Where the presidential candidates stand on the top issues of democracy reform
This story has been revised after additional reporting.
Steadily if still softly, anxiety about the health of American democracy has become at least a secondary theme in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Proposals for restoring the public's faith in elections, and a sense of fairness in our governing system, have now earned a place on most of the candidates' platforms. And more and more of them have been including calls for democracy reform in their stump speeches.
To be sure, the topic has not come close to the top tier of issues driving the opening stages of the campaign. In the first round of candidate debates last month, for example, the contenders collectively spent less time talking about democracy's ills than eight other issues: health care, President Trump's record, immigration, social policy, economic inequality, gun control, foreign policy and the environment.
Only two spent more than 20 percent of their time on the topic, an analysis by Bloomberg found, a reasonable threshold for saying it was an emphasis of theirs. And both, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, are near the bottom of the pack.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was the only top-tier candidate who spent more than 10 percent of her time talking about democracy's flaws and potential fixes — and, characteristic of her campaign, she has detailed the most expansive plans.
The next high-impact opportunity to stress democracy reform is the second set of debates, in Detroit on July 30 and 31. And several of the 20 candidates who will be on stage are signaling readiness to shuffle their policy priorities in hopes of climbing in the polls — fully aware how the race, with the first voting half a year off, remains wide open. Only one in eight Democratic primary voters say their minds are definitely made up, while three-fifths say they are not yet paying much attention to the contest.
To help the voters get up to speed, we found where each of the top 20 candidates stands on the major policy questions that fall under the sprawling democracy reform umbrella — money in politics, access to the ballot box, voting rights, election security, government ethics, and proposals to remake such bedrock institutions as the Supreme Court, the Electoral College and the electoral mapmaking system.
There isn't much daylight among them on these issues. The nine currently in Congress are formally aligned on many fronts, for example, because they've all either voted in the House or sponsored in the Senate the party's comprehensive ethics, election and campaign finance overhaul known as HR 1.
What sets them apart is emphasis more than anything else. Still, plenty of subtle differences on policy — and differing degrees of specificity — are revealed by examining their views on the 17 prominent proposals discussed below.
In the end, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., is the only candidate unambiguously in favor of every one of those ideas. But Warren and Gillibrand are only a half step behind because they've offered a willingness to consider, but no endorsements for, proposals to remake membership on the Supreme Court.
At the other end of the spectrum, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has come out clearly for just three proposals, although he has been silent or sent positive if mixed signals on most of the rest.
Continue reading for a detailed breakdown on each issue.
• Who favors overturning the Citizens United decision?
The Supreme Court's decision nine years ago in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission twisted the cap off election spending limits for outside groups. Since then, getting big money out of politics has been a rallying cry for the Democrats, and almost all of the 2020 presidential hopefuls have taken it up as well. For many of them, it's the first thing they mention when talking about democracy's dysfunction.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio is unique in the field in saying the landmark decision should stay on the books. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper does not appear to have said anything publicly on the topic. All the other candidates invited to the July debates have said they would push to "overturn" the ruling.
They are Bennet, Gillibrand, Warren and their Senate colleagues Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Buttigieg, Inslee, former Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, author Marianne Williamson and former tech executive Andrew Yang.
More than half the group, however, have not offered any sort of specifics about what they would do to get the case wiped off the books.
Bennet, Biden, Buttigieg, Delaney, Gabbard, Klobuchar and Yang support the most effective method, were it not a prohibitive long shot: amending the Constitution to explicitly permit state and federal laws that regulate spending in elections. Such amendments become reality only after they are endorsed by two-thirds of the House and Senate, plus three-quarters of the states — a non-starter, especially at a time when Republicans control a majority of statehouses.
Bullock said he would press to get the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, which is highly unlikely unless the court's membership moves decisively to the left — and would be hardly assured even then.
Buttigieg is the only candidate to also mention overturning Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that held election spending limits were unconstitutional.
• Who would expand public financing of campaigns?
Sixteen candidates are on record supporting expanded public financing of federal elections, with the hope that putting taxpayer money in candidates' coffers would reduce their need to spend so much time hoovering up big checks from their richest supporters.
All nine candidates now in Congress are formally behind HR 1 or its Senate equivalent. The bills would create a new system under which congressional candidates could claim a $1,200 federal subsidy for every $200 received from an individual — so long as those donors give no more than $1,000 to the campaign, the candidate has a broad base of small-dollar donors and the candidate pledges to spend no more than $50,000 in family money. Presidential candidates could qualify for a similar 6-to-1 program for matching smaller donations.
