Most elections in the U.S. select one person; elections with multiple candidates selected by proportional representation are relatively rare. Typical examples include the U.S. House of Representatives, whose members are elected by a plurality of votes in single-member districts. The number of representatives from each state is set in proportion to each state's population in the most recent decennial census. District boundaries are usually redrawn after each such census. This process often produces "gerrymandered" district boundaries designed to increase and secure the majority of the party in power, sometimes by offering secure seats to members of the opposition party. This is one of a number of institutional features that increase the advantage of incumbents seeking reelection. The United States Senate and the U.S. President are also elected by plurality. However, these elections are not affected by gerrymandering (with the possible exception of presidential races in Maine and Nebraska, whose electoral votes are partially allocated by Congressional district.)
Proposals for electoral reform have included overturning Citizens United, public and citizen funding of elections, limits and transparency in funding, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), public or citizen funding of news, a new national holiday called "Deliberation Day" to support voters spending a full day in structured discussions of issues and candidates, abolishing the U.S. Electoral College or nullifying its impact through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and improving ballot access for third parties, among others. The U.S. Constitution gives states wide latitude to determine how elections are conducted, although some details, such as the ban on poll taxes, are mandated at the federal level.
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The cost of getting elected, especially to any national office in the US, has been growing. The Federal Elections Commission estimated that "candidates, parties, PACs, super-PACs, and politically active nonprofits" spent a total of $7 billion in 2012. The liberal magazine Mother Jones said that this money was used "to influence races up and down the ballot", noting further that the cost of elections has continued to escalate. The 2010 congressional elections cost roughly $4 billion.
Spending averages just under $3 billion per year for the 4-year presidential election cycle.
This is small relative to what the major campaign contributors, crony capitalists (whether allegedly "liberal" or "conservative"), receive for their money. The Cato Institute found corporate welfare totaling $100 billion in the 2012 U.S. federal budget. This includes only direct subsidies specifically identified in the Cato Institute research. It does not include indirect subsidies like tax breaks,trade barriers, distorting copyright law beyond the "limited time" and other restrictions mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and other distortions of U.S. foreign and defense policies to benefit major corporations and people with substantial financial interests outside the U.S.
Other studies have estimated between $6 and $220 return for each $1 "invested" by major corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals in lobbying and political campaigns.
This rate of return helps escalate the cost of elections. To obtain the money needed for their next election campaign, incumbent politicians spend a substantial portion of their time soliciting money from large donors, who often donate to competing candidates, thereby "buying" access with the one that wins.
Most of the proposed reforms can be achieved at least in part by legislation, though some require amending the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and related decisions would require a constitutional amendment to permanently change, and several have been proposed. Similarly, some proposed systems for campaign finance and / or restrictions on campaign contributions have been declared unconstitutional; implementation of those changes could require a constitutional amendment.
However, many other reforms can seemingly be achieved without a constitutional amendment. These include various forms of public financing of political campaigns, disclosure requirements and instant-runoff voting. The American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA) is one collection of reforms that appear to be consistent with existing US Supreme Court rulings, developed by Republican Trevor Potter, who had previously served as head of the US Federal Elections Commission under Democratic President Bill Clinton. Local versions of the AACA are being promoted by Represent.Us.
The Citizens United decision, January 21, 2010, of the U.S. Supreme Court has received substantial notoriety, pushing many people to work for a constitutional amendment to overturn it. Key provisions of that decision assert in essence that money is speech and subject to first amendment protections. Move to Amend began organizing to oppose that decision in September 2009. By June 2013, they had at least 164 local affiliates in 36 states plus the District of Columbia. They had obtained roughly 300,000 individual signatures for their Motion to Amend and had secured the passage of 367 local resolutions and ordinances.United for the People is consortium of some 144 organizations supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The web site of United for the People lists 17 constitutional amendments introduced in the 112th United States Congress and 12 introduced by March 13, 2013, in the 113th proposing to overturn Citizens United in different ways.
Lawrence Lessig said, "On January 20, 2010, the day before Citizens United was decided, our democracy was already broken. Citizens United may have shot the body, but the body was already cold. And any response to Citizens United must also respond to that more fundamental corruption. We must find a way to restore a government 'dependent upon the People alone,' so that we give 'the People' a reason again to have confidence in their government."
Lessig favors systems that share as broadly as possible the decisions about which candidates or initiatives get the funding needed to get their message to the voters. Following Bruce Ackerman, Lessig recommends giving each eligible voter a "Democracy voucher" worth, e.g., $100 each election year that can only be spent on political candidates or issues. The amount would be fixed at roughly double the amount of private money spent in the previous election cycle. Unlike the current Presidential election campaign fund checkoff, the decisions regarding who gets that money would be made by individual citizens.
Lessig also supports systems to provide tax rebates for such contributions or to match small dollar contributions such as the system in New York City that provides a 5-to-1 match for contributions up to $250. To be eligible for money from vouchers, rebates or matching funds, candidates must accept certain limits on the amounts of money raised from individual contributors.
