Skip Navigation

Questions for the 2020 Presidential Debates

What will the candidates propose to strengthen American democracy and reform the country’s justice system?

September 29, 2020
Shuji Kobayashi

The upcom­ing prime­time debates will provide the pres­id­en­tial candid­ates with a major stage to pitch their plat­forms to Amer­ican voters. At the Bren­nan Center, we’ll be listen­ing for how candid­ates plan to strengthen the United States’ demo­cratic insti­tu­tions and reform its justice system. Here are some of the ques­tions we want answered. 

1. Given the ongo­ing Covid-19 crisis, what should be done to ensure that the Novem­ber elec­tion is free, fair, and secure?

This year, elec­tion offi­cials are work­ing hard to protect their voting systems from cyber­se­cur­ity threats and to ensure access to the vote — all while facing new chal­lenges that the pandemic has created for elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.

In the upcom­ing debates, candid­ates should weigh in on proposed meas­ures to ensure that the Novem­ber elec­tion is free, fair, and secure, and that Amer­ic­ans can vote safely. The Bren­nan Center, for example, has recom­men­ded that states should provide a univer­sal vote-by-mail option, expand early voting, and keep polling places open and compli­ant with public health guidelines. The debate moder­at­ors should also ask candid­ates how they would respond if elec­tion results aren’t ready on elec­tion night, which is a likely scen­ario.

2. How will you tackle the issues of police brutal­ity and racism in the crim­inal justice system? Will you support the Justice in Poli­cing Act?

The death of George Floyd in May 2020 provoked nation­wide protests against racial injustice and police brutal­ity, partic­u­larly toward Black Amer­ic­ans. This expand­ing move­ment has led to an ongo­ing conver­sa­tion about how to reima­gine poli­cing in the United States.

In the upcom­ing debates, candid­ates should describe their plans to address racial dispar­it­ies in poli­cing and to hold law enforce­ment agen­cies account­able for miscon­duct. Such efforts could include increas­ing federal over­sight of police depart­ments, reform­ing police prac­tices, and reex­amin­ing how officers inter­act with their communit­ies.

3. How will you engage with govern­ment scient­ists, public health experts, and research­ers, espe­cially in ongo­ing efforts to address the pandemic?

The govern­ment relies on scientific analysis and research to create and imple­ment sens­ible public policy. In recent years, however, govern­ment science has faced increased politi­ciz­a­tion and abuse. Appoin­ted offi­cials have censored, suppressed, and manip­u­lated research, and at times even threatened polit­ical retali­ation against career govern­ment research­ers, under­min­ing public trust in the process.

Covid-19 has under­scored the import­ance of a federal govern­ment that is capable of respond­ing effect­ively to public health crises and other emer­gen­cies, and safe­guards are needed to protect govern­ment science and research­ers. The candid­ates should outline their plan to curb polit­ical inter­fer­ence in govern­ment science. They should confirm their support of efforts by Congress to pass scientific integ­rity stand­ards for the exec­ut­ive branch.

4. How will you address the recent surge in voter suppres­sion efforts?

The 2020 pres­id­en­tial race will be an elec­tion about elec­tions. In the past decade, the United States has exper­i­enced a surge in voter suppres­sion, as states have passed a wide range of laws that make it harder for many citizens to vote — such as reduced early voting, strict ID require­ments, and regis­tra­tion restric­tions. Court decisions like the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, which weakened crit­ical elements of the Voting Rights Act, have accel­er­ated these voter suppres­sion efforts, which dispro­por­tion­ately target communit­ies of color.

The debate moder­at­ors should ask candid­ates whether they support federal legis­la­tion to fully restore the core protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act, which prevents racial discrim­in­a­tion in elec­tions. Candid­ates should discuss their posi­tions on addi­tional meas­ures that would protect voting rights, such as auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion (AVR), redis­trict­ing reform, and rights restor­a­tion for people convicted of felon­ies. A number of these meas­ures are included in the For the People Act (H.R. 1), a sweep­ing demo­cracy reform bill that was passed by the House in March 2019 but has stalled in the Senate.