Gillibrand has highlighted her plan to do even more, by giving every voter a booklet with 10 vouchers worth $20 each for donating to candidates in every House, Senate and presidential contest where they could vote. Under her "Democracy Dollars" system, modeled on Seattle's unique campaign voucher program for local races, only candidates who agree to steer clear of big-dollar donations could accept the scrips. Yang has a more modest voucher plan, with just $100 per voter per campaign cycle.
Biden advocated for a variety of public financing proposals throughout his 36 years as a senator from Delaware, none of which became law. He has not specified what plan he would push as president.
Buttigieg and Hickenlooper back the HR 1 approach. O'Rourke has proposed providing matching funds for contributions up to $500 and making them tax deductible. Inslee and Williamson have endorsed more public financing without offering specifics. Delaney backed public financing as a House member, and de Blasio was behind an expansion of his city's subsidies for municipal campaigns.
Bullock and Castro have not yet gone public with a view on this issue.
• Who would eliminate 'dark money' by making nonprofits disclose who funds their political activities?
By backing HR 1, all nine lawmakers have a plan for exposing so-called dark money organizations to sunshine. The bill would require these groups to disclose anyone who gives more than $10,000 to support political activities. One objective is to make sure foreigners are no longer able to skirt the ban on campaign donations from abroad by funneling money into American politics through anonymous gifts to nonprofits.
Of this group, Bennet, Gillibrand, Harris and Klobuchar stand out in the way they emphasize their passion for getting rid of dark money in their speeches and on their websites.
Four years ago Bullock secured enactment of a Montana law requiring tough financial disclosures by political advocacy groups in the state and barring coordination between those organizations and candidates. His campaign has put a particular emphasis on his desire to enact such legislation to govern congressional and presidential campaigns.
Biden has not taken a clear position on dark money disclosure; his campaign website, for example, says only that "the public has the right to know" who is contributing to campaigns.
As House members, Delaney, Inslee and O'Rourke backed bills to limit dark money. Castro, de Blasio, Hickenlooper, Williamson and Yang have not taken clear positions.
• Who is rejecting donations from registered lobbyists?
Securing small individual donations is the name of the game for Democrats this election. Many candidates want to show their dedication to this fundraising method by renouncing donations from registered federal lobbyists.
Biden, Booker, Gillibrand, Klobuchar and Warren are explicit in their rejection of lobbyist support, all of them including a line about it near the donation buttons on their websites. Buttigieg, Gabbard, Harris and O'Rourke have also pledged to refuse lobbyists' cash.
Sanders announced this month that he would no longer accept money from lobbyists in the health insurance or pharmaceutical industries, but was silent about donations from those pushing other special interests.
These pledges do not mean these candidates are eschewing donations from K Street altogether. Someone who works at a lobbying firm but isn't registered would be permitted to give to these campaigns without violating the letter of these promises.
Bullock, Castro, de Blasio, Delaney, Ryan and Yang have not made any such commitments. Neither has Bennet, but he has proposed barring House members and senators from taking lobbyists' money when Congress is in session.
Hickenlooper, Inslee and Williamson are accepting donations from registered federal lobbyists.
ACCESS TO THE BALLOT BOX
• Who wants Election Day to be a federal holiday?
Making it easier for people to vote is a touchstone of the Democrats' agenda for reforming the political system. While they say publicly it the right thing for every democracy to do, Democrats also believe they would benefit most from rules prompting higher turnout — assuming those changes would particularly boost turnout by the younger people and people of color who are key to the party's electoral success.
Turning the first Tuesday after Nov. 1 into a federal holiday in even-numbered years would presumably permit many more working people to get to the polls and enjoys broad bipartisan support in polling. (Election Day is already a paid holiday for government workers in 13 states.) And 18 of the candidates have explicitly endorsed this idea.
Contrary to widespread reporting, such a holiday would not be created with the enactment of HR 1, the Democrats' sweeping signature democracy reform package. Language to that end was in the bill originally, but it was quietly removed by the party leadership just before passage in March. The Senate version mirrors the bill as approved by the House.
Nonetheless, all nine members of Congress in the race have endorsed the idea either through their websites, in response to media questions or on Twitter: Bennet, Booker, Gabbard, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Ryan, Sanders and Warren. So too have Bullock, Buttigieg, Castro, de Blasio, Delaney, Hickenlooper, O'Rourke, Williamson and Yang.
