Bernie Sanders on Political & Electoral Reform

“The concentration of wealth is a problem because it distorts our democracy, destabilizes the economy and erodes our at our social and cultural fabric. Too much concentrated wealth leads to too much concentrated power and begins to undermine our participatory democracy.” – 1999 Congressional Progressive Caucus Position Paper

Voting rights have expanded since the founding of the country. African Americans and women gained the right to vote, poor people can vote without paying a poll taxes and literacy tests designed to keep minorities from voting have been banned.  We’ve made progress, but there’s more to be done.

Unfortunately, a very low percentage of eligible voters participate in our democracy. Other voters want to participate but cannot because of voter suppression tactics such as ID requirements, poll manipulation, voter purges, gerrymandering, and so on. There are millions of people who cannot vote because they are incarcerated, completing probation or parole, or have been convicted of a felony. And most threatening of all to our democracy is the domination of elections and political discourse by corporations and the wealthy elite.

Bernie wants to abolish super PACs, overturn Citizens United, and make sure every voter counts.

Citizens United: Bernie wants to overturn Citizens United, which allows unlimited sums of money to be funneled into electoral politics to influence elections.

DISCLOSE Act: Bernie wants to protect the integrity and transparency of federal elections by requiring disclosure of all contributions.

Public Funding of Elections: Bernie wants to move towards public funding of elections to promote a more even playing field where all Americans can run for office not just those who are willing to take donations from corporations and wealthy campaign contributors.

Democracy Day: Bernie wants to celebrate democracy by creating a holiday to encourage voter turnout for elections.

End Gerrymandering & Voter Suppression: Bernie wants to stop the gerrymandered redistricting that disenfranchises minority and lower income voters.

Re-enfranchising Felons: Bernie believes that all citizens, like those in Vermont, have the right to vote whether or not they are incarcerated or have committed a felony.

The Two-Party System: Bernie Sanders believes that many Americans have “rejected the two party system” and is one of just two Independent members in the U.S. Senate. He has supported legislation to introduce Instant Runoff Voting in order to give third parties a fair shot at competing in our elections.

Overturning Citizens United

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that spending by corporations or unions for a political cause is a form of free speech that is protected under the First Amendment. This allowed wealthy corporations to spend an unlimited amount of money and gave them enormous power to influence campaigns and elections and control the policy debate.

With so many ads, so many lobbyists, and so many politicians in their pocket the influence of corporations and the wealthy has increased to a point where it stifles the voice of ordinary Americans. We know this is so from a Princeton University study, which found that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Bernie wants to implement comprehensive campaign finance reform by passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and move toward public funding of elections.

What did Citizens United do?

When campaigns boast that they don’t accept Corporate PAC money they are saying exactly nothing. That’s not how corporations and rich people buy political influence. Corporations may not donate directly to campaigns, that’s illegal, but they can seek to persuade voters with an unlimited amount of advertisements, rallies, and distribution of materials to support a candidate, or to attack rivals, as long as these actions are not coordinated with the official campaign itself. And, multiple corporations can pool their money and efforts together.

What about spending limits? Won’t that stop corporations from buying elections?

There are spending limits during elections but that doesn’t keep corporations and rich people from spending millions of dollars on elections.  These limits only apply to money that is directly funneled into a candidate’s campaign. Another case SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, allows corporations to donate and spend unlimited amounts of money in Super PACs, to overtly advocate for or against political candidates. 

So the combination of the two decisions, Citizens United which gives unlimited free speech rights to corporations and, SpeechNow which allows unlimited financial contributions, gives corporations unlimited ability to buy elections.

Learn how Citizens United allows the super-rich and corporations to effectively influence and manipulate elections in this video:

 

In the 2016 election cycle, 400 families donated almost half of the $318 million raised in 2015 to back presidential candidates. The total cost of the 2016 elections was $6.8 billion. And the same level of spending by corporations and rich people happened in the 2018 election cycle.

How do corporations influence campaigns and policy?

A Princeton University study found that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” But that is not the case for corporations and rich people who dominate our elections to ensure that politicians who will support their policies are elected. 

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.

