Bernie Sanders on Political & Electoral Reform
Senator Bernie Sanders demands that the United States’ elected government represent us, its people. He observes a disturbing trend where the average citizen is disenfranchised, and fears that we are losing what makes America great — our system of democracy. Bernie has said:
“We are moving rapidly away from our democratic heritage into an oligarchic form of society where today we are experiencing a government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires.”
What is an oligarchy and why don’t I want one?
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.”
The United States, in theory, is a democratic republic, where the voices of the many are represented by the men and women whom we elect to political office. But, according to a Princeton University study, our government no longer represents most of us. In fact, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Former President Jimmy Carter stated during an interview in July 2015 that “the billionaire class now owns the economy, and they are working day and night to make certain that they own the United States government.”
That’s really, really bad. What do we do?
We need to work together to fix our government. Bernie believes we can do so:
“We need people who are ready to take on the handful of billionaires holding the power, to tell them, ‘Enough is enough. This country belongs to us. This government belongs to us.”
Here’s how we do it:
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a very controversial ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. They determined that spending by corporations or unions for a political cause is a form of free speech and is therefore protected under the First Amendment. While there is a lot of nuance to this complicated issue, the Supreme Court blog summarizes the decision this way:
Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.
So, Citizens United furthered the legal precedent that, in terms of political spending, corporations = people and money = speech.
I can see how donating money to a cause is sort of a form of free speech. What’s wrong with that?
Learn how Citizens United allows the super-rich and corporations to effectively influence and manipulate elections in this video:
But isn’t there a spending limit?
Sure, but there are plenty of ways to get around it. The spending limit only applies to money directly funneled into a candidate’s campaign. The results of this court case, in conjunction with another one, known as SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, allow corporations and unions to donate money to Super PACs, which “may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.”
In this way, a corporation can make an unlimited amount of propaganda in support of one candidate, or equally, attacking his or her rivals, as long as these actions are not coordinated with the official campaign itself. This includes making advertisements, organizing rallies, and producing and distributing paraphernalia. Furthermore, multiple corporations can pool these independent expenditures together to provide a huge amount of independent support to one particular candidate.
How’s that affecting this 2016 presidential campaign cycle?
So far in this campaign cycle, 400 families have donated almost half of the $318 million raised to back presidential candidates, and “the vast majority…is being channeled to groups that can accept unlimited contributions in support of candidates from almost any source.”
For many important political decisions, there is money involved somewhere along the line. For example: raising the minimum wage may be met with resistance from large corporations who have to pay low-wage workers. Attempts at reforming our prison system may be met with resistance from the private prison industry. Trying to raise taxes on the rich to fund important programs will see resistance from the rich themselves.
So, wealthy individuals and corporations are able to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the political process. This sounds like an oligarchy.
Yes, it does. This cartoon does a good job of satirizing the situation:
And Bernie feels the same way:
Wait, does Bernie take any money from Super PACs?
No, in fact, when he announced his candidacy in May 2015, he pledged not to take any money from Super PACs. His message around building a grassroots campaign — and of course, his stances on other issues — seems to be resonating. As Bernie’s campaign’s last FEC filing showed, it had received 1.3 million donations from 650,000 individuals averaging $30. In fact, Bernie has raised more money from individuals — i.e. not Super PACs — than any other candidate in the race.
But the dollar amount Bernie has raised is actually less impressive than the number of people who have gotten involved in his campaign. For context, he’s attracted more donors than a previous successful grassroots presidential campaign: Barack Obama’s. Obama’s first campaign didn’t hit the amount of donors that have donated to Bernie’s campaign so far until late winter 2008.
I’m glad Bernie won’t take Super PAC money but everyone else is. How do we address Citizens United?
Bernie believes a new amendment is a necessary in addition to all other election reform efforts (see Public Financing, below) because it would firmly strike down the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and make it clear in the Constitution that only human beings, not corporate entities or unions, have the right to vote and to contribute to campaigns.
Here he discusses this proposal in the Senate back in 2012:
What’s Bernie’s proposed amendment?
Bernie introduced the Democracy is for People amendment in 2013. Where previous attempts to amend the Constitution and fix money’s influence on elections focused on prohibiting for-profit organizations from contributing to campaigns, his amendment draws its attention to who should have the right to contribute.
In other words, Bernie’s proposed constitutional amendment reaffirms what’s already in the Constitution: which is that the right to vote belongs to people, and not corporate, nonprofit, or private entities whose money is drowning out votes by actual U.S. citizens.
The DISCLOSE Act
Bernie believes we need more transparency around the funding of our elections and has supported legislation that would lead to more visibility into electoral donations.
