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Seven Questions for the Democratic Debates

As the presidential primary debates unfold, the Brennan Center weighs in on the critical issues that candidates should be talking about in the coming months.

Last Updated: November 20, 2019
Published: June 26, 2019

The prime-time Demo­cratic debates will provide pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls with a big stage to pitch their vision to Amer­ican voters. At the Bren­nan Center, we’ll be listen­ing for how candid­ates plan to defend this coun­try’s demo­cratic insti­tu­tions and justice system. Below, seven of the ques­tions we want answered:

1. If elec­ted, how will you address the rise of voter suppres­sion across the coun­try?

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

Candid­ates should be asked about their plans to combat voter suppres­sion and about their posi­tion on laws that would protect the right to vote, such as auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion (AVR), redis­trict­ing reform, and full restor­a­tion of the Voting Rights Act. The candid­ates should also discuss their plans to address voter disen­fran­chise­ment, partic­u­larly in the 34 states with laws that disen­fran­chise people convicted of felon­ies, even after they have completed their sentences. They should be pressed to clarify their posi­tion on the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act (DRA), which would restore the right to vote in federal elec­tions for 3.3. million Amer­ic­ans upon their release from prison.

A number of these laws are included in H.R. 1, or the For the People Act of 2019, a sweep­ing pack­age of legis­la­tion that includes reforms to expand voting rights, curb gerry­man­der­ing, bolster ethics rules, and revamp how campaigns are funded. Many of the 2020 Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ates who are currently serving in Congress co-sponsored H.R. 1, which was passed by the House of Repres­ent­at­ives in March and was intro­duced (but has since stalled) in the Senate.

2. What next steps would you propose for ending mass incar­cer­a­tion?

Mass incar­cer­a­tion is one of the coun­try’s defin­ing civil rights issues. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion but almost 25 percent of its prison popu­la­tion. The fight to end mass incar­cer­a­tion took a signi­fic­ant step forward when the First Step Act became law in Decem­ber 2018, mark­ing the most substan­tial federal legis­la­tion on crim­inal justice reform in a gener­a­tion. The legis­la­tion, which garnered bipar­tisan support in Congress, will shorten some unne­ces­sar­ily long federal prison sentences and enforce rules that will improve condi­tions for people currently in prison. But the modest bill is only the first step in a much larger move­ment to end mass incar­cer­a­tion, one of the defin­ing civil rights issues in the United States today. And while the recent reforms demon­strate progress on the federal level, there is a lot of work left to do at the state level, as the state prison popu­la­tion accounts for 88 percent of incar­cer­ated Amer­ic­ans.

“There is grow­ing bipar­tisan support for the fight to end mass incar­cer­a­tion, and that support has led to substant­ive reforms such as the First Step Act,” said Lauren-Brook Eisen, acting director of the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program. “But there is room left (and a need for) much bigger and bolder reforms to make our crim­inal justice system fairer and more humane.”

In the longer run, ending mass incar­cer­a­tion will require broad polit­ical and cultural change. There are signs that the policy conver­sa­tion about crim­inal justice reform has become more progress­ive. In addi­tion, eight lead­ing 2020 candid­ates presen­ted their ideas for redu­cing the prison popu­la­tion and reform­ing the justice system in Ending Mass Incar­cer­a­tion: Ideas from Today’s Lead­ers, a May 2019 public­a­tion compiled by the Bren­nan Center. These ideas include policy recom­mend­a­tions that range from ending the war on drugs to strength­en­ing resources for public defend­ers to provid­ing treat­ment for addic­tion. The ongo­ing pres­id­en­tial debates could reveal addi­tional ideas from the pres­id­en­tial candid­ates for reform­ing the crim­inal justice system.

3. What is your plan for combat­ing the influ­ence of big money in polit­ics?

Wealthy donors, corpor­a­tions, and special interest groups play an outsized role in U.S. elec­tions. That influ­ence has expan­ded dramat­ic­ally since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which permit­ted corpor­a­tions to spend unlim­ited money on elec­tions. This has further shif­ted polit­ical power in the United States toward a small group of wealthy mega-donors who make multi­mil­lion-dollar contri­bu­tions to candid­ates, includ­ing through the use of super PACs.

A number of 2020 campaigns are taking a stand against big money by reject­ing corpor­ate PAC money, rely­ing instead on small-donor contri­bu­tions. As a result, nearly 55 percent of indi­vidual contri­bu­tions to Demo­crats during the Q1 fundrais­ing period came in amounts of $200 or less. With climate change emer­ging as a top 2020 voting issue, some candid­ates have also taken pledges to reject dona­tions from fossil fuel indus­tries. The debates will provide a plat­form for these candid­ates to tout their choices to eschew large donors.

Beyond tack­ling their own campaigns, 2020 candid­ates should also disclose whether they support compre­hens­ive campaign finance reforms, such as a nation­wide small donor public finan­cing program. Under this reform, small dona­tions from citizens to parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates would be matched by multiple match­ing public funds — enabling polit­ical candid­ates to rely less on big checks and special interests.

4. What will you do to secure U.S. elec­tions from foreign inter­fer­ence?

As the 2020 vote approaches, inform­a­tion about the extent of foreign inter­fer­ence in 2016 contin­ues to unfold. In May 2019, during his first public comments about the Russia invest­ig­a­tion, former special coun­sel Robert Mueller under­scored the seri­ous­ness of foreign meddling in 2016. “There were multiple, system­atic efforts to inter­fere in our elec­tion,” he said. “And that alleg­a­tion deserves the atten­tion of every Amer­ican.” Hack­ers work­ing on behalf of the Russian govern­ment infilt­rated voting systems in up to 39 states in 2016. Russian inter­fer­ence also included covert spend­ing on online polit­ical ads inten­ded to influ­ence the outcome of the elec­tion.

