Democracy and Law
Given the widespread dissatisfaction with both major-party nominees in 2016, it is natural to ask if the American presidential nomination process is to blame for producing two such candidates as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But when the dynamics of these two nomination races are examined, there is little evidence that the outcomes would have been affected by any plausible changes in the process. Hillary Clinton did gain an advantage from the Democratic rule that awards automatic delegate status to elected and party officials, but she also won a clear majority of the votes cast by ordinary voters in presidential primaries and of the delegates selected through primaries and caucuses. And though there is evidence that the leadership of the Democratic National Committee favored her nomination and wanted to aid her candidacy, there is little that the committee actually did—or could do—to make such an outcome more likely. On the Republican side, Donald Trump did not win because the Republican process was, in effect, taken over by independents. Trump won a solid plurality of the votes cast by primary voters who identified as Republicans. A different set of delegate allocation rules and a large contingent of Republican superdelegates might have slowed Trump’s road to the nomination, but, given his dominance of the primaries, probably would not have changed the final result. The only rules changes that might have aided both Clinton’s and Trump’s opponents were if more states had used a caucus-convention system instead of a primary to select their national convention delegates. Both Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz fared substantially better in caucuses than in primaries. But given ample evidence that caucuses have a significantly smaller and less representative turnout than primaries, it is unlikely that either party—or their rank-and-file members—would have endorsed a substantially greater use of caucuses.
For many centuries, political communities have contrived nominating systems that seek to attain similar goals across different countries—protecting the community from overly ambitious and powerful leaders, and uniting rather than dividing communities at election time around leaders with broad-based appeal. They have done so by resort to procedures that recur almost invariably—procedures framed to avoid plurality victories in multicandidate contests and to insulate nominators’ decisions from outside influence, including the influence of fellow voters’ decisions. One is struck by how painstakingly our forebears worked out the problems of nominations over time, with recurring themes and methods, which (ironically in this age of information) find no echo today in our own presidential nominating system.
As Americans, we take for granted that those we entrust with significant authority have been judged by their peers to be competent at the task. Peer review is a concept commonly accepted in most professions. For instance, in medicine “peer review is defined as ‘the objective evaluation of the quality of a physician’s or a scientist’s performance by colleagues.’” That is why we license plumbers, electricians, manicurists, doctors, nurses, and lawyers. We do this in most aspects of life—except politics. In 2016, Americans nominated and then elected Donald Trump, the most unqualified (by virtue of traditional measures of experience and temperament) person ever elected to the Office of the President of the United States, in a system without peer review. This Article is an argument for the restoration of some modicum of peer review in the modern nominating system of both major political parties.
The institutional design through which democracies choose nominees who compete to become a nation’s chief executive is among the most consequential features in the design of democratic elections. Yet there is surprisingly little scholarship that explores this issue in detail. This Article provides both historical perspective on the evolution over time of the nomination process in the United States and comparative perspective on how other major democracies structure this process. The central organizing theme of this piece is the contrast between nomination processes that entail a central role for “peer review”—in which party leaders have a central voice in the selection of their parties’ nominees—and purely populist selection methods, in which ordinary voters completely control the selection of nominees and party figures have no special role. The first half of the Article is historical and focuses on the United States. In the 1970s, the United States shifted almost overnight from the methods that had been used for nearly 200 years to select party nominees, in which official representatives of the political parties played the major role in deciding the parties’ candidates for President, to a purely populist mode (primaries and caucuses) for selecting presidential nominees. The consequences of this dramatic transformation have manifested themselves in recent presidential nomination contests. In this Part, we seek to show both how radical the change was that was made in the 1970s and yet how accidental, contingent, and inadvertent this transformation was. The “framers” of these changes did not actually intend to create the system with which we ended up, in which the primaries and caucuses completely determine the parties’ nominees. The second half is comparative and explores how other major democracies structure the process of choosing party leaders and candidates for chief executive. This part shows that the U.S. system is an extreme outlier among major democracies: In no other democracy is the selection completely controlled by the mass of ordinary voters. Most other democracies use systems of pure peer review to select candidates for chief executive; or use systems that mix elements of peer review with popular participation; and in other ways continue to give official representatives of the parties much greater say than in the United States over the selection of the parties’ nominees for chief executive.
While the debate over the role of political parties is longstanding and not completely resolved amongst scholars, most reform groups are skeptical that stronger parties are the solution to contemporary problems in the American political system. Looking at the effects of past reforms and related court rulings, we maintain that many of them strengthened the hand of party activists, independently financed candidates, and donors in the nomination process at the expense of elected officials and national party officials. This has not only fueled partisan polarization due to pres- sures from party activists and donors, but it also removed any ability of the party to conduct what some have termed “peer review.” Instead of focusing on reversing past party reforms, however, we propose taking a different tack. We ask what changes might make the political parties more effective umbrella organizations that promote coalition building and better governance in this period of high polarization. Toward that end, we propose some changes that might incentivize American political parties to serve that function better. The parties themselves would have to adopt some of these reforms. Others might require that reform groups and the courts be willing to give political parties a more privileged role in campaign finance.