Vouchers, tax rebates, and small dollar matching are called "citizen funding" as opposed to more traditional "public funding", which tasks a public agency with deciding how much money each candidate receives from the government. While the Supreme Court of the United States has already struck down many forms of public funding of political campaigns, there are forms of public and especially citizen financing that seem consistent with the constitution as so far interpreted by the courts and could therefore be secured by standard legislative processes not requiring amending the constitution.
One bill that proposes such a system for U.S. congressional elections is "The Grassroots Democracy Act". It was introduced 14, 2012, by U.S. Representative John Sarbanes as H.R. 6426 and reintroduced on Jan 15, 2013 as H. R. 268.
Terms like "Clean elections" and "Clean money" are sometimes used inconsistently. Clean elections typically refers to systems where candidates receive a fixed sum of money from the government to run their campaigns after qualifying by collecting small dollar contributions (e.g., $5) from a large enough group of citizens. Systems of this nature have been tried in Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Connecticut and elsewhere; some of these have been disqualified at least in part by the courts.
"Clean money" is sometimes used as a synonym for clean elections; at other times, it refers to a DISCLOSE Act, requiring disclosure of the sources of campaign funds. The DISCLOSE Act bill in the U.S. Congress seeks "to prohibit foreign influence in Federal elections, to prohibit government contractors from making expenditures with respect to such elections, and to establish additional disclosure requirements with respect to spending in such elections, and for other purposes."
The California Clean Money Campaign is pushing the California DISCLOSE act, which differs substantially from the federal DISCLOSE Act. The California bill would strengthen disclosure requirements for political advertisements. Among other provisions, it requires the top three contributors for any political ad to be identified by name on the ad.
Ackerman and Ayres propose a "secret donation booth", the exact opposite of full disclosure. This system would require that all campaign contributions be anonymously given through a government agency. Their system would give donors a few days to change their minds and withdraw or change the recipient of a donation; it would also add a random time delay to ensure that the recipients of donations could never know for sure the source of the funds they receive.
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Media scholar Robert W. McChesney and others see a problem they believe is bigger than campaign finance and will not be solved by citizen-funded elections: The media. Citizens cannot defend their interests if the news they consume does not adequately cover the issues that concern them. Research by economists and political scientist has found that more vigorous media with more aggressive investigative journalists tends to reduce political corruption and could presumably reduce the $100 billion per year found by the Cato Institute or the larger estimates of the "Cost of problems with the current system" mentioned above.
Media bias in the United States is driven in part by its business model: Advertising rates are set by the size (purchasing power) of the audience. The most successful media companies provide content that attracts the largest possible audience that both increases sales and manufactures consent (or avoids stirring up opposition) for the political agendas of major advertisers. Commercial media organizations have lost revenue and profitability when advertisers moved their marketing communications to other outlets.
The substantial consolidation of ownership of the media in the 1990s encouraged the resulting oligopoly to virtually eliminate investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is expensive with an uncertain return. Worse, almost anything that serious journalists would investigate could involve favors received by some special interest in return for their massive campaign contributions. This means that commercial media companies cannot afford to create a media feeding frenzy from any issue that concerns a major advertiser; this limits the news space (print space or air time) that can be devoted to any one story. "A five-year study of investigative journalism on TV news completed in 2002 determined that investigative journalism has all but disappeared from the nation's commercial airwaves." This profoundly limits the ability of citizens to understand current events well enough to defend their interests.
McChesney and Nichols recommended a "citizenship news voucher", whereby "every American adult gets a $200 voucher ... to donate ... to any nonprofit news medium".Bruce Ackerman has proposed a similar "Internet news voucher" that asks Internet users to "click a box whenever they read a news article that contributes to their political understanding. ... [A] National Endowment for Journalism ... would compensate the news organization originating the article on the basis of a strict mathematical formula: the more clicks, the bigger the check from the Endowment."
A similar system involves "public commissioning" of news. Dan Hind said, "Journalists, academics and citizen researchers would post proposals for funding" investigative journalism on a particular issue with a public trust funded from taxes or license fees. "These proposals would be made available online and in print in municipal libraries and elsewhere. ... The public would then vote for the proposals it wanted to support.
The U.S. subsidized news almost from the founding of the republic. McChesney (2004, p. 33) noted that the United States Constitution "gave Congress the power 'to establish Post Offices and Post Roads'", primarily to educate the electorate. "The resulting Post Office Act of 1792" heavily subsidized the distribution of newspapers. "In 1794 newspapers made up 70 percent of post office traffic; by 1832 the figure had risen to well over 90 percent." The functioning of democracy in the U.S. would likely improve if changes increased the quality of information available to citizens.
Ackerman has also proposed a new national holiday he calls "Deliberation Day, ... held two weeks before critical national elections." The idea is to organize all-day events that would begin with citizens listening to major candidates debate. Attendees would then discuss their concerns in small groups of roughly 15. Questions raised in the small groups would then be answered by representatives of the major campaigns. This new national holiday was expected to encourage people to look for information beyond the sound bites, increasing demand for substantive investigative journalism, helping to encourage greater citizen involvement in politics on election day and beyond.
