During Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Pete Buttigieg proposed a raft of supposed “reforms” that have, until recently, been the provenance of fringe groups and politicians such as D.C.’s nonvoting Democratic congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton.
The South Bend, Indiana mayor said:
When I propose the actual, structural, democratic reforms that might make a difference—end the Electoral College, amend the Constitution if necessary to clear up [the Supreme Court ruling in] Citizens United, have D.C. actually be a state, and depoliticize the Supreme Court with structural reform—people look at me funny.
Those funny looks are well-deserved. Each of those proposals would harm the integrity of the constitutional republic that our Founders so painstakingly crafted.
1. The Electoral College
Ending the Electoral College and moving to a national popular vote for presidential elections gained momentum on the left immediately after President Donald Trump’s victory.
While the idea of a national popular vote may seem appealing, it would be a disaster in a country as large and diverse as ours.
If we did away with the Electoral College, the trail to the White House would run through New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and that’s about it.
Popular elections push politicians to focus on the most densely populated areas. With limited resources and time, it just makes sense to camp out where the biggest concentrations of voters live.
Granted, most states get more or less ignored under the Electoral College system. Generally, candidates home in on tossup states, such as Ohio and North Carolina. But it’s much better for candidates to focus on these swing states than major metropolises alone.
Because these states are typically won by such small margins, candidates journey throughout the state, visiting both major cities and smaller towns, while hitting plenty of coffee shops and greasy spoons along the way.
Furthermore, by definition, “swing states” shift from election to election. It was not that long ago that dark blue California and deep red Arkansas were tossup states. With a national popular vote, big coastal population centers would dominate electoral politics election after election and “flyover country” would be continually bypassed.
2. Overturning Citizens United
The call for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United in order to prevent American citizens and corporations from spending money on political speech is another misbegotten anti-speech idea that is, nonetheless, common among progressives.
Immediately after the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have a right to make unlimited independent expenditures—that is, expenditures that are not coordinated with any political party politician’s campaign—undoing Citizens United became a fixation on the left. But the Supreme Court got it right.
The connection between the freedom of speech and the freedom to reach an audience—which typically costs money—is clear. If freedom of speech does not include a right to broadcast our words, the First Amendment protects little more than our ability to mumble quietly to a small circle of friends.
Attempts to eliminate independent expenditures and super PACs also rests on the faulty assumption that political speech funded by one set of corporations and individuals (the ones who donate to super PACs) is perverse, while political speech funded by another set of corporations and individuals (the ones who own TV stations and newspapers) is just fine.
The dichotomy is senseless. Why should a puff piece on a candidate in The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) be considered journalism, where no campaign finance rules apply, while a TV spot paid for by a super PAC funded by another CEO and praising another candidate is an electioneering communication subject to federal law?
3. Making Washington, D.C., a State
Statehood for the District of Columbia would not affect presidential elections, since D.C. residents already vote for president, but it would allow the District to exert outsized influence over national politics.
The Founding Fathers created the District of Columbia because they understood that if they located the national capital in a state, that state would have extraordinary control over national politics, since nearly every federal officeholder would live and work there.
Such a state could use law enforcement officers and permitting offices, and leverage everything from tax policy to zoning ordinances to extort political favors and make life a living hell for political enemies.
Because the District is not a state, and, thus, does not have sovereign authority within its borders, Congress can strike down D.C. policies that interfere with the functioning of the federal government.
However, if the District were made a state, officeholders selected from across the country would be directly affected by its policies and would have little recourse to challenge them.
For those who think the D.C. government would be above playing politics in this way, consider a recent decision by Washington’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to hear an obviously frivolous challenge to the Trump Hotel’s liquor license (on the grounds that he does not meet the city’s “good character” requirement).
4. ‘Depoliticizing’ the Supreme Court
The call to “depoliticize” the Supreme Court sounds fine at first blush, until you realize it would do exactly the opposite.
Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and several members of Congress—including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.—have advocated increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court from nine to 15.
It’s not as though 15 justices would be able to discern the meaning of the Constitution with any more clarity or hear any more cases than nine would.
So why change the composition of the court? The motivations aren’t particularly mysterious. Whoever holds the White House during such an expansion could handpick six justices.
In so doing, a progressive president could ensure progressive rulings for a generation to come. The idea is so radical and transparently partisan that even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the darling of the left, thinks it’s a bridge too far.
Let’s hope we hear more sensible policies for reform in future debates. While most would agree our politics are badly broken, Buttigieg’s prescriptions would do much more harm than good.