Putting Elected Officials in Charge of Elections Is a Recipe for Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States

One of the stories that figured prominently in last November’s U.S. elections was that of Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s Secretary of State and now the state’s new Governor. As Secretary of State, Kemp was responsible for administering the state’s elections—but in 2018 he was administering the very election in which he was running for governor, which creates an inherent conflict of interest. Indeed, there was plenty of evidence that Kemp used his position as Secretary to increase his odds of winning the election: He attempted to close polling locations in neighborhoods likely to vote for his opponent, promulgated abnormally stringent voter registration rules that put thousands of voters’ eligibility into question, and launched what most observers considered to be a groundless investigation into his opponent’s campaign in the week before the election. Ultimately, after ignoring calls for him to recuse himself, Kemp announced that he would resign as Secretary of State two days after the election, while the votes were still being counted. Kemp was eventually declared the winner, though his opponent, Stacey Abrams, never fully conceded, vowing to sue Kemp for “gross mismanagement of the election.”

It’s hard to see how an election administrator’s use of his power to benefit his own political campaign is anything other than corrupt. Indeed, Kemp’s controversial election illustrates how the U.S. electoral process is particularly vulnerable to this sort of corruption. (And, it’s worth noting, while Kemp drew most of the attention, there were two other candidates in the 2018 elections that found themselves in the same position, with one choosing to recuse himself from the recount process back in August 2018 during a close primary.) In most U.S. states, the Secretary of State (who is responsible for administering the state’s elections) is an elected official, and in over half of the states, Secretaries of State can run for public office while serving as Secretaries. This is out of step with most of the developed world, where election administration is independent and apolitical. Reformers have called for changes to this system before, so far without much success. But the atmosphere may now be ripe for anticorruption advocates to propose referenda to create new, independent, and non-partisan systems for election administration. A well-designed system could eliminate the clear conflicts of interest raised by people like Brian Kemp, while also tackling the more insidious and less obvious forms of corruption that arise when party members use their power over election administration to ensure that their party stays in power.

What might such a system look like? Canada may provide a useful model, given its similarities to the U.S., particularly with respect to its federalist structure. In Canada, each province is responsible for administering its provincial elections, while the Canadian national government administers national elections. The Canadian election administration systems share a few key components that keep the electoral commissions independent and non-partisan, and that all U.S. states should adopt: Continue reading

Putting Anticorruption Up for a Vote: The Challenge of Designing Effective National Referendums

One of the biggest challenges in the fight against corruption is getting people in power to reform the very system from which they currently benefit. Over the past year, we have seen anticorruption advocates in Colombia and Peru attempt to bypass this hurdle using national popular referenda on anticorruption measures.

In Peru, the referendum on December 9, 2018 came on the heels of the massive Odebrecht scandal, which implicated all of Peru’s living former Presidents. Current President Vizcarra and his supporters originally proposed a referendum containing three anticorruption reforms: banning the immediate reelection of legislators and executives, reforming the system by which prosecutors and judges are appointed, and instituting new campaign finance regulations. The required legislative approval of the referendum took several months, and during this process the legislature added another proposal (not supported by President) to create a second legislative chamber. In the end, the three original reforms passed, and the proposed bicameral legislature failed after a successful “Yes, yes, yes, no” campaign by the President and his supporters.

Colombia’s referendum also came in response to the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal. On August 28, 2018, Colombia had a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures that aimed to improve transparency in governance, institute legislative term limits, and cut legislator pay. Six of the seven measures proposed in the referendum had previously failed in the lower house of the Colombian legislature, but 99% of voters approved all seven measures in the referendum. Though the total number of citizens voting fell just short of the quorum required for the referendum to be binding, President Duque convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018. The President proposed eight measures inspired by the referendum to the legislature, but momentum has stalled as legislators look to modify the proposals or avoid voting on them. With no clear deadline for if and when they will be passed, their fate is now uncertain.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Colombian referendum was not without its faults, specifically with respect to the inclusion of counterproductive retributive measures. More generally, while a national referendum may seem like an ideal way to bypass conflicted legislators, a referendum poses serious three risks that need to be addressed if one hopes to use this lawmaking mechanism to combat corruption:

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When Justifiable Anger Leads to Bad Policy: The Unintended Consequences of Colombia’s Anticorruption Referendum

Last August, Colombia held a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures. Despite the fact that six of these measures had previously been proposed in, but failed to pass out of, the lower house of the legislature, popular support for the measures was overwhelming: each measure received 99% “Yes” votes. The referendum did not pass, however, because even though more people voted “yes” on the referendum than voted for the current President, under Colombian law the referendum would only pass if a quorum of 12.1 million citizens voted, and the 11.6 million voters who turned out fell short of that number. Nonetheless, proponents of the referendum declared it a success because it has put public pressure on Colombia’s political leaders to implement these measures. And indeed, President Duque has convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018.

Is this a good idea? It’s certainly the case that Colombia needs to do more to combat corruption, which is estimated to cost Colombian taxpayers at least $17 billion a year. But it’s not clear that all of the proposed solutions, though doubtless well-intended, are good public policy. I won’t attempt a comprehensive review of all seven measures here. I’ll put to one side discussion of those measures that focus on improving transparency (for example, by publicizing government budgets, legislators’ voting records, and public officials’ tax returns and asset declarations) or on making penalties more severe (for example, requiring those convicted of corruption to serve their full sentences, and nullifying government contracts with parties convicted of corruption). Rather, I want to address two measures that target Colombian legislators: one of these measures would impose a three-term limit, while the other would substantially cut legislators’ pay.

These two measures appear to reflect understandable public anger at how legislators have abused their positions for private gain. But this retributive impulse may produce bad policy. Indeed, both term limits and salary cuts are likely to prove counterproductive in the fight against corruption in Colombia.

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