Approval voting is a non-rank-order system in which voters may select all candidates that meet with the voter's approval. The candidate with the highest approval score (i.e. approved by the most voters) wins the election. In elections with three or more candidates, voters may indicate approval of more than one candidate.
In 2017, the Colorado legislature considered approval voting. If the bill had passed, Colorado would have been the first state to approve approval voting legislation, but the bill was postponed indefinitely.
Many jurisdictions around the world use a system called Instant-runoff voting (IRV) or "ranked choice voting". Each voter would rank all (or at least some) of the available options. If one option is ranked first by a majority of voters, it wins. Otherwise, the option(s) obtaining the least number of votes is (are) eliminated, and the options ranked second by those voters get those votes.
IRV is being promoted in the U.S. by numerous individuals and organizations. One of these is FairVote, which provides a long list of "endorsers" of IRV, including President Obama, Senators John McCain and Bernie Sanders, five U.S. Representatives, policy analyst Michael E. Arth, the Green, Libertarian, and Socialist parties, a dozen state chapters of the League of Women Voters, four state chapters of the Democratic Party, the Republican party of Alaska, and many others.It is currently being used in some jurisdictions in the U.S.
There have long been concerns about problems with the Electoral College method of selecting the President and Vice President. Under this system the party that wins a plurality in a given state gets all that state's electoral votes. (In Maine and Nebraska, the plurality rule applies by congressional district.)
Modern polling has allowed the presidential campaigns to divide the nation into "Swing" or "Battleground" states and states with near-certain victories for either the Republican or Democratic candidates: The campaigns then increases their chances of winning by focusing primarily on swing states. This effectively disfranchises voters in other states to the extent that their concerns differ from swing states.
Officially abolishing the Electoral College would require amending the U.S. Constitution. However, the same effect could be achieved if the Electoral College representatives from states with a majority of the electoral votes were all committed to vote for the presidential slate that achieved a plurality (or the majority after Instant-runoff voting): Presidential candidates would then have to compete for votes in all 50 states, not just the swing states, typically less than a dozen of the 50.
This is the idea behind the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Between 2007 and 2014, eleven states with electoral votes totaling 165 had approved the compact. To take effect it must be approved by states with electoral votes totaling 270, just over half of the 538 current total electoral votes.
One potential source of political corruption is people changing jobs between industry and government, known as the revolving door. This practice could benefit society by allowing both government and industry to act with better understanding of the other. Unfortunately, the record of regulatory capture includes many sordid examples of regulators and legislators acting in ways that benefit industry to the detriment of the public. Current U.S. law imposes waiting periods on certain government officials taking jobs with industries over which they have had decision-making authority. However, the restrictions do not apply to many high-level policy makers, where such restrictions could be most needed.
The proposed American Anti-Corruption Act includes provisions to "prevent job offers as bribes" by requiring members of congress and their senior staff to wait 5 years after leaving government before they can work for a lobbying firm or a company over which they had decision-making authority.
The proposed American Anti-Corruption Act includes provisions to "Prohibit members of Congress from soliciting and receiving contributions from any industry or entity they regulate". It would also prohibit federal government contractors from contributing to the election of any candidate or party.
In the United States House of Representatives and many other legislative bodies such as city councils, members are elected from districts, whose boundaries are changed periodically through a process known as redistricting. When this process is manipulated to benefit a particular political party or incumbent, the result is known as Gerrymandering. The Open Our Democracy Act of 2017 is a bill designed to end gerrymandering which is currently awaiting scheduling for a vote in the US House of Representatives.
Voting is not required of citizens in most states, so elections are decided by "those who show up". Politicians target their message at getting their own supports out to the polls, rather than winning over the citizens in the middle. One solution to this problem is compulsory voting.
Compulsory voting has been criticized as "vaguely un-American" but potentially beneficial to democracy.
Many organizations support some variant of at least one of the reforms mentioned above. Some of these are identified in the following table.
|Organization||Citizens United Stance||Buckley v. Valeo
|Solution||How||Campaign finance||Disclose||Citizen-funded news||IRV||Approval||Other Non-FPTP||Electoral College mimic popular vote||revolving door||Other|
|Common Cause||?||4-1 match of small $||*||*||2 years for any industry job|
|Public Citizen||Corporations are not people||Fair Elections Now Act||*||*||?|
|Move to Amend||**||*|
|United for the People||*|
|People for the American Way||*|
|National Popular Vote||Interstate Compact||States||*|
|Rootstrikers||*||Citizen funding||*||No lobbying pledge|
|United Republic||*||Citizen funding||*||5 years for representatives and senior staff||Prohibit incumbents from action favoring major campaign contributors|
|Wolf Pac||Corporations are not people||Money is not free speech||Amendment||Congress or States|
There are separate electoral reform efforts in several states. These include Electoral reform in California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington state.