Democrats Talk a Big Game on Reforming Our Political System, but Will They?

People representing Democrats and Republicans coming to agreement

The Democrats kicked off their convention yesterday, unveiling a 2016 platform that includes robust and specific campaign finance reform language and strong protections for voting rights. We hope that when the time comes, Democrats put their words into action, although past experience teaches us not to hold our breath.

On Money-in-Politics

Democratic platforms have long advocated election reforms, including enhanced transparency and public financing. This year, possibly due in part to the influence of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his delegates on the platform committee, Democrats adopted their most comprehensive platform to date on campaign finance, including a constitutional amendment, public financing, disclosure and reform of the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission.

The 2016 Democratic platform states:

“Democrats support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo. We need to end secret, unaccountable money in politics by requiring, through executive order or legislation, significantly more disclosure and transparency—by outside groups, federal contractors, and public corporations to their shareholders. We need to amplify the voices of the American people through a small donor matching public financing system. We need to overhaul and strengthen the Federal Election Commission so that there is real enforcement of campaign finance laws. And we need to fight to eliminate super PACs and outside spending abuses.”

This is not the first time that Hillary Clinton and Democrats have promised campaign finance reform. In 1992, when Bill Clinton headed the Democratic ticket, the party pledged to “limit overall campaign spending and limit the disproportionate and excessive role of PACs.”

The 2000 platform endorsed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, while also promising that Democratic nominee Al Gore would go “much further.” Specifically, Gore would “insist on tough new lobbying reform, publicly-guaranteed TV time for debates and advocacy by candidates, and a crackdown on special interest issue ads.” Furthermore, the platform touted Gore’s proposed vehicle for public financing: “a public-private, non-partisan Democracy Endowment which [would] raise money from Americans and finance Congressional elections - with no other contributions allowed to candidates who accept the funding.”

In keeping with Barack Obama’s promise of a new, cleaner politics, the 2008 Democratic platform endorsed “public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time.” The party pledged not to take contributions from PACs. At the behest of Obama, the party also imposed a ban on donations from federal lobbyists, though this was not included in the platform itself.

While these reforms are promising, it’s important to note that the Democrats’ actions on this issue don't always match their rhetoric, and that’s especially true this year. Early in 2016, the Democratic National Committee quietly lifted its ban on taking contributions from lobbyists and PACs of corporations, unions and other groups. The Washington Post’s Matea Gold recently highlighted how top Democratic National Committee officials “showered corporate lobbyists with calls, emails and personal meetings seeking convention support and PAC contributions.”

And Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has hardly led by example. Despite the party’s stated opposition to super PACs and Citizens United, she has taken full advantage of the loopholes in the existing system. For example, her campaign, citing an alleged loophole in the anti-coordination regulations, openly coordinates with a supportive super PAC, Correct the Record.

All this goes to say that it is far from a slam dunk that a Democratic president would truly be committed to reforming our out-of-balance political system. We will have to wait and see.

On Voting Rights

The Democratic platform also includes a full-throated commitment to voting rights, praised by The Nation as “the strongest language on voting rights in the party’s history.” The party pledges to “restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act” and “continue to fight against discriminatory voter identification laws.”

More specifically, Democrats promise to “bring our democracy into the 21st century by expanding early voting and vote-by-mail, implementing universal automatic voter registration, same day voting, ending partisan and racial gerrymandering, and making Election Day a national holiday.” Furthermore, the platform endorses restoration of voting rights for those who have served prison sentences.

We’re hopeful of these policy changes and recognize that much of the work in protecting the right to vote requires a shift in the makeup of Congress and state legislatures.

Daniel Lynch is a legal intern with the Campaign Legal Center this summer and a rising second-year law student at Harvard Law School.