corruption" divides electoral reforms between campaign finance, lobbying and election administration.[11]

Most of the proposed reforms can be achieved at least in part by legislation, though some require amending the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and related decisions would require a constitutional amendment to change, and several have been proposed. Similarly, some proposed system for campaign finance and / or restrictions on campaign contributions have been declared unconstitutional; implementation of those changes could require a constitutional amendment. However, many other reforms can seemingly be achieved without a constitutional amendment. These include various forms of public financing of political campaigns, disclosure requirements and instant-runoff voting. Even the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College could apparently be eliminated without a constitutional amendment, as outlined below.

Overturning Citizens United

The Citizens United.[13] The web site of United for the People lists 17 constitutional amendments introduced in the 112th United States Congress and 12 introduced by March 13, 2013, in the 113th proposing to overturn Citizens United in different ways.[14]

The Cato Institute is concerned that most proposed responses to Citizens United will give "Congress unchecked new power over spending on political speech, power that will be certainly abused."[15]

Campaign finance reform

Lawrence Lessig said, "On January 20, 2010, the day before Citizens United was decided, our democracy was already broken. Citizens United may have shot the body, but the body was already cold. And any response to Citizens United must also respond to that more fundamental corruption. We must find a way to restore a government 'dependent upon the People alone,' so that we give 'the People' a reason again to have confidence in their government."[16]

Lessig favors systems that share as broadly as possible the decisions about which candidates or initiatives get the funding needed to get their message to the voters. Following Bruce Ackerman, Lessig recommends giving each eligible voter a "Democracy voucher" worth, e.g., $100 each election year that can only be spent on political candidates or issues. The amount would be fixed at roughly double the amount of private money spent in the previous election cycle. Unlike the current Presidential election campaign fund checkoff, the decisions regarding who gets that money would be made by individual citizens.

Lessig also supports systems to provide tax rebates for such contributions or to match small dollar contributions such as the system in New York City that provides a 5-to-1 match for contributions up to $250.[17] To be eligible for money from vouchers, rebates or matching funds, candidates must accept certain limits on the amounts of money raised from individual contributors.

Vouchers, tax rebates, and small dollar matching are called "citizen funding" as opposed to more traditional "public funding", which tasks a public agency with deciding how much money each candidate receives from the government. While the Supreme Court of the United States has already struck down many forms of public funding of political campaigns, there are forms of public and especially citizen financing that seem consistent with the constitution as so far interpreted by the courts and could therefore be secured by standard legislative processes not requiring amending the constitution.

One bill that proposes such a system for U.S. congressional elections is "The Grassroots Democracy Act". It was introduced 14, 2012, by U.S. Representative John Sarbanes as H.R. 6426[18] and reintroduced on Jan 15, 2013 as H. R. 268.[19]

Clean elections, Clean money, and Disclosure

Terms like "Clean elections" and "Clean money" are sometimes used inconsistently. Clean elections typically refers to systems where candidates receive a fixed sum of money from the government to run their campaigns after qualifying by collecting small dollar contributions (e.g., $5) from a large enough group of citizens. Systems of this nature have been tried in Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Connecticut and elsewhere; some of these have been disqualified at least in part by the courts.

"Clean money" is sometimes used as a synonym for clean elections; at other times, it refers to a DISCLOSE Act, requiring disclosure of the sources of campaign funds. The DISCLOSE Act bill in the U.S. Congress seeks "to prohibit foreign influence in Federal elections, to prohibit government contractors from making expenditures with respect to such elections, and to establish additional disclosure requirements with respect to spending in such elections, and for other purposes."

The California clean money campaign [20] is pushing the California DISCLOSE act, which differs substantially from the federal DISCLOSE Act. The California bill would strengthen disclosure requirements for political advertisements. Among other provisions, it requires the top three contributors for any political ad to be identified by name on the ad.[21]

Ackerman and Ayres propose a "secret donation booth", the exact opposite of full disclosure. This system would require that all campaign contributions be anonymously given through a government agency. Their system would give donors a few days to change their minds and withdraw or change the recipient of a donation; it would also add a random time delay to ensure that the recipients of donations could never know for sure the source of the funds they receive.[22]

Citizen funding of news

Media scholar Robert W. McChesney and others see a problem they believe is bigger than campaign finance and will not be solved by citizen-funded elections: The media. Citizens cannot defend their interests if the news they consume does not adequately cover the issues that concern them. Research by economists and political scientist has found that more vigorous media with more aggressive investigative journalists tends to reduce political corruption and could presumably reduce the $100 billion per year found by the Cato Institute[23] or the larger estimates of the "Cost of problems with the current system" mentioned above.

