Electoral and Political Reform

Campaign and Electoral Reform is a “Root Cause” Issue!
What Should We Do to Reform the System?

Campaign and Electoral Reform is a “Root Cause” Issue!

Would it bother you to learn that when freshman Members of Congress arrive for orientation, one of the first things they are taught is that to stay in office, they need to raise thousands of dollars per week for the rest of their Congressional career?  It should.  A political system that forces our elected leaders to prioritize fundraising over governing, or pleasing corporate donors over getting out to hear the concerns of their constituents, is not only dysfunctional, but also unsustainable if we are to truly remain the democratic republic that we (think) we are.  To that end, we must reform our campaign and election laws, and challenge the courts to do their part to uphold real democracy.

Campaign and electoral reform is a root issue that affects every other issue.  Think about it:

  • Have to spend half your day fundraising? Then you have less time to become a policy expert or read — or at least understand — legislation before you.
  • Have to raise $10-12 thousand dollars a week? Then you have less time to meet and hear from constituents. And not only that — from constituents of more modest means and without the connections that you’ll be surely seeing at your fundraisers.
  • Only meeting the constituents who can “afford” to meet you? Then you’ll only be hearing from constituents with very particular interests, and are de-facto denying access to most of our constituency.
  • Taking large sums of money from questionable special interests and corporations? Then psychologically you WILL feel a need to provide them special consideration so they’ll continue to donate

It’s a trap, and certainly not why most people run for office. I’ve known hundreds of politicians. I can’t remember meeting one that ran for office other than for a deep desire to serve and make a real policy difference.  It’s not their fault.  It’s the system. But they are responsible for changing it — and too many fail to even try.

What Should We Do to Reform the System?

  • Overturn the Conservative Supreme Court’s misguided “Citizen’s United” decision

You know something is wrong in this country when the Supreme Court has ruled that money = speech and that corporations = people.  With Citizen’s United, the Supreme Court ended all limits on campaign donations and fundraising, and created an era of “Dark Money” and Super PACs.  We as a nation must systematically work towards reversing this decision.  In the article linked below, renowned California political reformer Derek Cressman lays out 7 ways we can overturn Citizen’s United, and has some other thoughts on how we view political reform. The passage is excerpted from his excellent book, “When Money Talks: The High Price of ‘Free’ Speech and the Selling of Democracy.”

Derek Cressman’s 7 Steps to Overturning Citizen’s United

  • In California, we must immediately pass The Disclose Act, which would do the following (below), and work to get similar legislation passed throughout the country
    • Requires the three largest funders of political ads to be clearly identified for five seconds at the beginning of the ads, so voters know who is actually paying for them.
    • Applies to all television ads, radio ads, print ads, mass mailers, online ads, billboards, and websites for or against state and local ballot measures, to third party ads for and against state and local candidates, and to issue advocacy advertisements. It applies whether ads are paid for by corporations, unions, or millionaires.
    • Tells voters where to find the details — Requires ads to list a website that prominently lists the ten largest funders and a link to all funders of $10,000 or more (for state races)
    • Source: The California Clean Money Campaign. Here’s additional summary from the group:  http://www.caclean.org/content/pdf/ccmc_sb52_provisions.pdf 
  • Support the Public Funding of elections, or “Voter Owned” Elections 
    • Groups like the California Clean Money Campaign, Public Citizen, and other grassroots organizations have devised a novel approach that I support called “Clean Money, Fair Elections.”  In this system, a candidate has two choices. A) Run under the existing election laws of a particular state or jurisdiction, or; B) Run as a “Clean Money” candidate. A Clean Money candidate agrees to forgo fundraising from corporate or other big donor funding sources and agrees to try and qualify for a set sum of money that isn’t as high as private fundraising may offer, but is enough to be competitive for whatever size district they’re running for or the size of the state they’re running in. They qualify during a preliminary period by gathering a set number of signatures and accompanying $5 contributions from voters that live IN that district or State (if running statewide). The qualification number grows based on the size of the district. E.G., a California State Assembly campaign may have to receive 500-600 signatures and $5 contributions; State Senate 1000-1200, Statewide may be, say 15,000-20,000.
    •  Another approach is to adopt, as we have in Los Angeles, a Matching Funds Program, where candidates for City Council and Citywide office, if they reach certain private fundraising thresholds, receive $4 for every $1 they raise at certain intervals of the campaign.  This is a worthy system that is supported by Common Cause, but I would advocate it only really works if the match is at least as generous as 4-1, and unlike “Clean Money,” it still requires a good deal of private fundraising.

Public funding is essential if we are truly serious about freeing candidates from the full time bondage of private fundraising, which creates a system where even the best intended, full integrity candidates must consider the wishes of their largest or most consistent donors, thus giving them more access than the average voter.  Republicans call this “Welfare for Politicians.”  But isn’t our CURRENT SYSTEM just “Corporate and Big Money Welfare for Politicians?!”  Wouldn’t you rather the assistance be from the public than well-heeled special interests?

  • Adopt Ranked Choice Voting, or “Instant Run-off” Voting

Ranked choice voting (RCV)/Instant Run-off describes a voting system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates able to combine strong first choice support with the ability to earn second and third choice support.

RCV is straightforward for voters: rank candidates in order of choice. Voters can rank as many candidates as they want, without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate. Exit polls and ballot analyses from ranked choice voting elections demonstrate that voters overwhelmingly understood how to rank candidates.

