warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Left Out Lessig: The Former Democratic Primary Candidate Who Wasn't Invited To Debates

Luke Holthouse |
November 5, 2015 | 10:41 p.m. PST

Lawrence Lessig, who announced a late bid for the Democratic nomination but dropped out this week.
Lawrence Lessig, who announced a late bid for the Democratic nomination but dropped out this week.
The movement was starting to gain some momentum. Lawrence Lessig was still well behind Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and even Martin O’Malley in the polls for the Democratic national primary. But Lessig was starting to gain some traction—he was polling at 1 percent in the NBC News, Monmouth University and Economist national polls.

But that momentum all came to a screeching halt Monday. Lessig, whose campaign only began on Labor Day after crowdsourcing $1 million in a month, finally gave up. After he learned that he would be left out of the second Democratic debate this Friday, for reasons that basically guaranteed he wouldn’t get a chance in any debates, he officially ended his bid for the presidency.

Sanders had certainly already claimed a hold on the progressive, anti-establishment wing of the Democratic Party. Throughout the campaign, he’s tried to distinguished himself from the more mainstream Clinton as the non-traditional political leader ready to bring about serious change in Washington.  But Lessig offered Democratic voters the perspective of a complete outsider and brought some seriously unconventional ideas to the table. Ultimately, though, he proved to be too far outside the political circuit to gain serious airtime in the national discussion, and Lessig never really got close to catching up.

Lessig, a Harvard law professor and political activist, was running on a platform of eliminating corruption in Washington. He says the root of all issues in Washington is the skewed influence people with money have in the political process, which must be addressed before realistic reform to any other important policy issue can happen. 

The heart of Lessig’s campaign was the Citizens Equality Act. The proposed legislation would attempt to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Congress by restructuring congressional districts and publicly funding citizen participation in campaign fundraising.

READ ALSO: Twitter Reacts To First Democratic Presidential Debate

The redistricting plan would replace the large number of single-winner congressional districts with a smaller number of multiple-winner districts. Currently, each congressional district gets one representative in Congress, meaning that if a representative wins just a slight majority of the vote in an election, almost half of voters in the district will be represented by someone whom they do not support. With multiple-winner districts under that scenario, districts would instead send multiple representatives from the majority party but at least one from the minority party. This would maintain some degree of local representation in Congress but make Congress much more representative of all voters. It also improves the chances that third-party or independent candidates get enough support for one of the seats in districts, which could help bridge partisan divides. It also would make it harder for incumbents to gerrymander, or manipulate the boundaries of districts every time they are redrawn to include more favorable voters, forcing incumbents to be more accountable to their constituents.

The redistricting plan would also use a ranked voting system on ballots, where voters could list their preference for each candidate in a race. To count the votes, voters who did not have their first preference elected to a seat would have their next highest choice count in determining contested seats. For example, if two Democrats, two Republicans and one Libertarian were running for three congressional seats in a district, then each candidate with more than 33 percent of first place votes would win a seat. If the leading Republican and Democratic candidates each got 35 percent of first place votes, they would both get seats. If the second leading Republican and Democratic candidates received 12.5 percent of first place votes and the Libertarian got the other 5 percent of first place votes, then the Libertarian candidate would be eliminated from the race as the lowest scoring candidate. However, the preference of those Libertarians between the second Republican and Democratic candidate would decide which of those two would get the third seat. Though more complicated than just choosing one candidate to support, it allows third-party voters to list third-party candidates as their first choice but still express their preference between candidates of the major parties. This reduces the chances of the "spoiler effect" occuring, or when support for a third-party candidate that likely would have otherwise gone to one major candidate proves to be the difference between the other major candidate winning.

Overall, the redistricting plan would improve the representation of the total voting population and possibly encourage more civic participation.

The public funding for participation in campaign fundraising would attempt to give everyday citizens the same collective influence during campaigns as wealthy individuals, corporations or unions. Citizens would be given a tax credit for campaign contributions. If citizens spent the value of the credit on a donation to a campaign, the total tax liability citizens would owe would be reduced by the value of the credit. The plan was based off a bill proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes (D, Md.), as well as a similar plan from the advocacy group Represent.Us.  

Lessig’s bill would also make Election Day a national holiday and automatically register citizens to vote. Lessig promised to put all of this on top of his agenda and push to enact it before any other bill if elected.

“Every important issue that Washington faces is affected by this corruption,” Lessig wrote for Politico. “And what America needs right now is candidates willing to explain this truth, to describe a plan to fix it, and to commit to fixing it not someday, but on Day One.”

Lessig agrees with the rest of the Democratic platform on economic and social issues. In fact, Lessig was an advisor to the Sanders campaign as recently as this summer, but he split off from the campaign because he didn’t think Sanders prioritized campaign finance reform. 

READ MORE: Hillary Clinton On SNL: What The Polls (And Reppublicans) Are Saying

“You’re talking about a string of reforms that simply cannot happen in the Washington of today,” Lessig wrote to Sanders in a memo. “The ‘system is rigged.’ If that rigging is good for anything, it is good for blocking basically everything you’re talking about.”

Dan Schnur, the director of the USC Unruh Institute of Politics, says that Lessig had little chance of winning the nomination but could have disrupted the national discussion on campaign finance. As the Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Schnur worked extensively on reform of California’s campaign finance laws and helped implement contribution disclosure requirements. He says it’s an issue that lots of Americans recognize, but don’t particularly care about compared to other issues.