Media bias in the United States is driven in part by its business model: Advertising rates are set by the size (purchasing power) of the audience. The most successful media companies provide content that attracts the largest possible audience that both increases sales and manufactures consent (or avoids stirring up opposition) for the political agendas of major advertisers. Commercial media organizations have lost revenue and profitability when advertisers moved their marketing communications to other outlets.

The substantial consolidation of ownership of the media in the 1990s encouraged the resulting oligopoly to virtually eliminate investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is expensive with an uncertain return. Worse, almost anything that serious journalists would investigate could involve favors received by some special interest in return for their massive campaign contributions. This means that commercial media companies cannot afford to create a media feeding frenzy from any issue that concerns a major advertiser; this limits the news space (print space or air time) that can be devoted to any one story. "A five-year study of investigative journalism on TV news completed in 2002 determined that investigative journalism has all but disappeared from the nation's commercial airwaves."[24] This profoundly limits the ability of citizens to understand current events well enough to defend their interests.

McChesney and Nichols recommended a "citizenship news voucher", whereby "every American adult gets a $200 voucher ... to donate ... to any nonprofit news medium".[25] [26]

A similar system involves "public commissioning" of news. Dan Hind said, "Journalists, academics and citizen researchers would post proposals for funding" investigative journalism on a particular issue with a public trust funded from taxes or license fees. "These proposals would be made available online and in print in municipal libraries and elsewhere. ... The public would then vote for the proposals it wanted to support.[27]

The U.S. subsidized news almost from the founding of the republic. McChesney (2004, p. 33) noted that the United States Constitution "gave Congress the power 'to establish Post Offices and Post Roads'", primarily to educate the electorate. "The resulting Post Office Act of 1792" heavily subsidized the distribution of newspapers. "In 1794 newspapers made up 70 percent of post office traffic; by 1832 the figure had risen to well over 90 percent." The functioning of democracy in the U.S. would likely improve if changes increased the quality of information available to citizens.

Deliberation Day

Ackerman has also proposed a new national holiday he calls "[28] This new national holiday was expected to encourage people to look for information beyond the sound bites, increasing demand for substantive investigative journalism, helping to encourage greater citizen involvement in politics on election day and beyond.

Instant-runoff voting

Many jurisdictions around the world use a system called Instant-runoff voting (IRV) or "ranked choice voting". Each voter would rank all the available options. If one option is ranked first by a majority of voters, it wins. Otherwise, the option obtaining the least number of votes is eliminated, and the options ranked second by those voters get those votes.

IRV is being promoted in the U.S. by numerous individuals and organizations. One of these is FairVote, which provides a long list of "endorsers" of IRV, including President Obama, Senator John McCain, policy analyst Michael E. Arth, the Green and Libertarian parties, a dozen state chapters of the League of Women Voters, four state chapters of the Democratic Party, the Republican party of Alaska, and many others.[29] It is currently being used in some jurisdictions in the U.S.

Abolishing the Electoral College

There have long been concerns about problems with the Electoral College method of selecting the President and Vice President. Under this system the party that wins a plurality in a given state gets all that state's electoral votes. (In Maine and Nebraska, the plurality rule applies by congressional district.)

Modern polling has allowed the presidential campaigns to divide the nation into "Swing" or "Battleground" states and states with near-certain victories for either the Republican or Democratic candidates: The campaigns then increases their chances of winning by focusing primarily on swing states. This effectively disfranchises voters in other states to the extent that their concerns differ from swing states.

Officially abolishing the Electoral College would require amending the U.S. Constitution. However, the same effect could be achieved if the Electoral College representatives from states with a majority of the electoral votes were all committed to vote for the presidential slate that achieved a plurality (or the majority after Instant-runoff voting): Presidential candidates would then have to compete for votes in all 50 states, not just the swing states, typically less than a dozen of the 50.

This is the idea behind the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Between 2007 and 2014, eleven states with electoral votes totaling 165 had approved the compact. To take effect it must be approved by states with electoral votes totaling 270, just over half of the 538 current total electoral votes.