It is currently used in jurisdictions in California, Maine, Minnesota, and Maryland. (Source: FairVote.org)


Once again, I’ll let the good folks at FairVote(.org) spell out the tremendous advantages of RCV / Instant Run-off Voting:

  • Saves Money By Replacing Primaries or Runoffs

Many local offices are elected in two rounds of elections; either a primary winnowing the field to two followed by a general election, or a general election followed by a runoff if no candidate has a majority. In either case, the election that takes place outside of the context of the general Election Day often suffers from very weak and unrepresentative turnout, while raising issues of vote splitting in the first round and the possibility of disenfranchising overseas and military voters. Ranked choice voting can accomplish the benefits of a primary/runoff election structure with only one election, avoiding these issues while saving the taxpayers the costs of running two elections. That’s why ranked choice voting is often called “instant runoff voting” when used to elect mayors, governors, and other single-winner offices.

TF Note: It also saves the candidates from two massive fundraising periods. Only one election in November. Period.

  • Promotes Majority Support

Too often, candidates can and do win election to offices like Mayor and Governor despite being opposed by most voters. With ranked choice voting, if no candidate has more than half the vote in first-choices, candidates finishing last are eliminated round-by-round in an instant runoff until two candidates are left. The winning candidate will be the one with majority support when matched against the other. In a multi-winner election, ranked choice voting promotes majority rule because the majority of voters will always be able to elect a majority of seats, without fear that an entrenched minority has used gerrymandered districts to ensure they stay in office.

  • Discourages Negative Campaigning

In non-ranked choice voting elections, candidates can benefit from “mud-slinging” — attacking an opponent’s character instead of sharing their positive vision with voters. With ranked choice voting, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents (TF: If you aren’t going to get someone’s first choice vote, you certainly want to be their second choice) A comprehensive Rutgers University poll of voters in 7 cities with ranked choice voting found that voters report friendlier campaigns and that RCV had majority support in all of the cities using it.

  • Provides More Choice for Voters

Democracy is strongest when more voices are heard. Too often, to avoid “vote splitting” in which candidates can and do win with very little support (see “Promotes Majority Support” above), efforts are taken to limit the number of candidates who compete. This limits voters’ choices. In some places, that means a low turnout primary election eliminates most of the candidates; in others it means restrictive ballot access laws keep out challengers; and in others it means that candidates are shamed into staying out the race. Ranked choice voting allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote.

  • Minimizes Strategic Voting

Voters should be able to vote for candidates they support, not just against candidates they oppose most. Yet in elections without ranked choice voting, voters may feel that they need to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” because their favorite candidate is less likely to win. With ranked choice voting, you can honestly rank candidates in order of choice without having to worry about how others will vote and who is more or less likely to win.

  • Mitigates Impact of Money in Politics

Too often, candidates win by barraging opponents with a slew of expensive, negative ads, rather than building a positive, grassroots campaign for support. Candidates who have run and won in ranked choice voting elections have been successful because they built grassroots outreach networks. Those more positive and inclusive campaign tactics cost less than polarizing negative radio and television elections, helping to explain why candidates seem able to win ranked choice voting elections even when outspent.

  • Promotes Reflective Representation

Compared to winner-take-all elections, ranked choice voting in multi-winner contests allows more diverse groups of voters to elect candidates of choice. This promotes diversity of political viewpoint as well as diversity of candidate background and demographics. Even in single-winner races, ranked choice voting can promote the representation of historically under-represented groups like racial and ethnic minorities and women. A report co-authored by FairVote and the New America Foundation found that racial minority populations prefer ranked choice voting and find it easy to use, and that ranked choice voting increased turnout by 2.7 times in San Francisco.

  • Eliminate the Electoral College and Let the Popular Vote Decide the Presidency

Imagine your a proud Democrat from Atlanta, or a rock-ribbed Republican from California. Do you think you’ll ever see your party’s presidential candidate hold a big rally to excite your party faithful during a Presidential Election?  No.  Because traditionally, Democrats aren’t going to win Georgia, and with the demographic shifts in California since the 1990s, Republicans may never again win CA. We in California only really see Presidential candidates come in to fund raise from our wealthiest residents.  We’ve even turned into grassroots organizers in neighboring Nevada because CA is already decided come Election Day. Do you think the folks in Nevada like that?  Millions of members of each party are left to merely spectate.

I believe it is very dangerous to have a Democratic President that only speaks to about 19-20 states, or a Republican that only speaks to the other 30-31. Because then you have a president who really only governs for the residents of “their” states.  If we elected Presidents by popular vote, a Democrat would likely travel to Atlanta — or Birmingham, Indianapolis, Nashville, or any big city in Texas — to whip up as many total VOTES as possible in areas where millions of Democrats actually live. Same goes for the Republicans who would now hold rallies in the Bay Area, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, and Portland (both).  Isn’t this a more American way to go in conducting a Presidential Election?!

Under our current Electoral College system, the problems facing residents of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, New Hampshire, and other swing states will ALWAYS be more important to presidential candidates than the problems in other states, or overall problems facing all Americans.  This is no way to govern a country, and yet our Presidential Election system builds-in winners and losers among the states — swing states become the “winners” and “favorites” and get all of the attention.  It’s just wrong, and it has to go.

  • Require the SEC to Report Political Spending of Public Companies

To help balance the effects of the Supreme Court’s disastrous “Citizen’s United” decision, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Wall St.’s “regulator,” must be required by Congress to monitor, post to the public, and report to Congress the annual political spending (donations, money dedicated to lobbying) of all companies traded publicly on an open market. The SEC, it should come has no surprise, has resisted doing this despite it’s Chairperson being appointed by President Obama.