Author: Andrea Tuemmler
From Bernie Sanders’ populist socialism to Donald Trump’s sensationalism, the crowded presidential field is encouraging a wide range of creative campaign strategies. One candidate, however, is going above and beyond: he is campaigning against the campaign system itself.
As a critique against the influence of money in politics, Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig is running as a one-trick Democrat balanced precariously on a soapbox of campaign reform. Unlike any other candidate, Lessig promises to resign and cede the presidency to whomever the voters choose as his vice president after he passes his signature piece of legislation: comprehensive campaign reform. Campaign reform needs to be the focus of the 2016 presidential race, and because of this I believe Lessig’s campaign deserves more attention.
Without asking voters to abandon Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or any other candidate, Lessig is trying to force the country to a populist referendum on an issue that, by its very nature, is unlikely to be solved in any other way due to the unequal influence of money in politics.
Lessig’s plan to reform the political system has three main components: equal right to vote, equal representation and citizen-funded elections. These issues currently result in the exclusion of certain racial and economic groups that, if given more of a stake in the political process, could change the way policies are made.
The first component, the equal right to vote, came to the national spotlight in 2011, when the passage of Voter ID Laws sparked a national debate about how certain groups were being legally excluded from the political system. Thirty-two states still enforce some form of identification requirement. In 2012, 11 percent of eligible voters did not have valid IDs. In Pennsylvania alone, voter ID laws excluded around 750,000 potential voters from being heard.
These laws disproportionately hurt the poor. Even when IDs are available for free, they require documents such as birth certificates that cost $25 on average. Voting itself occurs during business hours with only a brief window of time on either end, and without a car, many polling stations are inaccessible. Lessig’s plan to block voter ID laws, make election day a national holiday and increase the number of polling stations shifts the power dynamic and allows more disadvantaged voices to be heard. It is these voices that have the most to lose from being excluded from the discourse about taxation and government spending allocations, so solving this issue will create a more just and successful society.
The second aspect of Lessig’s plan is designed to create equal representation by redrawing congressional districts and establishing a ranked-choice, multimember system. In the 2012 election, Republicans won 33 more seats in the House of Representatives than Democrats despite the fact that Democrats received 1.4 million more votes. Gerrymandering, or the redrawing of congressional districts to divide groups of like-minded voters, unevenly distributes power and does not necessarily reflect the true political opinions of the majority. It is critical to establish a system that more accurately reflects the will of the people to increase the legitimacy of the government and help it to create policies that are more directed towards what voters actually want.
The final tenet of Lessig’s campaign is to create citizen-funded elections, where each voter is given a voucher to contribute to campaigns; if certain people can vote with their money, that privilege should be extended to more than just the wealthy. This idea stems from the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC case, which critics say gave Super PACS and wealthy donors much more power. Super PACS, or organizations that can raise unlimited amounts of money to finance campaigns, allow wealthy donors to influence campaigns and give unfair power to those with a vested interest in the status quo. It is important to address this issue because it is often the people who have the least say in the political process who need politicians on their side on issues such as social welfare and environmental justice, concerns that have less impact on the wealthy.
Lessig’s own campaign embraces these democratic ideals. It is entirely crowd-funded, allowing individuals to make contributions instead of relying on a few donations from wealthy special-interest Super PACS. Additionally, it allows for a direct vote on who will become president, since polling for vice president is open to everyone on Larry Lessig’s website, lessig2016.us. If he wins the primary, he will choose his running mate based on who polls the highest on his website.
By holding online polling with a write-in option, Lessig does not ask people to vote along party lines or be limited by time or the accessibility of a physical location. For the truly adventurous, he has kindly provided a place to vote for Neil deGrasse Tyson or Jon Stewart as possible running mates, in addition to more conventional candidates such as Clinton and Sanders.
Given the powerful influence of large donors, lobbyists and entrenched interest groups, campaign reform is unlikely to occur unless the decision comes from a direct vote — simulated by the perceived mandate that would be given to his platform if he wins the popular vote—rather than a “representative” one. A vote for Lessig will not prevent anyone from also supporting their favorite candidate, but it will help ensure that everyone’s vote will matter in the future, regardless of their geographic or socioeconomic position. Lessig’s unconventional campaign strategy finally provides voters with a truly democratic platform. Due to the exclusive nature of current politics and the resulting policies that do not truly represent the needs of the average citizen, the 2016 election needs to focus on campaign reform.
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