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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)