Corruption 2020: How The U.S. Supreme Court Might Leave Presidential Elections Vulnerable to Corruption

The United States uses an indirect voting process called the Electoral College to elect the president. In this system, which is mandated by the Constitution, each state is assigned a number of “electors” based on the number of representatives the state has in both Houses of Congress; the voters in each state do not actually vote directly for a presidential candidate, but rather for a slate of electors, appointed by the state, who have pledged to vote for that candidate when the Electoral College convenes to select the president. (This odd system is why there have been instances, including in the most recent U.S. presidential election in 2016, when the winner of the popular vote does not become the president.) But suppose an elector who has pledged to support one candidate decides to switch her vote? This is not purely hypothetical: Throughout American history, 157 electors have defected from their pledge. Some states seek to prevent this through laws under which such “faithless electors” can be subject to civil penalties, including replacement. Electors from the 2016 Presidential Election have brought a case in the Supreme Court challenging these “faithless elector” laws as unconstitutional.

This challenge is obviously important for U.S. presidential elections—but (many readers might be wondering) what does it have to do with corruption? It turns out that, as U.S. anticorruption advocates have emphasized, if the Supreme Court rules that states cannot compel electors to vote as they have pledged, this could leave U.S presidential elections vulnerable to corruption. If electors cannot be legally required to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state, then electors can be bribed—or, if not outright bribed, then subject to other forms of improper influence.

Part of the problem is that U.S. campaign finance laws and government ethics rules, as currently written, do not cover electors. Likewise, U.S. anti-bribery laws prohibit bribes to public officials and candidates for public office, but electors don’t clearly fall into either of those categories. The most relevant federal criminal statute is likely the prohibition on vote-buying and vote-selling in elections, codified at 18 U.S.C. §597. That section prohibits “mak[ing] or offer[ing] to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate.” But this statute has been construed narrowly to only apply to instances of a quid pro quo, which leaves the door open for private interests to corruptly influence electors so long as they avoid any explicit bargain. Moreover—and even more troubling—the U.S. President has virtually unlimited pardon powers, so if a candidate’s surrogates bribed enough electors to win the presidency, in blatant violation of §597, the President could simply pardon both the agents who paid the bribes and the electors who took them. These two problems—the difficulty of proving a quid pro quo and the President’s pardon power—also explain why the problem couldn’t be fixed by expanding the scope of other federal campaign finance, government ethics, and anti-bribery rules to cover electors as well as public officials and political candidates.

So, should the Supreme Court decide that electors cannot be penalized by the states for defecting from their pledged votes, the U.S. presidential election might be up for sale. And, for the reasons sketched above, this problem couldn’t be easily fixed simply by expanding existing federal anticorruption laws to apply to electors.

Should the Supreme Court side with the “faithless electors,” what could be done to protect the integrity of U.S. presidential elections (short of abolishing or significantly reforming the electoral college—steps that would require a constitutional amendment and so are not likely any time soon)? There are three possibilities: Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Monika Bauhr

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Monika Bauhr, Associate Professor of Political Science and former head of the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg. During our conversation, Professor Bauhr discusses her research work in three key areas: (1) the impact of pro-transparency reforms (particularly the adoption of freedom of information laws) on corruption; (2) the disaggregation of the broad category “corruption” into different types of corruption (such as “need” corruption versus “greed” corruption); and (3) the relationship between gender and corruption, in particular what factors might account for the apparent correlation between greater representation of women in elected office (or the business or political elite more generally) and lower (perceived) corruption levels.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Can Political Opposition Decrease Corruption? Evidence from Brazilian Municipal Governments

The idea that checks and balances in the government—such as legislative oversight of the executive branch—can reduce corruption is intuitive, but quantitative empirical evidence for or against this hypothesis is relatively scant. Moreover, the effect of a separation of powers on the extent of corruption may depend on whether the same political party or faction controls both branches of government, or whether different factions control the legislature and the executive. Indeed, some legal scholars have argued that the true separation of powers is not between branches of government, but rather the political parties in the government, and that the traditional view of the separation of powers—ambition counteracting ambition—only works if different branches are controlled by different political parties. But the likely effect of such partisan separation on corruption is not entirely clear: If the legislature is controlled by a party or coalition opposed to the party that controls the executive branch, this could mean increased legislative oversight and lower corruption, but alternatively, increased opposition may simply drive the executive to bribe the opposition to go along with his or her agenda, leading to more corruption.