Lawmakers in Congress have intro­duced legis­la­tion inten­ded to bolster elec­tion secur­ity, but have encountered road­b­locks in the process. In the mean­time, 2020 candid­ates should clarify their plans to secure U.S. elec­tion systems — and there are many tangible steps that they can push Congress toward pursu­ing ahead of the next vote. “There’s a lot that Congress can do to help make our elec­tions more secure, such as provid­ing funds for states to replace outdated and insec­ure voting machines,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Bren­nan Center’s Elec­tion Reform Program. “Congress can also provide under­fun­ded local elec­tion juris­dic­tions with more cyber­se­cur­ity resources; require elec­tion system vendors to report cyber­se­cur­ity incid­ents to both federal and local author­it­ies; and pass the Honest Ads Act, which would help protect U.S. elec­tions from foreign spend­ing on polit­ical advert­ise­ments.”

5. How will you work with Congress to reform the National Emer­gen­cies Act?

Pres­id­ent Trump garnered wide­spread atten­tion in Febru­ary 2019 when he bypassed Congress and declared a national emer­gency to obtain funds for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Thus far, Trump has declared five national emer­gen­cies during his pres­id­ency for a total of 33 ongo­ing emer­gen­cies in the United States.

When declar­ing a national emer­gency, a pres­id­ent vastly expands the power of the exec­ut­ive branch. If misused, these declar­a­tions can lead to an abuse of power and threaten the civil liber­ties of the Amer­ican people. These vulner­ab­il­it­ies reveal the weak­nesses of the National Emer­gen­cies Act of 1976, the current frame­work that governs the pres­id­ent’s use of emer­gency powers.

The debate moder­at­ors should ask candid­ates how, if elec­ted, they would work with Congress to reform the National Emer­gen­cies Act. This might involve enfor­cing a 30-day expir­a­tion period for national emer­gen­cies declared by the pres­id­ent, unless Congress votes for its exten­sion. Congress should also clarify its defin­i­tion of a national emer­gency as an unex­pec­ted event that threatens press­ing national interests, such as health or public safety.

6. Will you take a stand against extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing?

In two rulings on June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have no role to play in even the most extreme cases of partisan gerry­man­der­ing. This contra­dicts the federal courts in five states have already struck down partisan maps as uncon­sti­tu­tional. The Supreme Court’s decisions could have far-reach­ing implic­a­tions for the next round of redis­trict­ing follow­ing the 2020 census and encour­age state lawmakers to draw maps that will entrench their parties in power — without fear of inter­ven­tion from the courts.

With federal courts now unable to address partisan gerry­man­der­ing, the battle­field for redis­trict­ing has shif­ted to the states, where there has already been signi­fic­ant reform. Redis­trict­ing reform is extremely popu­lar with U.S. voters, and in 2018 alone, voters in five states — Color­ado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah — approved reforms that were sparked by citizen activ­ists to limit extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing. At the state level, redis­trict­ing commis­sions can help make polit­ical maps process fairer and more trans­par­ent if it incor­por­ates an inde­pend­ent selec­tion process.

Candid­ates should push Congress to pass legis­la­tion that requires all states to form inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions. This reform is one of the provi­sions included in the H.R. 1, if enacted, would help ensure every vote counts equally. “We the people have the power to bar partisan gerry­man­der­ing. States and Congress can prevent it, and can create inde­pend­ent nonpar­tisan redis­trict­ing commis­sions,” said Bren­nan Center Pres­id­ent Michael Wald­man. “Fixing our demo­cracy now has been placed at the center of our polit­ics by a Supreme Court that saw an uncon­sti­tu­tional situ­ation and refused to do anything about it.”

7. How will you address white nation­al­ism and the resur­gence of hate crimes in the United States?

A racially motiv­ated gun massacre in El Paso in August 2019 has accel­er­ated efforts by lawmakers and polit­ical candid­ates to address white nation­al­ist terror­ism. The shoot­ing occurred during a five-year spike in repor­ted hate crimes in the United States, a period that was also marked by horrific attacks in Char­le­ston, South Caro­lina (2015), Orlando (2016), and Char­lottes­ville (2017).

It is diffi­cult to know the full extent of far-right viol­ence in the United States because the FBI and Depart­ment of Justice depri­or­it­ize the invest­ig­a­tion and prosec­u­tion of these crimes — a result of federal policies, not of a lack of legal author­ity. And while the El Paso attack has renewed a push for a more effect­ive federal law enforce­ment response, many of the policies proposed by lawmakers would either danger­ously increase easily abused coun­terter­ror­ism powers or expand inef­fect­ive, discrim­in­at­ory, and divis­ive coun­ter­ing viol­ent extrem­ism (CVE) programs. 

The 2020 candid­ates should speak to their plans for address­ing white nation­al­ism. They should call on the Justice Depart­ment to do its job and prop­erly track and invest­ig­ate hate crimes. But they should also strongly oppose the creation of new, vague, and unne­ces­sary author­it­ies to combat domestic terror­ism, which could be used by the govern­ment to target the very communit­ies at risk of white nation­al­ist viol­ence for exer­cising their civil rights and liber­ties. Finally, the candid­ates should discuss how they will consider restor­at­ive justice approaches in respond­ing to the victims of hate crimes and other far-right viol­ence.

(Image: Drew Angerer/Getty)