In a 2015 interview, former President Jimmy Carter stated 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.”

Bernie calls the unlimited spending on elections “legalized bribery.”  

Haven’t the wealthiest people always had more influence on our government?

Yes. That’s why Bernie has called for campaign finance reform for years. Here he is in 2002:

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:

Bernie does not take any money from Super PACs.

Bernie’s campaign is completely funded by donors like you. That’s what he means when he says he’s building the largest grassroots campaign this nation has ever seen. 

He has pledged not to take any money from Super PACs or from large donors at fancy fundraisers. His grassroots campaign is also gathering volunteers, like the ones who created feelthebern.org and the 1 million volunteers who signed up within weeks of his 2020 campaign announcement. 

In the first 24 hours after announcing his 2020 presidential run, Bernie’s campaign raised $5.9 million in the first 24 hours from small donors. The campaign raised $18.2 million from 218,000 individual contributions in the first quarter of 2019. In fact, Bernie has raised more money from individuals — not Super PACs — than any other candidate in the race. Bernie’s 2016 presidential campaign raised about $228 million from small donors, many of whom heeded a call to give $27.

I’m glad Bernie won’t take Super PAC money but everyone else is. How do we address Citizens United?

Bernie believes a Constitutional amendment is necessary to strike down Citizens United. In 2013 Bernie introduced the Democracy is for People amendment which reaffirms what’s already in the Constitution that only human beings, not corporate entities or unions, have the right to vote and contribute to campaigns.

Here Bernie discusses this proposal in the Senate:

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, which would 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.”

 

The DISCLOSE Act has not passed but is continuously reintroduced in Congress with Bernie’s support.

Public Funding of Elections

Public funding of elections will help counteract the Citizens United decision and promote an even playing field where all Americans can participate. Bernie wants to “replace corporate funding and donations from millionaires and billionaires with public funding of elections that amplifies small-dollar donations.”  

In 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. Holding an election is not free, polling stations, poll workers, training, voting machines, counting the votes and everything else election related is publicly funded. Currently the federal government will match a candidates campaign contributions with public funds up to a certain limit after a fundraising threshold has been met.

Furthermore, public funding of elections often increases voter participation, helps decrease the influence of outside money, and reduces the time politicians spend fundraising, which gives them time to do the job they were elected to do for the people who elected them. And, most Americans agree that we need campaign finance reform.

Check out this viral video by Professor Lawrence Lessig on the corrupting influence of our current funding system and the need for public financing.

Democracy Day

Voter turnout in America is very low compared to other developed nations. Bernie believes we should encourage more people to participate in our democracy by making it easier for citizens to vote. Turnout is particularly low during midterm elections. In the 2018 midterms an unusually high 49.3 percent of Americans cast a vote:

Source

What does Bernie want to do about this?

Bernie wants to make Election Day a national holiday.

In 2014, Bernie sponsored a bill 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.

Fixing the political system might also help voter turnout. Bernie believes low voter turnout is indicative of the fact that many Americans don’t like the way the political system works. He has said:

 “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.”

Gerrymandering & Voter Suppression

Bernie plans to make sure every voter counts by restore the Voting Rights Act, ending racist voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering, and abolish burdensome voter ID laws.

Bernie wants to make it easy for anyone to cast a vote. Bernie believes that there should be automatic voter registration for every American over 18. Bernie says

“If you are 18 in this country, you should be automatically registered to vote. End of discussion.”

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:

 

The party in power is able to create the voting districts. Instead of creating logical district lines along geographic boundaries or sections of a city, political operatives draw the lines to favor their party so it will win more districts.  

To do this the political operatives draw the district lines so that just enough of their voters are in a district for them to win it. Then they concentrate large blocks of voters of the other parties voters in one district so they can elect only one politician. Gerrymandering is difficult to overcome.  Once elected, incumbents have a strong advantage in subsequent elections.

The only real way to fix it is to reform the redistricting process and use fair maps so elections can be competitive and reflect what voters actually want. 

Ohio is an extreme example of gerrymandering. The map is currently being challenged in court by the ACLU.