Close the "Revolving door"

One potential source of political corruption is people changing jobs between industry and government, known as the revolving door. This practice could benefit society by allowing both government and industry to act with better understanding of the other. Unfortunately, the record of regulatory capture includes many sordid examples of regulators and legislators acting in ways that benefit industry to the detriment of the public. Current U.S. law imposes waiting periods on certain government officials taking jobs with industries over which they have had decision making authority. However, the restrictions do not apply to many high-level policy makers, where such restrictions could be most needed.[30]

The proposed American Anti-Corruption Act[31] includes provisions to "prevent job offers as bribes" by requiring members of congress and their senior staff to wait 5 years after leaving government before they can work for a lobbying firm or a company over which they had decision making authority.

Prohibit legislators from acting to benefit industries contributing to their election

The proposed American Anti-Corruption Act[31] includes provisions to "Prohibit members of Congress from soliciting and receiving contributions from any industry or entity they regulate". It would also prohibit federal government contractors from contributing to the election of any candidate or party.


In the United States House of Representatives and many other legislative bodies such as city councils, the members are elected from districts, whose boundaries are changed periodically using a process known as redistricting. When this process is manipulated to benefit a particular political party or incumbent, the result is known as Gerrymandering.

Organizations promoting changes in redistricting include  

Organizations supporting specific reforms

Many organizations support some variant of at least one of the reforms mentioned above. Some of these are identified in the following table.

Organization Citizens United Campaign finance Disclose Citizen-funded news IRV Electoral College mimic popular vote revolving door Other
Common Cause ?[32] 4-1 match of small $[33] *[34] *[35] 2 years for any industry job[36]
Public Citizen Corporations are not people[37] Fair Elections Now Act[37] *[37] *[38] ?[39]
Move to Amend **[40] *[41]
United for the People[42] *[43]
People for the American Way *[44]
National Popular Vote *[45]
Rootstrikers *[46] Citizen funding[47] *[48] No lobbying pledge[49]
United Republic *[50] Citizen funding[51] *[51] 5 years for representatives and senior staff[51] Prohibit incumbents from action favoring major campaign contributors[51]
FairVote *[52] *[53]

Electoral reform in specific states

There are separate electoral reform efforts in several states. These include Electoral reform in California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington state.