Inslee and Biden are the only two who have not directly commented on the topic.
• Who would expand early voting?
Expanding early voting in federal elections is part of HR 1, putting all nine members of Congress formally on record in favor. The bill would require states to permit voting at least 15 days prior to Election Day at polling places open at least four hours every day but Sunday — and preferably near public transportation.
Buttigieg and O'Rourke both have expressed support for this on their websites; Hickenlooper backed the idea in response to media questions.
Biden, Bullock, Castro, de Blasio, Delaney, Inslee, Williamson and Yang have not stated a position.
• Who wants same-day voter registration nationwide?
Here, too, all nine lawmakers support permitting people to both register and cast ballots on Election Day because HR 1 would mandate this practice nationwide. Only 21 states now permit same-day registration.
Inslee signed a measure last year making Washington one of the newest states on that roster. Bullock vetoed a bill in 2013 that would have taken Montana off the list.
De Blasio has pushed for the New York legislature to permit same-day registration. Buttigieg, Castro, Delaney, Hickenlooper and O'Rourke have all come out in favor. Biden, Williamson and Yang have not stated a position.
• Who wants automatic voter registration nationwide?
The field's seven senators and pair of House members, by virtue of their support for HR 1, would require all 50 state election agencies to automatically register eligible voters (unless they ask to opt out) after acquiring the necessary information from other state or federal agencies.
Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., now register those qualified to vote whenever they interact with an agency that keeps biographical data, like a drivers' license bureau. Hickenlooper and Inslee signed the laws bringing so-called AVR to their states.
Buttigieg, O'Rourke, Williamson and Yang all offered support for the concept on their campaign sites. Biden, Bullock, de Blasio and Delaney have endorsed AVR when asked by reporters. Castro tweeted his support.
• Who would expand the franchise for convicted felons?
The view that voting rights should be restored to felons has been steadily gaining favor in recent decades — but the prerequisites are still hotly debated and vary widely among the states. After Floridians voted overwhelmingly last year to let felons vote once they've finished their sentences, for example, the Republican legislature added several additional requirements.
Felons would get their right to vote restored upon release from any state or federal prison under HR 1, so that's the position formally endorsed by all nine candidates now in Congress. Buttigieg and Yang support that, as well. (Only 14 states have such a policy. Almost all the others require parole completion or additional waiting periods, set financial conditions or require special permission for egregious offenders.)
Sanders would go notably further, however, declaring that even the most violent criminals should be permitted to vote from behind bars — the policy only in his home state of Vermont and Maine.
Warren and Harris have said they would consider endorsing Sanders' view, while O'Rourke and Castro say they're open to prison voting by nonviolent felons.
Bullock, de Blasio, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Inslee and Williamson have told reporters they support restoring voting rights to felons but have been vague on specifics. Biden has not tipped his hand at all.
• Who has a plan for reviving the key piece of the Voting Rights Act?
The landmark 1965 law, which bans racial discrimination in state voting laws and legislative mapmaking, also created special oversight for elections in states and counties with egregious histories of such bias: They must get advance permission — or "preclearance" — from the Justice Department before making any changes affecting voting.
Six years ago, however, the Supreme Court held that the law's formula for identifying these places was unconstitutionally outdated and could no longer be used. Coming up with a new system is seen as essential to restoring the law's former clout.
Legislation instituting a new set of rules, which would likely subject at least parts of 11 states to preclearance, is co-sponsored by all seven senators running for president. Ryan and Gabbard have sponsored the House version. Neither bill has advanced this year. Delaney and Hickenlooper say they back the bill.
Warren has gone further. She has proposed creating a Secure Democracy Administration to replace the Election Assistance Commission, and one of its tasks would be reviewing state plans to assure compliance with federal election law; the federal government would pay all the costs of running elections in states that were in total compliance.
Buttigieg promises to push a "21st Century Voting Rights Act," which he says would have new preclearance procedures "to block racist voting laws before they take effect," while O'Rourke says he'd come up with a "Voting Rights Act for the 21st Century" that would "make clear that even seemingly race-neutral election regulations are unlawful when they result in disproportionate impact on racial minorities."
Biden, who as a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006 had a hand in the most recent update of the Voting Rights Act, has criticized the court's ruling but not detailed a desired response. The same holds true for Williamson.
Bullock, Castro, de Blasio, Inslee and Yang have not directly weighed in on the issue.
• Who would require voting equipment to provide a paper trail?