Gerrymandering is a bipartisan type of voter suppression. In some states, like New York, Republican voters are underrepresented and in other states, like Ohio, gerrymandering causes Democrats to be underrepresented.  In the 2018 midterm election the Democrats  received 4 million more votes than Republicans but only won 25 more seats in the House than Republicans. 

What’s Bernie’s stance on it?

Bernie favors using the federal government to rein in gerrymandering.

What is Voter Suppression?

“The great political crisis we face is not voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent. The crisis we face is voter suppression. Our movement is about ending voter suppression, restoring the Voting Rights Act and implementing automatic voter registration.”   – Bernie Sanders April 3, 2019

Voter suppression is the use of various strategies to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting. 

Common methods of voter suppression include:

  • Last-minute changes to polling locations and hours 
  • Reducing the number of polling places
  • Reducing early voting days
  • Enacting voter ID laws 
  • Purging voter rolls
  • At-large elections to dilute minority voting power
  • Gerrymandering

What is going on with the Voting Rights Act?

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 eleven states – Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia – to change election laws without federal approval, mostly to create voter ID laws.

What are voter ID laws?

Laws that require people to show an ID before being able to vote. They’re ostensibly supposed to combat voter fraud but many experts believe the rate of incidence is far too overblown to accept that the threat is credible.

Why is this a racial justice concern?

Such laws suppress the vote for people of color so much more than others:

What does Bernie think we should do?

Bernie feels strongly about combating voter ID laws and addressing felony disenfranchisement.

Bernie was deeply displeased by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. to say the least. 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.”

In June 2015, Bernie cosponsored the Voting Rights Advancement Act which would increase federal oversight of elections in states with a history of racial discrimination and voter suppression. 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.

Bernie is a cosponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which would restore the requirment that states and counties with a history of voter discrimination — most of them in the South — get federal preclearance for election changes.

Felon Re-Enfranchisement 

“You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That’s bad,” Bernie Sanders said. “But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that” – Bernie Sanders, April 6, 2019 

Being convicted of a felony does not mean that you forfeit your constitutional rights. You’re still protected by the Constitution, even if you commit a serious crime. But, in most states citizens who are incarcerated or on probation or parole are explicitly denied the right to vote. Certain states restrict people with felony convictions from voting — even after they’ve served their time, and paid their debt to society. The U.S. is one of the strictest nations in the world with regards to felony disenfranchisement.

Restoring voting rights to felons is often a confusing and cumbersome process so that few ex-offenders ever have their voting rights restored or even know that they can.

As a result of felony disenfranchisement,the ACLU reports that six million people are unable to vote because they are incarcerated, completing probation or parole, or have been convicted of a felony. To the extent that people of color are over-represented in our prison system, they are under-represented in our political system

In 2016, because of a felony conviction:

  • 2.5% of the voting population could not vote
  • 7.44% of the total U.S. Black population could not vote
  • 26.15% of the Black population in Kentucky could not vote
  • 10.43% of all Florida voting-age residents could not vote.

This site has charts of the number of felons in each state who cannot vote.

This map shows the rate of felon disenfranchisement in each state:

Source

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 the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony. In March 2015, Bernie co-sponsored the Democracy Restoration Act, which seeks to reinstate voting rights to people who have served their time and have been released from prison.

Bernie believes that felons should not be disenfranchised and in states where they are disenfranchised their voting rights should be restored. Bernie said

“If we are serious about calling ourselves a democracy, we must firmly establish that the right to vote is an inalienable and universal principle that applies to all American citizens 18 years and older. Period.”

He also believes that incarcerated people and people on probation and parole should have the right to vote. Bernie said

“It goes without saying that someone who commits a serious crime must pay their debt to society. But punishment for a crime, or keeping dangerous people behind bars, does not cause people to lose their rights to citizenship. It should not cause them to lose their right to vote.”

Finally, and importantly, Bernie believes that the over-incarceration of people of color is a form of voter suppression. He wants to reform our criminal justice system and sentencing laws to address this. 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. Learn more at the Criminal Justice and the Racial Justice issue pages.

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 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, and chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs 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?