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While ticking the boxes, Democratic ticket hasn’t pushed the reform agenda

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

During their own presidential bids, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris emphasized their commitments to different pieces of the fix-the-system wish list.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Americans are getting their most extensive and unfiltered look this week at the national Democratic ticket, whose election could set in motion the tackling of a democracy reform agenda that's been totally stalled for four years.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the marquee speaker Wednesday at the party's unprecedented virtual convention, have embraced almost all of the most prominent ideas for fixing the country's political system — although with different and complementary areas of focus.

The big question, in the minds of advocates focused on restoring democracy's credibility, is where such proposals would fall on a Biden administration's list of priorities. Except for a recent burst of talk about ensuring a credible and mostly vote-by-mail election, the two candidates have not emphasized improving democratic governance all that much, and the topic received only sporadic mention during the convention's first two nights.

The reform efforts that got the most attention in Biden's campaign platform and stump speeches during the primary season were focused on limiting the sway of wealthy special interests over the campaign finance system and boosting government ethics.

In her own bid for president (which ended before the first nominating contests) and during almost four years as a senator from California, the newly minted vice presidential candidate was much more focused on the voting rights and election security aspects of the fix-the-system agenda.

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Both halves of the ticket have focused on the same challenge to democracy in the past week, however, adding prominence to the Democrats' forceful declarations that the Postal Service is central to a stable democracy and should be protected from budgetary harm during the campaign season.

"Joe Biden will be a champion for free and fairs elections," Stacey Abrams, who has made voting rights her main cause since losing a close race for Georgia governor two years ago, said in her convention appearance Tuesday.

It was a rare mention of what the nominee might do to restore reliability to governance — although plenty of speakers have lambasted President Trump's challenges to governing institutions and warned his re-election could mean the end of American democracy.

The newest Democratic Party platform, adoption of which is a requirement for this week's convention, devotes fewer than six of its 92 pages to "restoring and strengthening our democracy."

In addition to protecting voting rights, expanding voting by mail, curbing wealthy and secretive spending in politics, strengthening government ethics and granting statehood to the District of Columbia — all of which Biden has long embraced — the platform also calls for making Election Day a national holiday, nationalizing both early in-person voting and same-day registration, and creating independent redistricting commissions in every state in order to end partisan gerrymandering.

During the primaries, Biden did not embrace or repudiate any of those line items. But he agreed to embrace them — at least in the symbolically important, if ultimately unenforceable platform — as part of his effort to bring the more progressive wing of the party, aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders, into the fold.

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Biden's harsh view of the swamp

From the start of his campaign, however, Biden has sought to position himself against Trump in one way especially dear to the heart of democracy reformers: That he, not the incumbent with his unaddressed "drain the swamp" promises of 2016, is the one genuinely interested in limiting the sway that rich people and lobbyists have over both campaigns and governing.

Biden cannot hide the reality that he's spent almost half a century at the center of the Washington establishment, negotiating with lobbyists and advocates by day and taking their campaign money by night. But he says his 36 years as a Delaware senator and eight more as vice president have made him uniquely capable of flushing wealthy special interests and revolving-door corruption out of the system.

The most ambitious piece of the reform agenda he unveiled last October would be nearly total public financing of presidential and congressional campaigns, an idea he's supported since he was a new senator in the post-Watergate 1970s.

He also wants to heighten transparency around " dark money" groups and online political advertising by creating donor disclosure requirements. Also in the name of sunshine as disinfectant, he wants to mandate all candidates for federal office release 10 years of tax returns. (Biden has released his for 22 straight years.)

He would create a Commission on Federal Ethics with more power than the Federal Election Commission or the Office of Government Ethics — and would make K Street lobbyists disclose meetings with elected officials every month.

To further distance himself from Trump, Biden's campaign has refused to take donations from registered lobbyists. (Harris made a similar promise when running for president.) Biden also shared a list of 230 "bundlers" — wealthy and well-connected individuals who help fundraise for a campaign — but has not updated it since December, to the annoyance of some good-government groups.

And the running mate?

For Harris, protecting the right to vote and ensuring the integrity of U.S. elections were top priorities on Capitol Hill and during her 317-day presidential run.

A member of the Judiciary Committee and only the second Black woman ever elected senator, she has frequently called for an overhaul and strengthening of the Voting Rights Act to combat a wave of voter suppression laws in mostly Southern states. She was also one of the first to propose, after John Lewis died last month, that the updated law be named for the civil rights icon and veteran Atlanta congressman.

Harris has co-sponsored nearly 50 bills related to voting, campaign finance and election security — including the Senate's version of HR 1, the comprehensive ethics, election and campaign finance law overhaul that died in the GOP Senate after Democrats pushed it through the House last year.

In April, a month into the pandemic, she introduced her own legislative package to make voting easier and safer during the coronavirus emergency — a symbolic stake in a legislative debate that by then had already moved on.

While advocating for stronger election security measures, Harris has often excoriated Trump, who has sought to downplay if not outright deny Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 election. During the first presidential debate, for example, she termed the president himself the nation's "biggest national security threat."

On the Intelligence Committee, Harris was a prominent figure in the investigation of Russia's election hacking and disinformation campaign. She has also co-sponsored six election security bills — including one of the few to draw bipartisan support. Written two years ago by Republican James Lankford, it was designed to ease the sharing of information about cybersecurity threats to elections within the federal government and between Washington and state election administrators. It went nowhere, though.

Harris also got behind Democratic legislation that would have mandated the use of paper ballots and set minimum cybersecurity standards for federal elections. It also went nowhere — but has provided the senator with one of her better-known quips on the campaign trail, at least on the narrow topic of bolstering democratic institutions.

"The best and smartest way to conduct voting" is paper ballots, she likes to say, "because Russia can't hack a piece of paper."

Biden and Harris both support somehow overturning the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened a new and largely deregulated era of corporate influence over campaign financing. That's a huge priority for democracy reformers but would be achievable only with a constitutional amendment — a non-starter for now — or if Biden was able to win confirmation of enough justices to shift the court's ideological balance solidly left, which seems almost as unlikely.

The future of the Supreme Court is one of the few places where Biden and his running mate part company. He flatly opposes adding more justices to the bench, which Harris has said is worth considering. She also said she's open to the idea of abolishing the Electoral College — another longshot idea for transforming a democratic institution Biden has labeled a reform too far.

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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