How has he addressed this?
Bernie voted for the DISCLOSE Act to prohibit foreign influence in federal elections, prevent government contractors from making expenditures for elections, and establish disclosure requirements for contributions.
Here’s how Bernie explained his support for the bill in 2012:
“I come to the Senate floor today to discuss my profound disgust with the current state of the campaign finance system and to call for my fellow senators as a short-term effort to pass the Disclose Act … long-term, of course, we need a Constitutional Amendment and … move this country towards public funding of elections.”
Did it pass?
The DISCLOSE Act has not passed but is continuously reintroduced in Congress with Bernie’s support.
Public Funding of Elections
Bernie wants to move toward public funding of elections to promote a more even playing field where all Americans can participate. Bernie believes that public funding of campaigns would counteract the Citizens United decision. In October 2014, long before Bernie announced his presidential campaign, he signed a pledge stating he would “support restoring democracy by publicly financing elections and taking big money out of politics.” (He remains the only presidential candidate to have signed it.)
Making good on that pledge, in August 2015 Bernie announced his intention to introduce legislation to “allow people to run for office without having to beg money from the wealthy and the powerful.”
Why should we pay for public financing of elections? I don’t want my tax money to go to campaigns.
We already have some public financing of elections. The federal government has a maximum amount they will match if a candidate raises enough money from campaign contributions. Furthermore, public funding of elections often increases voter participation, helps lower the influence of outside money, and lowers the amount of time politicians spend fundraising, allowing them to govern as they were elected to do.
Check out this viral video by Professor Lawrence Lessig on the corrupting influence of our current funding system and the need for public financing:
Who else agrees with Bernie on this?
- For starters, most Americans agree.
- In a report issued by 11 theologians titled “Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy“, Professor William Cavanaugh called the current system “upside-down”:
From a Christian point of view, the fact that the voice of the wealthy is the voice that is most clearly and forcefully heard is an upside-down state of affairs.
- Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, shown above, refers to the current system as an “economy of influence”.
- And Rabbi Adina Allen has written extensively about the importance of giving average people more say in elections:
“If every human being is valuable, then every person should have a voice in the political process. However, in a society where one’s value or influence is often determined by the amount of money one gives, voices get lost. Systems are needed to level out the playing field to ensure that all are represented”.
Voter turnout in America is very low, and Bernie believes we should encourage more people to participate in our democracy by making it easier for them to get to polling stations.
How bad is voter turnout in the United States?
Pretty darn bad. Here’s how we compare to other developed nations:
Turnout is particularly low during midterm elections. In the last midterms, in 2014, only 37 percent of Americans cast a vote:
Not great. What does Bernie want to do about this?
Bernie co-sponsored a bill in November 2014 to make Election Day a federal holiday called Democracy Day. He wants to encourage voter turnout and increase the amount of people participating in the democratic process. Of this effort, he has stated:
“[I]n America, we should be celebrating our democracy and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process. Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote.”
Gerrymandering & Voter Suppression
Bernie wants to curb redistricting as well as reinforce the Voting Rights Acts by making it easy for anyone to cast a vote, including former felons who have served their time.
What is gerrymandering?
It’s a difficult thing to explain, but this video does a good job of explaining how gerrymandering gives one political party an advantage over another by redrawing district lines:
What’s the state of gerrymandering today?
Gerrymandering has caused Democrats to be underrepresented by about 18 seats in the House relative to their vote share in the 2012 election. Indeed, research shows that in the 2012 elections, “Republican-controlled redistricting led to a swing in margin of at least 26 seats, almost as large as the 31-seat majority of the new Congress.”
Though mostly favoring the Republican party in recent elections, misuse is a bipartisan issue and improper gerrymandering can be seen as a type of voter suppression.
What’s Bernie’s stance on it?
Bernie favors using the federal government to rein in gerrymandering.
What are other voter suppression issues America faces?
Sadly, various tactics are used to disenfranchise certain segments of our population. Common methods of voter suppression include last-minute changes to polling locations and hours, reducing the number of polling places, and enacting voter ID laws which suppress voters without a driver’s license.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark bill passed to combat voter suppression at the ballot box, particularly against people of color. The ruling outlawed a key requirement in the 1965 bill which required states with a history of racial discrimination at the poll to “preclear” any changes to electoral laws with the federal government before enacting them. This change allowed nine states to change election laws without federal approval.
What’s Bernie’s stance on that ruling?