Carlos Varjão and I investigate this the question empirically in our recent working paper, “Political Opposition, Legislative Oversight, and the Performance of the Executive Branch.” We focus on municipal governments in Brazil, which are particularly suitable for this sort of study for a number of reasons: there are many municipalities with a similar overall government structure, there’s a wealth of data on various forms of corruption (mainly embezzlement, procurement fraud, and over-invoicing) from Brazil’s public audit reports, and there’s considerable variation in both the level of corruption and the political control of the branches of the municipal governments. Our findings are striking and unambiguous: increased representation of the political opposition in the local legislature is associated with more legislative oversight of the executive, less executive branch corruption, and better public service delivery. Continue reading

Presidential Power Grab: Corruption and Democratic Backsliding in Mongolia

Mongolian democracy is in trouble. On March 26, President Khaltmaa Battulga proposed emergency legislation that would grant the presidency unprecedented powers to dismiss members of the judiciary, the prosecutor general, and the head of the state anticorruption agency (the Independent Authority Against Corruption, or IAAC). One day later, parliament approved this legislation by a vote of 34-6 (with 36 members of parliament either absent or abstaining), despite the fact that President Battulga hails from the Democratic Party (DP) while the rival Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) controls parliament. Technically the law doesn’t grant the dismissal powers directly to the president, but rather to a three-member National Security Council (NSC) composed of the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, and an oversight body called the Judicial General Council. But President Battulga dominates the NSC and personally appoints the members of the Judicial General Council, giving him effective authority to remove Mongolia’s judges and chief law enforcement officials at will. Sure enough, promptly after the law was passed, Battulga dismissed the head of the IAAC, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general.

This new legislation, a crippling blow to Mongolian democracy, has its origins in corruption, and corruption is likely to be its effect. President Battulga induced parliament to grant him such extraordinary powers by claiming that he alone can really take on Mongolia’s severe corruption problem. In his statement to parliament introducing the new legislation, Battulga alleged that the country’s law enforcement leaders were “part of a conspiracy system” that “fabricat[ed] criminal cases with a political agenda” while covering up others. The president pointed to Mongolia’s numerous unresolved corruption scandals to argue that the institutions of justice were “serving the officials who nominated and appointed them” rather than the public, and he argued that reducing the independence of the judiciary, the prosecutorial apparatus, and the IAAC would make those institutions more responsive to the popular will to fight corruption.

President Battulga is correct when he asserts that Mongolia has a corruption problem of serious, perhaps epidemic, proportions. Mongolians regularly list corruption as one of the country’s biggest issues (second only to unemployment in a 2018 survey) and political institutions such as parliament and political parties as among the most corrupt entities. The past few years have been especially scandal-plagued. During the 2017 presidential campaign, all three candidates faced accusations of corruption; most egregiously, the MPP candidate—who, until January 2019, served as speaker of the Mongolian parliament—was caught on video discussing a plan to sell government offices in a $25 million bribery scheme. Further, late in 2018, journalists discovered that numerous politically-connected Mongolians, including somewhere from 23 to 49 of the 75 sitting members of parliament, had been treating a government program designed to provide funding for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a personal piggy bank, taking out over a million dollars in low-cost loans. Beyond these scandals, Mongolia’s poor enforcement record compounds its corruption problem. For example, in 2015, only 7% of cases investigated by the IAAC resulted in convictions, and in 2018 public approval of the IAAC reached an all-time low.

But is there any reason to believe that President Battulga is right that giving him greater personal control over law enforcement and the judiciary will lead to less corruption? All the evidence points to no:

Continue reading

Some Good News and Bad News About Transparency International’s Interpretation of its Latest Corruption Perceptions Index

In my post last week, I fired off a knee-jerk reaction to Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). My message of that post was simple and straightforward: We shouldn’t attach much (or perhaps any) importance to short-term changes in any individual country or region’s CPI score, and the bad habit of journalists—and to some extent TI itself—of focusing on such changes is both misleading and counterproductive.

Since I was trying to get that post out quickly, so as to coincide with the release of the CPI, I published it before I’d had a chance to read carefully all of the material TI published along with the new CPI, and I promised that once I’d had a chance to look at those other materials, I would follow up if I had anything else to say. I’ve now had that chance, and I do have a few additional thoughts. The short version is that the way TI itself chose to present and discuss the implications of the 2018 CPI, in the accompanying materials, is both better and worse than I’d originally thought.

So, first, the bad news: Continue reading

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

Corruption Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

Last summer UCLA Professor Miriam Golden and I did a radio interview on political corruption for a program called The Scholars’ Circle, hosted by Maria Armoudian. I just learned that a recording of the program is available online, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog. The recording can be found here; the discussion about corruption begins at 17:16.

The relatively brief but wide-ranging discussion, skillfully moderated by Ms. Armoudian, touches on five major issues (issues that we’ve also covered on this blog):

  • How should we define corruption, and how can we try to measure it? (at 18:11-26:31 on the recording)
  • Possible factors that might contribute to the level of corruption, including economic development, governance systems (democracy v. autocracy), social norms, and culture (26:32-32:41)
  • Whether and how countries can make the transition from a state of endemic corruption to a state of manageable/limited corruption—as well as the risk of backsliding (32:52-47:32)
  • What will the impact of the Trump Administration be on corruption, and on norms of integrity and the rule of law, in the United States? (47:42-52:02)
  • What are some of the main remedies that can help make a system less corrupt? (52:03-56:34)

There’s obviously a limit to how deep one can go in a format like this, and the program is geared toward a non-specialist audience, but I hope some readers find the conversation useful in stimulating more thinking on the topics we covered. Thanks for listening!