Russia's widespread efforts to meddle in the 2016 election have set off a paroxysm of proposals for making voting systems more secure and the financing of online political advertising more transparent — although none look likely to get through the divided Congress before the next election.
The consensus view of security experts is that the nation's voting hardware needs a back-to-the-future transformation, with thousands of totally electronic (but potentially vulnerable to hacking) touchscreen machines getting replaced with equipment that relies on paper to provide an auditable or hand-countable record of every ballot.
All 8,000 election jurisdictions would have to use such equipment under HR 1, meaning both House members (Gabbard and Ryan) have voted for such a mandate and all seven senators (Bennet, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren) have endorsed it.
Warren would go further, promising to spend $15 billion in revenue from her proposed surtax on the superrich to purchase new voting machines — computerized but with an auditable paper trail — for the entire country and have them programmed with a standardized ballot.
Buttigieg, Castro, O'Rourke and Williamson have all endorsed making auditable paper ballots the national standard.
While not explicitly calling for such a mandate, Hickenlooper has praised Colorado's use of paper ballots. Inslee says his state's system of voting entirely through the mail is the way to go. Yang is unique among the group in wanting to permit voting on personal mobile devices.
Biden, Bullock, de Blasio and Delaney have not weighed in.
• Who would require disclosure of funders of political ads online?
To help prevent a repeat of one of Russia's most successful infiltrations of the 2016 campaign, Democrats and a growing group of Republicans on Capitol Hill want to subject online paid political advertising to the same disclosure and disclaimer regulations as TV and radio spots — most importantly by ending the ability of those who pay for digital campaign ads to keep their identities secret.
That cloak of secrecy would be swept away under HR 1 — the election, campaign finance and ethics package supported by all nine members of Congress seeking the White House. The bill would also compel Facebook, Google and potentially other social media behemoths to disclose the identity of those who spend as little as $500 on political ads on their platforms.
On the assumption HR 1 is a dead letter, a stand-alone bill is being pushed hard by Klobuchar, who's the top Democrat on the Senate panel with jurisdiction over election law.
Buttigieg has endorsed this so-called Honest Ads Act. Delaney, Inslee and O'Rourke co-sponsored similar bills when they were in the House.
Biden has not taken a stand on this issue, beyond a general declaration by his campaign that "the public has the right to know who is contributing to which advertisements and campaign initiatives."
Bullock, Castro, de Blasio, Hickenlooper, Williamson and Yang have not said even that much on the issue.
• Who would end legislative mapmaking by partisan actors?
Several Democratic candidates panned the Supreme Court's ruling in June that effectively barred federal courts from hearing partisan gerrymandering challenges to congressional or state legislative district maps.
Gillibrand called it a "disgrace." Inslee said it was an "insult to our democracy." Warren said it was "an abomination." Sanders said it gave Republicans "approval to rig our democracy."
All 20 of the candidates on the July debate stage have signed the "Fair Districts Pledge" created by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an advocacy group chaired by Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder. "I believe every elected official should be accountable to the people they represent, which means we need to end gerrymandering," the statement reads. "I pledge to support fair redistricting that ends map manipulation and creates truly representative districts."
The House-passed HR 1 would require all the states to create independent redistricting commissions to set the boundaries of their congressional districts. Today, the work is controlled by the legislatures in 31 states, and in four others the maps are mainly made by partisan panels.
Ryan and Gabbard voted for the legislation, which all seven senators have sponsored. Seven not in Congress have announced support for independent redistricting commissions: Buttigieg, Castro, Delaney, Hickenlooper, O'Rourke, Williamson and Yang.
The candidates who have not come out for that idea are Biden, Bullock, de Blasio and Inslee.
• Who would do away with the Electoral College?
None of the candidates are holding up "Save the Electoral College" signs. Why would they? While Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the past seven elections, in two cases (2000 and 2016) a Republican won the presidency by securing most of the electoral votes.
Thirteen candidates say they support, or are open to, abolishing the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote, which would require an amendment to the Constitution. There's no chance two-thirds majorities in Congress and three-quarters of the states would go for that, so the idea is more theoretical and symbolic.
Nonetheless, some candidates are outspoken in their distaste for the current system.
Warren is urging people to sign a petition to get rid of the Electoral College. Buttigieg is calling for that constitutional amendment. Bennet is running Facebook ads saying electors deciding the presidency is "outdated." Booker said he prefers the popular vote. Castro, de Blasio, Gillibrand, Inslee and Williamson want to eliminate it. O'Rourke thinks there's "a lot of wisdom" in abolishing it.