Deeply displeased, to say the least. Bernie believes that all legal voters should be free to vote without any unnecessary hurdles, and upon hearing of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling, he released this statement:
“[T]he Supreme Court has turned back the clock on equality in America by striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The landmark civil rights law that Congress passed almost five decades ago, and reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support only seven years ago, has been an important tool to protect voters in places with a history of discrimination. The law is as necessary today as it was in the era of Jim Crow laws. We must act immediately to rewrite this vital law.”
How does Bernie think we can fight back?
In June 2015, Bernie co-sponsored the Voting Rights Advancement Act. The proposed bill seeks to expand the attorney general’s authority to request federal observers at polling stations and to establish a new geographic formula for deciding which states need federal permission to amend electoral laws. The bill proposes that the “preclear” is required only in states where there have been repeated voting rights violations in the previous 25 years.
Good. Every American citizen should have the right to vote!
Agreed, but some citizens are actually explicitly denied those rights by law. Certain states restrict people with felony convictions from voting — even after they’ve served their time, and paid their debt to society. It’s estimated that 5.85 million Americans have been legally stripped of their voting rights. And due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this disproportionately affects people of color. In fact, one of 13 blacks do not have the right to vote because of this.
But doesn’t being a felon mean you forfeit your freedoms?
You’re still protected by the Constitution. Beyond suffering from limited access to education or unsafe living conditions while in prison, disenfranchisement follows former felons for the rest of their lives. And the U.S. is one of the strictest nations in the world with regards to felony disenfranchisement.
Sounds bad. What’s the impact?
This directly threatens the notion of universal suffrage, limits free speech, and contradicts the representation right inherent in our Constitution. Critics argue that felony disenfranchisement is a “potent tool in the campaign to undercut African-American political power” because it so disproportionately impacts blacks.
Essentially, voting rights are one of the ways to keep inmates connected to civic life and have a better foundation for rejoining society once they serve their time. So, taken in the context of the fact that people of color are disproportionately over-represented in our prison system, one can argue that they are disproportionately underrepresented in our political system.
Where does Bernie stand on this?
Bernie has long been a supporter of universal suffrage and proudly represents Vermont, one of two states that do not restrict voting rights of anyone convicted of felonies. In March 2015, Bernie co-sponsored the Democracy Restoration Act, which seeks to reinstate voting rights to people who have served their time and been freed from prison.
Finally, and importantly, Bernie speaks often about how institutionalized racism has led to over-incarceration of people of color, and wants to reform our criminal justice system and sentencing laws to address this. Learn more at the Criminal Justice category page and also at the Racial Justice issue page.
The Two-Party System
Bernie Sanders believes that many Americans have rejected the two-party system. He thinks that low voter turnout is indicative of this:
“They rejected Washington as it now functions. They rejected a political system and a Congress which spends more time representing the wealthy and the powerful than ordinary Americans.”
Which party does Bernie belong to?
None. Bernie is unaffiliated with any party, and is one of the Senate’s two Independent members. Prior to being elected to the Senate for the first time in 2006, Bernie represented Vermont in the House of Representatives, also as an Independent. His time in the House and Senate combined make him the longest-serving Independent in the history of Congress.
All of this being said, Bernie is running in the primary as a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
If he’s an Independent why is he running for the Democratic presidential nomination?
For one thing, even though he’s not a member of the Democratic Party, Bernie often caucuses with Democrats. His work over the years has led Democratic leadership to name Bernie to key positions such as the ranking, or lead, member on the Senate Budget Committee, among other roles within similar committees and subcommittees.
And while Bernie’s been successful in winning office as an Independent so far, it’s a different story when it comes having the best shot at the White House. Bernie’s addressed the question in this way:
“The dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party … you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement. In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma.
The bolder, more radical approach is obviously running outside of the two-party system. Do people believe at this particular point that there is the capability of starting a third-party movement? Or is that an idea that is simply not realistic at this particular moment in history?”
It appears Bernie believes that given the current political climate in America, a third-party candidate can’t realistically win the U.S. presidential nomination. And it’s no wonder: since 1852 only Republican or Democratic nominees have been elected to the highest office in the land.
All that being said, if Bernie, as an independent, won a major party’s nomination, perhaps that’d help establishment politicians as well as voters rethink our current two-party system.
What else — besides being a longtime Independent now running for President — has Bernie done to combat the two-party system?
Bernie endorses Instant Runoff Voting, which is also known as the Alternative Vote, or Preferential Voting. Learn more about what this in this video:
In 2007, Bernie stated that such a system “allows people to vote for what they really want without worrying about the possibility of them getting what they really don’t want.”
In other words, Instant Runoff Voting could empower voters to more confidently vote for their preferred candidate, rather than a candidate they view as more electable and likelier to prevent another candidate they highly oppose from winning. Much better to vote for something than against something, right?