“The essential challenge for most reformers is coming to terms with the idea that most voters, while they don’t like the way the system works, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to fix it,” Schnur said. “Voters—normal people—spend a lot of time thinking about jobs, and schools, and healthcare, and taxes, and immigration, and other very tangible matters of public policy that affect their daily lives. Political reform for most voters is much more of an abstract.

“So the most successful reformers are those who frame their reform agenda not as an end unto itself but a means to accomplish policy goals, and that’s a hard thing to pull off,” he said.

While Lessig has tried to put the issue in perspective for voters, Schnur says that still doesn’t mean Congress would buy it and enact any reform. 

“It’s unlikely that politicians who have been elected to office under the current rules are going to develop a significant interest in changing those rules because those rules have worked for them,” Schnur said. “It almost certainly would take court action or action by enough states to fundamentally alter the political process.”

Lessig’s original platform involved a highly unusual idea to push the legislation through Congress. He promised to run as a referendum candidate, pledging to stay in office only until the Citizens Equality Act went through. Once it was signed, he promised he would resign, and hand over the office to his running mate.

He dropped that idea from his platform midway through his campaign, saying that he would serve out his term and have a platform on the other important policy issues of the day, but those other issues would be on hold until his primary objective went through. 

While Lessig was still embracing the early resignation idea, the name mentioned quite frequently as Lessig’s preferred running mate was Sanders. Ideally, Lessig said, he could come in and enact his one reform then hand over the reins to Sanders to address the rest of the Democratic platform. But with Sanders polling so well on his own, Schnur said there was no reason why Sanders would join forces with Lessig and slow down his own momentum.

READ MORE: CNBC Moderators Lose The Third GOP Debate

Lessig has since criticized Sanders for not embracing campaign finance reform more in his platform, saying it is evidence that Sanders is trying to get elected and not truly running on the principle of reform. 

"So why isn't he talking about it first?" Lessig said. "Because the consultants are telling him: 'here's how you win a campaign.' They don't care if winning the campaign that way means you can't actually govern.” 

However, Lessig admitted in a recent column in The Atlantic that he dropped the resignation plan from his platform because it was not politically viable.  

The resignation idea was a total bust. No one liked it,” he wrote. “If the Democrats won’t take seriously a candidate with a viable, credible, and professionally managed campaign just because it includes a promise to step aside once the work is done, then fine. You win. I drop that promise.” 

Darry Sragow, an adjunct political science professor of campaign law at USC, said that there’s a chance that Sanders could enact some kind of campaign finance reform if he were to win, but only if he made some serious political concessions to the rest of Congress.

“That’s what Washington is all about,” he said. “It’s that kind of give-and-take and accommodating other people’s needs. A president who said ‘we have to make headway on this,’ and essentially was willing to cut deals to get this done might begin to be able to make incremental changes.” 

Sragow, who also believes there needs to be serious reform to the way politics are funded in the country, added that while it is currently only an issue with people who closely follow politics, it could eventually develop a lot of public support.

“You start talking about any legalized usage of marijuana, when you start talking about gay marriage,” he said, “those are issues that simmered for a long, long time and people in politics said ‘those are issues that are way out there and they’ll never become part of the debate,’ and lo and behold, look where we are.

“Sooner or later, the issue is going to surface, but the early, early stages are just walking in knee-deep quicksand. And [Lessig] is to be admired for starting.” 

If reform is to happen in campaign finance, Sragow thinks it could either go two ways. It could either be similar to Lessig’s proposal and add more regulation to the process, or go in the complete opposite direction and eliminate some of the existing regulation. While there are no limits on the amount individuals can spend on their own campaign, there are limits on the amounts individuals can donate to candidates; however, individuals and corporations can make unlimited contributions to Political Action Committees, which can advocate for candidates but are independent from candidates’ official campaigns. Sragow said these contribution limits were put in place beginning after the Watergate Scandal, and some argue that they only complicate the system.

“There’s a strong sense on the part of at least some players that the best thing is to just dump all of that and let people running for office raise money wherever they can, from any source they want and in any amount they want, but require immediate, full disclosure of where they’re getting their money.”

READ MORE: L.A. City Council Votes On Tougher Gun Storage Laws

For Nick Germain, the Vice President of the USC College Democrats, campaign finance reform is an important issue, but the other duties of the President are equally important, which is why he prefers Sanders to Lessig.

“I do not agree with running a single-issue presidential campaign,” he said. “America has so many issues to confront, and in a president, we need someone who understands all of the issues. A president is the leader of the country, they’re the leader of the most powerful country in the world, and they’re also the leader of the United States military.”

Lessig was left out of the first Democratic debate, as he did not have a high enough national polling rate to qualify. Since then, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, who both were participants at the first debate, have dropped out of the race. To qualify for Friday’s debate, Lessig needed to poll at 1 percent or above in three national polls, and he had reached that mark. However, he announced in a video on his website that the Democratic National Committee changed its qualification standards, saying candidates had to have reached that percentage in October, making it impossible for him to participate. The DNC said that it did not change its rule but merely clarified it. The rule ultimately led to his decision to drop out of the race Monday.

“Unless we can time travel, there is no way that I can qualify,” he said.

While Germain doesn’t necessarily agree with everything Lessig has to say, he nonetheless thinks Lessig’s arguments should be part of the broader national debate.

“I wish people could hear his message,” Germain said. “In terms of his position on money in politics, I agree wholeheartedly.”

Reach Contributor Luke Holthouse here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.