The State of the Political Reform Program, Post-Election

November 14, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

With two elections within sixteen years won by the candidate who lost the popular vote, it is a natural turn that the Electoral College moves higher on the reform agenda. There remain other items for consideration: the state of the political parties, campaign finance, and voting rights. The question is: in what ways will the substance of reform, and its timing or tactics, be affected by the outcome of this election?

1. Attention to the Electoral College is now heightened at a time of mounting impatience with the other ways in which the electoral process deviates from the expectation that the most votes should decide. James Ceaser has correctly said that we’ve arrived at the point in our political culture that it is, if not unthinkable, difficult in the extreme to stand against the principle that the person with the most votes wins. So Republican leadership balked at any program to stop Trump at least in part because they struggled to explain how the nomination could somehow be denied to the candidate in a field of 17 who won by far the most contests and the most votes. The Democrats have run into similar problems with the role of super-delegates.

The case against the Electoral College is strengthened considerably by this strong trend in popular expectation. Whether we will see sustained momentum for reform is a different question.

2. Meanwhile, what about the parties? Ezra Klein has come to the view that parties may be weak but partisanship runs high, and that this complicated combination explains a good bit of what some see to have gone wrong with the nominating processes. Parties do not mediate voter choice: it is not accepted that they should step in against the candidates the voters favor and compel an alternative choice presented as superior in experience, governing credentials, or electability. So the voters decide, and once they have decided, the parties and their partisan fall into line. As Klein explains it, this is the worst of all worlds: weak parties, high partisanship.

The absence of strong parties on the traditional model has been keenly felt in this way, and perhaps in other less visible ones. For example, candidates now rely upon polling data to shape strategy and to adjust as necessary to changed political conditions. All of this is done at headquarters, shaped by sophisticated analytics. And the analytics are highly advanced. A modern campaign cannot operate without them. But genuinely strong parties are built on something more. They would have good intelligence “on the ground” delivered by seasoned party officials and operatives. The state and local party would speak authoritatively on local conditions. It pick up quickly on changes in those conditions not easily accessible through polling.

Earlier this year the Brookings Institution produced a report on resuscitating state and local parties by making adjustments in the current regulations that burden them or restrict their financing. Some of what was proposed was sensible and well worth considering. None of it, however, will restore political parties within the current structure of our politics to the position in which they can help steer national campaigns. This is not a function that state and local parties can be regulated or de-regulated into playing. One additional challenge: how do you draw millennials into the political party system that, by and large, they shown little interest in?

In the general election, the national committees provided resources to the presidential campaigns. Normally the candidates and their campaigns raise the money that eventually comes their way. On the data available, this was more the case on the Democratic than the Republican side, but generally, presidential and other candidates at the federal level continue to run and pay for their own show. The parties help them mitigate the legal restrictions on the direct financing of their campaigns (as do the Super PACs).

If, on the federal level, the parties’ principal contribution will consist of funding, this practical demand on parties will remain in tension with the reform goal to limit party financing for precisely this reason–that the parties operate, as political scientist John Aldrich has described them, as institutions “in service” to the candidate, and the reform program sees in this relationship the threat of corruption. The parties see the role as the one they are best able and suited to play, and not corrupt.

3. The progressive community in particular is facing a hard choice on campaign finance reform. It is always been high on the traditional reform agenda; now, however, it may be increasingly neither realistic nor practical. Certainly with the Congress under Republican control, and regulatory alternatives well out of reach ,it seems that there a limit to the energy and resources that can be productively devoted to federal campaign finance reform. It does not help the cause that much was made in this election cycle of the likely effect of money, Super PAC and other, and so there is little to show for it, although there is still data to be collected and analyzed. Perhaps now the effort will shift to state and local levels, reflecting better political conditions there and potentially also preparing the ground for the development of fresh proposals that could affect the federal-level debate as well.

Then there is the practical consideration that progressive politics will need in the coming years to be adequately,competitively  funded, and the question has to be confronted: how much money to accomplish an urgent political task is enough? What is needed to “do” effective politics, and who is in the best position to decide? Here, as in the case of parties, the reform imperative and the political imperative will clash.

4.The battle over voting rights, most prominently but not limited to voter ID, will remain, as it should, at the center of a reform program. Of course, and inevitably, much of the litigation this cycle has been swept up into the partisan narrative. But it is also encouraging that, while still divided ideologically on key issues, courts have moved more toward the rejection of the most raw displays of partisan self-interest or racial motivation in the design of exclusionary voting rules.

Building on this development, it will be critically important to cobble together as much bipartisan consensus as possible for nonpartisan, professional election administration –to keep as many of the issues in administration on uncontested ground. Among them: fair, flexible ID requirements where they have been enacted and upheld; or equitable allocation of resources within and across voting jurisdictions; the urgent need to replace the current aging generation of voting technology; the expansion of multiple opportunities for voting.  It seems that there must be a clear, core set of expectations that all agree on–and that the voting public demands–for the accessibility and reliability of the electoral process.

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