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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.