The Referendum Candidate; Who is Lawrence Lessig?

By: Patrick Custer- Expert Access Participant

“Fixing democracy can’t wait.” This is the slogan of Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor running on a single issue platform in his bid for the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nomination. His only goal, if he were to become the next President, is to “fix democracy” through comprehensive campaign reform via passage of the Citizens Equality Act of 2017. The most fascinating, and abnormal, aspect of Lessig’s campaign—aside from the fact that it is a single issue campaign—is that following the passage of his sponsored bill, he has said he would resign from office, allowing the elected Vice President assume the role of President. He would become the first referendum, or single issue, president in American history. While this is an interesting take on how to enact comprehensive campaign reform, the realistic possibility that he would win his party’s nomination, let alone the general election, is very scarce. Regardless, the essence of his campaign and his plans concerning reforming the current campaign practices are still worth examining.

His reformation bill, The Citizens Equality Act of 2017, would encompass the comprehensive campaign reform that Lessig is designed to create equal freedom to vote, equal representation, and citizen funded elections. The equal freedom to vote piece of his legislation would ensure that voting was a protected and guaranteed right through the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 and the Voter Empowerment Act of 2015. It would also eliminate barriers preventing people from exercising this right by turning election day into national holiday, and enacting automatic registration. Equal representation would be ensured through outlawing the practice of gerrymandering, a process in which congressional districts are manipulated to enhance a party’s popularity and favorability in a district, increasing their chance of winning that district during its election. A system of fairly and equally distributed congressional districts would replace the current practice and give an equal vote to everyone through the passage of the Ranked Choice Voting Act. The final piece of the legislation, citizen funded elections, would remove corporate money from politics and make “congressional campaign dependent on the citizens through small dollar vouchers or matching funds” through a hybrid of the Government by the People Act and the American Anti-Corruption Act. Lessig’s hope is that through this bill he can help return democracy to the people.

The reforms that Lessig is trying to enact are not new nor are they revolutionary, but a combination of existing proposals that outline reforms that have been proposed by representatives or theorized by other reformists. The main goal that Lessig is trying to accomplish with his Referendum Presidency is to put democracy ‘back in to the hands of the citizens’ and out of the hands of the very rich, realigning it with what he believes are the original views out the founders. James Madison was famously quoted as saying, “who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor.” In Lessig’s view, democracy has been corrupted by “crony fund[ed] campaigns” and has been taken away from the people.

While the proposals that Lessig are promoting and advocating through his campaign are serious measures to equalize donor amounts, the practicality of their implementation in the manner that Lessig is seeking is highly unlikely. Lessig is polling at less than the one percent of the Democratic Primary vote, although he cites this may be partially because of his exclusion from major poll aggregates. He, at this moment, has not had a national platform to discuss or debate his reforms with other candidates vying for the Democratic Nomination. While Lessig’s unique candidacy decisions have differentiated him from others, he does not have the national notability necessary to gain the Nomination and remains relatively unknown. However, although it seems highly unlikely he will gain the presidency, his candidacy could catalyze the larger conversation over campaign finance reform during the coming debates.