Harris, Klobuchar, Ryan and Sanders have said they are open to the idea. Gabbard has sounded ambivalent.
Bullock and Yang are the only two who want to keep things as they are. Hickenlooper and Delaney say a constitutional repeal is so impractical it's not worth discussing. Biden has been mum on the topic.
• Who would change the makeup of the Supreme Court?
The Supreme Court has become a favored punching bag for Democrats, thanks to the court's conservative-majority decisions that lifted restrictions on campaign finance, struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act and gave the de facto green light to partisan gerrymandering.
Buttigieg stands out for having the only fully formed plan for depoliticizing the court. He would expand it to 15 justices: five affiliated with the Republicans and five with the Democrats, confirmed by the Senate for lifetime appointments as is the current practice, plus five judges from the lower federal courts chosen unanimously by the 10 justices to sit with them for one year.
Eight others appear open to adding more seats to the bench, which would be accomplished through legislation by Congress. Warren thinks it's a conversation "worth having." Harris is "absolutely open" to it. Bullock, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Klobuchar, Gillibrand and Yang are also open to it.
Bennet, Biden, Castro, de Blasio, Delaney, Gabbard, O'Rourke, Ryan and Williamson all oppose changing the size of the court. Booker says he's ambivalent.
Sanders also opposes adding justices. He prefers rotating judges from the federal appeals courts through the Supreme Court. That's an idea Inslee likes, too.
Term limits for the justices has the support of Castro, O'Rourke and Yang. Booker and Harris say they'd consider that.
• Who would require presidential candidates to publicize their income tax returns?
Donald Trump has made this an issue by being the first president since Richard Nixon to not release his tax returns.
Because he refused to do so, Democrats included language in HR 1 requiring nominees for president and vice president to make public their most recent 10 years' worth of federal income tax filings. Gabbard and Ryan voted for that bill, and its Senate companion is sponsored by Bennet, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren.
Seven of those members have themselves released at least a decade's worth of their returns. Bennet and Gabbard have not released any. Neither has Delaney, a multimillionaire businessman, although when he was in the House he supported legislation requiring the president to make public his three most recent returns.
Castro told a CNN town hall that Congress should require anyone running for president to submit 10 years of tax returns. He later added he looked forward to releasing his own "during the next few weeks." That was three months ago. He still hasn't released them.
Biden, Bullock, Buttigieg, O'Rourke and Inslee have all released at least a decade's worth of returns; de Blasio has done so for two years.
Hickenlooper released his returns while governor, but not since. Williamson has released some. Yang hasn't released any. None of them have talked about making it a requirement.
• Who would slow the 'revolving door' between government and business?
Booker, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren and Williamson have signed a pledge from the liberal-leaning advocacy group Common Cause, saying as president they would make it a priority to prevent former federal officials from trading on their expertise as lobbyists — and also prevent former lobbyists and corporate officials from doing the bidding of their old employers from inside federal offices.
The pledge vows to restrict for-profit corporate lobbyists from working in the White House, ban "golden parachute" payouts for appointees from the private sector and comply with Office of Government Ethics guidelines.
Bullock participated in the larger pledge, but he opted out of the revolving door clause, saying, "Previous efforts to ban lobbyists have prevented public health and environmental advocates and experts from joining an administration."
As far as specific policies, Warren wants to ban former members of Congress from taking jobs as federal lobbyists — "not for one year or two years, but for life." Lifetime bans are also in the platforms of Bennet and Yang.
Others are calling for a shorter ban. O'Rourke wants to bar former lawmakers and senior staffers from lobbying for six years after leaving their posts. Williamson and Delaney support a five-year ban.
Biden hasn't shared his views on the issue or said whether he supports HR 1, which bans companies from providing incentive payments to employees for taking government positions (aka golden parachutes).
Gabbard, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar and Ryan have said they are in favor of restrictions. Castro, de Blasio, Hickenlooper and Inslee have not weighed in.
- Bennett hopes an emphasis on fixing the system boosts his ... ›
- Top presidential hopefuls, except Biden, open to a Supreme Court ... ›
- What the Democrats' tax returns say about their support for public ... ›
- Democratic ticket hasn’t pushed the reform agenda - The Fulcrum ›
- Congress has plenty to fix, but not the Supreme Court - The Fulcrum ›
- A packed Supreme Court would neuter judicial independence - The Fulcrum ›