5. What steps would you propose for ending mass incar­cer­a­tion?

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion but almost 25 percent of its prison popu­la­tion, thanks to a crim­inal justice system that dispro­por­tion­ately incar­cer­ates Black, Latino, and Native Amer­ic­ans. The passage of the First Step Act in 2018, which included some modest federal senten­cing and prison reforms, demon­strated the possib­il­ity for bipar­tisan cooper­a­tion on crim­inal justice reform efforts.

However, the larger task of ending mass incar­cer­a­tion will take much bolder polit­ical and cultural change. The candid­ates should discuss their ideas for tack­ling the many racial dispar­it­ies that plague the crim­inal justice system, such as the long-term economic consequences of mass incar­cer­a­tion and the uneven burden of court fees and fines.

6. How will you tackle the influ­ence in Wash­ing­ton of special interest groups such as the fossil fuel lobby?

This year, extraordin­ar­ily intense wild­fire and hurricane seasons have under­scored the urgency of the climate crisis — patterns that will worsen without aggress­ive efforts to reduce carbon emis­sions. And while address­ing the crisis will require bold envir­on­mental policies, it also involves repair­ing the nation’s campaign finance system, which has allowed fossil fuel interests to accu­mu­late outsized influ­ence in Wash­ing­ton.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United further tilted polit­ical influ­ence toward wealthy megadonors, corpor­a­tions, and special interest groups. This trend has included enorm­ous amounts of elec­tion spend­ing from fossil fuel indus­tries, who shoulder major respons­ib­il­ity for carbon emis­sions. As part of their climate change plat­form, the candid­ates should disclose whether they support compre­hens­ive campaign finance reforms and fixing the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion — and whether they would consider reject­ing polit­ical dona­tions from fossil fuel indus­tries.

7. How will you work with lawmakers to prior­it­ize ethics reforms in Wash­ing­ton?

In recent years, there have been mount­ing concerns over govern­ment trans­par­ency, account­ab­il­ity, and the signi­fic­ant gaps in the coun­try’s govern­ment ethics rules. These short­com­ings have opened the door for elec­ted offi­cials to use their posi­tions of power to advance their own polit­ical or finan­cial interests. For example, a loop­hole has left the pres­id­ent uncovered by the federal conflict of interest stat­ute.

The candid­ates should discuss whether they support the ethics reforms outlined in H.R. 1, such as disclos­ure require­ments for pres­id­en­tial tax returns and stronger rules on conflicts of interest. They should explain how they inter­pret the role of the exec­ut­ive branch and describe the kind of congres­sional over­sight they think is required to uphold the checks and balances stip­u­lated in the Consti­tu­tion.

8. What will you do to address white nation­al­ism and the resur­gence of hate crimes?

The United States has exper­i­enced a five-year spike in repor­ted hate crimes, a period that was also marked by horrific attacks in Char­le­ston (2015), Char­lottes­ville (2017), and El Paso (2019). However, the FBI and Depart­ment of Justice have depri­or­it­ized the invest­ig­a­tion and prosec­u­tion of these types of crimes, despite having ample legal author­ity to do so.

In a year of racial reck­on­ing for the United States, pres­id­en­tial candid­ates should speak to their plans for address­ing white nation­al­ism. They should commit to direct­ing the Justice Depart­ment to do its job and prop­erly track and invest­ig­ate hate crimes. And they should describe how they would counter the contin­ued infilt­ra­tion of law enforce­ment agen­cies by viol­ent racist and milit­ant groups.

9. If elec­ted, what Senate proced­ural reforms would you propose? Do you think the Senate should elim­in­ate the fili­buster?

The use of the fili­buster has increased dramat­ic­ally in recent years amid grow­ing polar­iz­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton, rein­for­cing partisan dead­lock in the Senate. Some argue that this trend has unne­ces­sar­ily entangled the cham­ber in proced­ural maneuv­er­ing instead of substant­ive debate, often slow­ing busi­ness in the Senate to a halt at the expense of actual lawmak­ing.

Candid­ates should discuss whether they would consider reform­ing or elim­in­at­ing the fili­buster — and specify other meas­ures they would consider to help ensure that the Senate is respons­ive to the will of the Amer­ican people and capable of passing legis­la­tion effect­ively.