By Ben Raderstorf and Charlotte Hill
During the 2018 midterm elections, a plurality of poll respondents described “corruption in Washington” as the most important issue they wanted candidates to talk about. That is to say, more voters said corruption was their do-or-die issue than healthcare, the economy, immigration, or Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 60 percent of independent voters in swing districts saw the Republican Party as the more corrupt option—a trend that almost certainly helped Democrats win the House.
This corruption fever is undoubtedly tied to President Trump; his web of corruption scandals overshadows his administration to an extent not seen since Nixon. But voters’ concerns about corruption also predate this presidency. The proportion of Americans on both sides of the aisle who are fed up with how Washington works has grown dramatically for decades. According to Sarah Chayes, a renowned scholar of corruption, President Trump’s election was an angry rejection of a perceived “rigged system” not unlike other spasmatic extremist and populist movements around the world. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are only the most catastrophic examples of this growing global pattern.
Enter the nearly two dozen Democratic candidates jockeying for the chance to end the Trump era in American politics. In response to the electorate’s anti-corruption, pro-democracy fervor, most candidates are pitching creative policies on elections, campaign finance, lobbying, ethics, and voting rights. Amid this sea of reform proposals, a few stand out as especially high-impact—that is, if they are ever implemented.
Elizabeth Warren: Close the revolving door
For anyone unfamiliar with the senior senator from Massachusetts, she has policies. A lot of them. Her most ambitious government reform idea takes aim at the swampiest of Washington’s creatures: the lobbying industry. Among other things, her plan would permanently ban senators and congresspeople from serving as lobbyists and impose tighter restrictions on lobbyists serving in government. Research suggests that lobbyists’ ability to influence policy is about more than just the campaign donations they and their clients bring to the table. In particular, the incentive they give sitting lawmakers to maintain good private-sector relationships—in order to improve their own career prospects after leaving office—is intense and pervasive. By shutting down this pipeline, Warren’s plan would visibly combat one of the least popular aspects of American politics.
Kirsten Gillibrand: $600 vouchers to fix campaign finance
Perhaps no other candidate has sought to make transparency, accountability, and campaign finance reform as central to their political brand as Kirsten Gillibrand. Her flagship idea, which she’s calling the Clean Elections plan, would give each voter $600 in “democracy vouchers,” which could be donated to any federal candidate on the ballot in the voter’s state. This would be a dramatic national expansion of Seattle’s successful voucher program, a pilot experiment implemented in 2017, and would be paid for by cutting tax loopholes for CEOs. Seattle’s voucher program dramatically diversified its donor pool, drawing in a new set of young, female, non-white, and low-income donors. Gillibrand’s goal is to drown the post-Citizens United wave of big money in politics with an even bigger wave of small donations.
Kamala Harris: A new Voting Rights Act
When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, it opened a powder keg of partisan furor over voter suppression, electoral fairness, and the potential for race-based discrimination. As voter ID laws, voter purges, and gerrymandering become increasingly central to our politics, the next president can and should spearhead a national effort to guarantee the right to vote everywhere. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor and attorney general, has been particularly vocal about voter suppression and has called for a new and updated Voting Rights Act. In theory, the idea is a no-brainer: the Court only struck down the formula for how the original VRA was applied, not the law itself, so all Congress needs to do is write a new formula that withstands Court scrutiny.
Bernie Sanders: Let incarcerated citizens vote
Like Harris, Sanders has argued for a new Voting Rights Act and sharply criticized voter suppression. But in a recent CNN town hall, Sanders raised the ante, calling for all 2.3 million currently incarcerated people to be guaranteed the right to vote. While other candidates have argued that formerly incarcerated people should automatically have their voting rights restored, Sanders’ more expansive proposal was greeted mostly with hesitation and criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike—and most voters oppose the idea. Still, his comments have opened a healthy new debate about whether participation in the democratic process is a right or a privilege.
Cory Booker: Make voting convenient
Among a long list of voting rights proposals, Cory Booker has emphasized a key trifecta of reforms proven to expand participation: automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and early voting. Especially when implemented together, these gold-standard voting policies are proven to expand voter turnout, especially among low-propensity voting blocs such as minority voters and young people. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia already have automatic voter registration—Booker’s plan would force the other 33 to catch up.
Andrew Yang: Ranked choice voting
One of the buzziest ideas in democracy reform circles these days is deceptively simple: switching to ranked choice voting. The idea is straightforward. Instead of choosing just one favorite candidate, you rank the candidates in order of how much you like them. If someone wins the majority of first-choice votes, they win, same as now. But if multiple candidates split the vote and no one wins a majority, then the least popular candidate gets eliminated—and whoever voted for them has their vote automatically reallocated to their second choice (and so on until someone emerges as the true majority winner). It’s a technical change, but the implications for our elections are far-reaching. Voters would be free to support their favorite candidates, regardless of electability, and the eventual winner would always be the preferred choice for a majority of voters. While there’s no clear evidence that letting voters rank their candidates would dismantle the two-party system (perhaps the most consequential application would be in primary, not general, elections), it would certainly reduce the blowback third-party and independent challengers face when mounting their campaigns, as they would no longer be seen as “spoilers.” Unsurprisingly, then, the only candidate to endorse ranked choice voting so far is a little-known entrepreneur running as an outsider. Perhaps Yang will inspire some of the more mainstream candidates to follow suit.
Pete Buttigieg: Reform the Supreme Court
As the youngest candidate in the race, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has brought a distinctly millennial perspective to the debate. A Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar, Buttigieg tends towards an expansive, almost philosophical vision for American democracy, insisting that “a package of democratic reforms” should be a first priority for the next president. Beyond ending the Electoral College and partisan gerrymandering, Buttigieg has a particular interest in how the Supreme Court could be reformed to make it less partisan. One idea he’s floated would have each party appoint five justices, and then those ten collective appointees would, by consensus, appoint another five nonpartisan, tiebreaker justices. While some have criticized this idea as “court packing,” the substance of his plan is geared less toward tipping the partisan balance and more toward lowering the political stakes of Supreme Court appointments—an important distinction that should be made more forcefully as the primary season develops. To be sure, the constitutional hurdles to such a reform are considerable, but that’s not stopping Buttigieg from highlighting his ambitious fix for a broken institution.
Jay Inslee: End the filibuster
No democracy reform issue has divided the Democratic candidates as clearly as ending the filibuster. Many Democratic candidates—including all those currently serving as senators, except Warren—see the 60-vote requirement as essential protection for the minority party, as it prevents a simple majority from passing legislation. Other candidates reject this thesis, holding that, in polarized times, the filibuster effectively blocks any meaningful or progressive legislation. Washington Governor Jay Inslee doesn’t mince words when arguing against the filibuster, claiming that it “will essentially doom us to a situation where we’ll never be able to fight climate change.” Either way, the filibuster remains—in a strictly technical sense—one of the starkest counter-majoritarian aspects of American democracy. Ironically, this divisive rule could effectively be eliminated by a simple majority of senators.
Taken together with the many other “good government” ideas supported by almost all candidates—such as ending partisan gerrymandering, abolishing the Electoral College, overturning Citizens United, and tightening disclosure and transparency laws—these ideas represent a transformative vision for institutional change in the United States. If the eventual Democratic nominee embraces this list, the resulting platform would arguably be the most serious and ambitious attempt at government reform in American history.
Charlotte Hill is a PhD candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy with a focus on American Politics. Ben Raderstorf is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.