As the federal campaign finance laws have withered, leading to the rise of super PACs and other forms of largely unregulated spending, the parties have remained subject to stringent legal restrictions and must contend with other factors adverse to their competitive position in the electoral landscape. Certain of the limitations they have encountered affect their ability to fund, control, and manage core institutional functions. One such function is the conduct of presidential debates, now largely financed, planned, and operated by the news media organizations and nonprofit organizations. The candidates, especially front-running candidates and party nominees, also have some say in the conduct of debates. But the parties occupy the periphery of these major campaign events that bear directly on how they present themselves and showcase their candidates to the electorate. Empowering parties through modest legal reforms to play more of a role in the debate process would be one limited but potentially important step in bolstering their standing and capabilities.
Civil society today vitally supplements the traditional legislative and judicial checks on the powerful federal executive branch. As many commentators have observed, individuals, interest groups, and media outlets actively monitor, expose, and impede federal executive misdeeds. But much of government administration now occurs in the states. State executive branches have burgeoned in size and responsibility in recent decades, and state and national leaders advocate further expanding state authority. Underlying such calls is a notion that states are “closer to the people” than the federal government, and thus more attentive and responsive to the public’s needs. Yet commentators seldom question these premises, and there is scant attention to whether and how civil society constrains administration in the states.
This Article identifies and theorizes the role of civil society oversight at the state level. It finds that state agencies frequently lack the civil society check that commentators celebrate at the federal level. State agencies are, on the whole, less transparent than their federal counterparts, less closely followed by watchdog groups, and less tracked by the shrinking state-level media. These insights complicate certain tenets of federalism theory—those that assume a close connection between state governments and their citizens—while strengthening theories concerned about state-level faction. As a practical matter, civil society oversight is one factor that can help explain serious regulatory failures in the states—and more optimistically, success stories. Finally, attending to civil society oversight can highlight reforms available to those who seek a state government that is more visible to and constrained by its people.
Political gerrymandering has been a feature of our republic since the early days of the United States. The majority of states in the U.S. allow state legislators to draw the district lines for legislative elections. Legislator-led redistricting is plagued with legislator conflict of interest, producing elections that are spectacularly uncompetitive and rampant with partisanship. In the process, the interests of voters are in conflict with the party and individual interests of legislators, threatening the legitimacy of our republican form of government. The results are often incumbent entrenchment in “safe seats” and overt partisan-based district manipulation. While not necessarily indicative that the will of the people is being usurped by the ambitions of legislators, one must inevitably ask, are voters choosing their legislators or are legislators choosing their voters? Until recently, the Supreme Court has taken a “hands-off” approach to remedying the negative effects of the partisan gerrymandering that occurs in states employing legislator-led redistricting. In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona voters’ right to transfer redistricting authority from state legislators to an independent commission of citizens via ballot initiative. This Note argues that the delegation theory applied by the Court in the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission decision, and the authority of voters to be the supreme regulators of the political market, is supported by the Framers’ vision of political competition and accountability as articulated in The Federalist Papers.
Our Government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, generally measured through our elections. When incumbent powers create structures and rules for our politics that entrench the status quo and limit voter control, however, the legitimacy of that consent is tested. For more than fifty years, and in spite of the “political question doctrine,” the Supreme Court has adjudicated challenges to franchise restrictions, gerrymandering, ballot access provisions, and more. In doing so, the Court utilizes doctrinal frameworks that focus on harms to individual rights and not on structural harms to the competitiveness, accountability, and responsiveness of our politics. This myopic view leaves systemic entrenchment and political lockup largely untouched. Scholars have identified these doctrinal deficiencies, but have not suggested an alternative textual basis for judicial intervention in these cases. This Note offers a potential solution in the Guarantee Clause. It argues that the Clause embodies a promise of popular sovereignty in the states. I contend that the Guarantee Clause can and should be revived to unburden the courts from the deficiencies of existing doctrine and provide a textual basis for addressing the problems of political malfunction.
“Sunrise amendments”—constitutional provisions that only take effect after a substantial time delay—could revolutionize American politics. Yet they remain undertheorized and unfamiliar. This Article presents the first comprehensive examination of sunrise lawmaking. It first explores a theoretical puzzle. On the one hand, sunrise lawmaking resuscitates the possibility of using Article V amendments to forge “a more perfect union” by inducing disinterested behavior from legislators. On the other, it exacerbates the “counter-majoritarian difficulty” inherent in all constitutional lawmaking. When one generation passes a law that affects exclusively its successors, it sidesteps the traditional forms of democratic accountability that constrain and legitimate the legislative process. The Article accordingly argues that while sunrise lawmaking holds considerable promise, it should be confined to “democracy-enhancing” reforms that increase future generations’ capacity to govern themselves. With this normative framework in place, the Article turns to the question of how time delays have actually been used in American constitutional history. It identifies six different instances of sunrise lawmaking in the U.S. Constitution. It argues that several of these illustrate how sunrise lawmaking can enhance the democratic character of American government, but at least one offers a cautionary tale of how temporal dislocation in constitutional lawmaking can have pernicious consequences.