Matt Han / Gavel Media

Panel of Lawmakers and Activists Discuss the Need to Reform American Democracy

The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy hosted a panel called “Democracy Reform: What is it? Why do we need it?” on Oct. 1 moderated by Vincent Rougeau, Dean of BC Law. State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-MA), former Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN), Jeff Clements, President of American Promise, and Sara Eskrich, Executive Director of Democracy Found, discussed possible policies to overcome government gridlock. 

Eldridge, a member of the Boston College Law School Class of 2000, spoke on his efforts to sponsor legislation that would enact ranked-choice voting (RCV) in Massachusetts. His bill faced delays due to pressure from special interest groups.

Ranked-choice voting is an electoral system in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference instead of simply choosing one candidate. A system of instant-runoff elections is then created in which the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. This candidate's votes are redistributed according to voter preference until at least a 50% majority is reached.

The purpose of ranked-choice voting is to avoid plurality victories—a victory in which the winner is the candidate who received the most votes but did not win a true majority of at least 50%. President Bill Clinton won both the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections with popular vote pluralities of 43% and 49% respectively due to strong showings by third-party candidate H. Ross Perot in both elections.

Eskrich also advocated for ranked-choice voting; her argument centered around the public versus private sector divide. In the private sector, competition is seen as necessary for growth. Meanwhile, in the public sector (in this case, elections) competition is continually stifled. “Lack of competition leads to [a] lack of accountability,” she said. Ranked-choice voting offers more competition by giving third parties a chance to win rather than relegating them to spoiler status.

There are many voters, Eskrich argued, who would prefer to vote for a party other than that of the Democrats or Republicans, but feel that doing so would hurt the major party with which they more closely align and hand a victory to the opposition. With ranked-choice voting, a libertarian could vote for the Libertarian Party candidate without risking collateral damage to the Republican Party, or a socialist could vote for the Green Party candidate without risking the same to the Democratic Party. 

Campaign finance was also a major talking point for the panelists, especially in relation to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC

Clements devoted his time to emphasizing the need for a 28th Amendment that would reverse Citizens United. Although a constitutional amendment is the only way to overturn that ruling, some argue that the process of adding an amendment is too complicated to be worth the time or effort. Clements rejected that reasoning stating, “we are in a constitutional amendment moment in America now.” Clear precedent exists for passing an amendment to overrule a Supreme Court decision. Seven amendments (11th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 19th, 24th, and 26th) have done precisely that.

A hypothetical 28th Amendment would read as follows:

Section 1. We the People have compelling sovereign interests in representative self- government, federalism, the integrity of the electoral process, and the political equality of natural persons.

Section 2. Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to forbid Congress or the States, within their respective jurisdictions, from reasonably regulating and limiting contributions and expenditures in campaigns, elections, or ballot measures.

Section 3. Congress and the States shall have the power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and juridical persons, including by prohibiting juridical persons from raising and spending money in campaigns, elections, or ballot measures. 

The proposed amendment also enjoys broad and bipartisan support. Twenty states have called for its passage, including Democratic-leaning states like Massachusetts and Republican-leaning states like Montana and West Virginia. Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are supporters as well. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was a proponent of a campaign finance amendment in the 1990s. He has since reversed that position.

American Promise has set July 2026 as their goal for ratification of the 28th Amendment.

Wamp spoke about his experience serving in Congress and how it had affected his views on democratic reform. “I became disgusted with the two party system,” he stated. He derided Congress as “impotent” for its failure to pass full budgets and instead relying on a constant stream of continuing resolutions (CRs) that temporarily fund the federal government.

On campaign finance reform, Wamp offered another solution: limiting the campaigning season. He pointed to the Canadian system as an ideal model. Under the Canada Elections Act, the minimum length of a campaign is 36 days and the maximum length of the campaign is 50 days. Candidates and parties are prohibited from campaigning or fundraising outside the time set for the election. 

Wamp’s home state of Tennessee prohibits state legislators from fundraising during the legislative session. He advocated for adoption of a hybrid version of the measures taken in Canada and Tennessee at the federal level. This change would allow senators and representatives time to focus on governing rather than re-election.

To conclude his remarks, Wamp emphasized his hope in a generation of young American leaders. He saw mandatory civics education as the key to unlocking the potential of the next generation. He also marveled at the capacity of social media to reach people, and noted the extraordinary presence of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Dan Crenshaw (R-TX). “[They] could sit down and solve this problem in a day,” he declared.

He ended with a plea for all Americans to vote in the upcoming election, expressed his desire to expand early voting access, and called for all voters to have access to absentee ballots regardless of age.

“We ought to have a bloodless revolution in this country,” he said.

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