External links


  1. ^ a b Arth, Michael E., Democracy and the Common Wealth: Breaking the Stranglehold of the Special Interests, Golden Apples Media, 2010, ISBN 978-0-912467-12-2.
  2. ^ Kroll, Andy (February 1, 2013), "The 2012 Election's Price Tag: $7 Billion", Mother Jones, retrieved June 15, 2013 
  3. ^ Kurtzleben, Danielle (November 9, 2010), "$4 Billion in Election Spending a Drop in the Bucket", US News and World Report, retrieved June 16, 2013  Levinthal, Dave (November 4, 2010), "Bad News for Incumbents, Self-Financing Candidates in Most Expensive Midterm Election in U.S. History", OpenSecretsblog (Center for Responsive Politics), retrieved June 16, 2013 
  4. ^ v:Documenting crony capitalism; v:Category:Documenting crony capitalism
  5. ^ DeHaven, Tad (2014-07-01), Corporate Welfare in the Federal Budget, Policy Analysis (703), Cato Institute, retrieved 2014-09-01 
  6. ^ c.f. Double Irish arrangement
  7. ^ In any nation, the primary constituency for foreign policy are those with financial interests outside the country. The former Speaker of the U.S. House political economy had been managed to benefit all equally, as it had been from the end of World War II to 1970, during which period the rate of economic growth was slightly higher than it has been more recently.
  8. ^ Lessig (2011, p. 117)
  9. ^ Tom Ashbrook (January 2, 2012), "Lawrence Lessig on Money, Corruption and Politics", 90.9 wbur (Boston's NPR), retrieved 2012-01-23 
  10. ^ Herrnson and Facheaux (2000) surveyed almost 2,000 candidates for office in the late 1990s. They found that the time devoted to fundraising tended to increase with the amount of funds raised and the level of the office. They estimated that 23.3 percent of candidates for statewide office spend over half their time fundraising and 55 percent spend over a quarter of their time. Local and judicial candidates need less money, and less than 6 percent of them spend over half their time asking for campaign contributions. Facheaux, Ronald A.; Herrnson, Paul S. (July 7, 2000), Candidates devote substantial time and effort to fundraising, retrieved February 10, 2013 
  11. ^ Silver, Josh (March 19, 2013). "Discovered: A Cure for Political Corruption". Huffington Post. Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  12. ^ Resolutions & Ordinances, Move to Amend, retrieved June 15, 2013 
  13. ^ United for the People (web page), United for the People, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  14. ^ Federal amendments (web page), United for the People, retrieved June 23, 2013 
  15. ^ Move to Defend: The Case against the Constitutional Amendments Seeking to Overturn Citizens United, Policy Analysis No. 724, Cato Institute, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  16. ^  
  17. ^   Malbin et al. established that the matching system used by New York City was associated with a statistically significant change in the demographics of donors. They did not, however, attempt to evaluate any change in the quality of governance.
  18. ^  
  19. ^  
  20. ^ California DISCLOSE Act (web page), California clean money campaign, retrieved June 16, 2013 
  21. ^ SB-52 Political Reform Act of 1974: campaign disclosures (web page), retrieved June 16, 2013 
  22. ^ Ackerman and Ayres (2002)
  23. ^ DeHaven, Tad (2014-07-01), Corporate Welfare in the Federal Budget, Policy Analysis (703), Cato Institute, retrieved 2014-09-01 
  24. ^ McChesney (2004, p. 81)
  25. ^  
  26. ^   See also Ackerman (2013).
  27. ^ Hind (2010), pp. 159-160, ch. 10. Public Commissioning
  28. ^ Ackerman (2013)
  29. ^ Endorsers of Instant Runoff Voting (web page), 2012, retrieved June 17, 2013 
  30. ^ Leslie Wayne, Pentagon Brass and Military Contractors' Gold" The New York Times (June 29, 2004). Retrieved 2008-01-03
  31. ^ a b  
  32. ^ Common Cause supports the  
  33. ^ Fair elections now (web page), Common Cause, retrieved June 21, 2013 
  34. ^ DISCLOSE Act (web page), Common Cause, retrieved June 21, 2013 
  35. ^ Electing our President with National Popular Vote (web page), Common Cause, retrieved June 21, 2013 
  36. ^ Take action: Close the revolving door (web page), Common Cause, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  37. ^ a b c Citizens UnitedPublic Citizen Presses to Overturn (web page), Public Citizen, retrieved June 21, 2013 
  38. ^ Election Reform (web page), Public Citizen, retrieved June 21, 2013 
  39. ^ Defines 3 types of revolving door: industry-to-government, government-to-industry, and government-to-lobbyist, but without clearly recommending specific reforms.Revolving door (web page), Public Citizen, retrieved June 21, 2013 
  40. ^ The primary focus of Move to Amend is a constitutional amendment saying that corporations are not people and money is not speech.Move to Amend's Proposed 28th Amendment to the Constitution (web page), Move to Amend, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  41. ^ Disclosure is good but not enough.Citizens United v. America's Citizens A Voter's Guide (web page), Move to Amend, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  42. ^ Umbrella organization of some 144 organizations supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn  
  43. ^ Supports local and state resolutions to amend the constitution to overturn  
  44. ^ Government by the People (web page), People for the American Way, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  45. ^ National Popular Vote (web page), National Popular Vote, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  46. ^ Rootstrikers generally supports overturning Citizens United but has not made it a central issue. Rootstrikers founder  
  47. ^ Rootstrikers aims to "reduce the role of special interest money in elections." Republic, Lost by Rootstrikers founder Lawrence Lessig advocates "democracy vouchers" (ch. 16).
  48. ^ Disclose Act Becomes Just Another Political Football (web page), Rootstrikers, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  49. ^ Rootstrikers are asking their elected officials to sign the "No lobbying pledge", including, "I pledge that I will not become a lobbyist when I leave Congress." The No Lobbying Pledge (web page), Rootstrikers, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  50. ^ Overturning Citizens United Isn’t Enough (web page), United Republic, retrieved June 22, 2013 
  51. ^ a b c d The American Anti-corruption Act (web page), United Republic, retrieved June 23, 2013 
  52. ^ Instant Runoff Voting (web page), FairVote, retrieved June 23, 2013 
  53. ^  
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