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

An Anticorruption Success Story: India’s Aam Aadmi Party Has Made Delhi Politics Much Cleaner

In 2011, India witnessed the largest anticorruption uprising in its history, as hundreds of thousands of people mobilized to protest against entrenched corruption and to push for the passage of national anticorruption legislation that had been stuck in parliament for decades. The movement failed to achieve that objective, but out of its ashes was born a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP, founded in 2013, made anticorruption its main focus, choosing as its symbol a broom to represent its goal of cleaning up Indian government. The AAP achieved its first major victory in 2015, when it won a landslide victory in the state elections in Delhi, India’s capital city. Many inside and outside of India naturally wondered: Would the AAP achieve its goals? Could it effectively govern a city of 19 million people, and succeed in curtailing entrenched corruption? After all, the challenges are enormous, and the international track record of anticorruption parties is rather mixed.

The AAP’s journey wasn’t smooth, and its first few months in office were marked by significant infighting and a general perception of dysfunction. But the AAP managed to turn things around, and in the February 2020 elections, the AAP won handily, gaining a decisive majority for the next five years. The AAP’s success is partly due to its popular policies on things like increasing spending on education and reducing the cost of electricity and water. But the AAP also succeeded in the polls because it followed through on its anticorruption agenda. Although it’s always hard to gauge the success of anticorruption efforts, there are two major pieces of evidence that indicate that the AAP really has taken major steps to clean up politics: 

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India’s New Electoral Bond Scheme Won’t Reduce Electoral Corruption. It Will Make the Problem Worse.

Indian elections have long been celebrated as a festival of democracy—in part for their sheer and increasing scale, with over 900 million voters and thousands of political parties registered. Election expenditures have also been on the rise. India’s last national elections were the most expensive elections ever held anywhere in the world, with an estimated expenditure of Rs. 55,000 crores ($7.74 billion)—much of which was financed through private donations. In India as elsewhere, all this private money in politics raises concerns about corruption, both legal and illegal. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of transparency.

Under the rules as they existed until two years ago, individuals and domestic for-profit companies could contribute to political parties via cash, check, or demand drafts. Political parties are required to file an annual income statement, listing both sources of income and expenditures, with the Election Commission, a constitutional oversight body. These statements are publicly accessible under India’s Right to Information law. However, contributions below Rs. 20,000 ($280) could be anonymous, and political parties traditionally exploited this loophole to avoid disclosure of donors. The total share of income from unknown sources has been steadily increasing for all six major political parties, and in the last returns filed for 2017-18, income from unknown sources was over half (51.38%) of these parties’ collective income.

Over the past two years, there have been several reforms to campaign finance. The most significant reform has been the replacement of cash donations with a new mechanism for political donations, so-called “electoral bonds.” Under this system, the threshold for anonymous cash donations was reduced by a factor of ten, but private parties can now make anonymous donations via a bond with the State Bank of India (a public sector bank) in fixed denominations ranging from Rs. 1,000 ($15) to Rs. 1 crore ($1.5 million), during allotted windows. These donations remain anonymous not only to the general public, but also to the recipient political party.

The stated objective of these reforms is to target the practice of money laundering in campaign finance and increase transparency. In a previous post on this blog, written shortly after the new scheme was introduced, Abhinav Sekhri argued with cautious optimism that this tool, though imperfect, was indeed a step in the right direction. I disagree. In fact, the electoral bond system has decreased transparency and increased the potential for corruption, for several reasons: Continue reading

The Limited Effect of Corruption Allegations on Voters: A Brief Analysis of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Reelection

Last fall, Professor Stephenson alluded to the confusion that many in the anticorruption community feel regarding “voters in many democracies [who] seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt.” This confusion was shared by many of my (non-Israeli) colleagues over the last few weeks, upon learning that Benjamin Netanyahu won the April 2019 elections and will serve as Israel’s Prime Minister for a fourth consecutive term (and fifth term overall), despite being suspected of various corruption offenses, including bribery and breach of trust (see here, here, here, and here). (Saying that Netanyahu won the elections is slightly inaccurate in a technical sense, since in Israel voters do not vote directly for the candidate they wish to serve as Prime Minister, but rather for the party they wish to represent them in the parliament (the Knesset). Nonetheless, 26.46% of the voters supported Netanyahu’s Likud party, making it one of the two largest parties in the Knesset; many other voters supported various other right-wing parties that were sure to join Likud to form a government.) Does the fact that so many Israelis cast their ballot in favor of Netanyahu’s party, or other parties sure to back Netanyahu for Prime Minister, mean that Israeli voters simply do not care about corruption?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that there are three main reasons why voters may have chosen to support Likud despite disapproving of corruption:

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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:

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How Can India Cleanse Its Politics of Dirty Money?

India’s 875 million voters make it the world’s largest democracy. Yet Indian elections, though generally seen as free and fair, have become the country’s “fountainhead of corruption.”Parties and candidates spend billions getting themselves elected—current forecasts predict $8.5 billion will be spent in the 2019 election, making it the most expensive election globally. Much of that money comes from illegal or at least questionable sources, a problem exacerbated by the fact that campaign financing in India is a black box, with no transparency into donors or income sources. Recent changes by the Modi government have made the process even more opaque. And much of the money raised is spent illegally. For example, up to 37% of Indian voters have received money for votes. 

The massive amount that politicians are willing to raise and spend to win elections is understandable when the payoff to the winning candidate is considered. Putting aside any ideological or egotistical motives for seeking public office, there’s also a material incentive: studies have found that, in the years following an election, winning candidates’ assets increase by 3-5% more than losing candidates’ assets, and this “winner’s premium” is even higher in more corrupt states and for winners holding ministerial positions. The material benefits of office may also partly explain the alarming percentage of Indian politicians with criminal histories. Currently, over a third of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the National Parliament), are facing at least one serious criminal charge, and politicians with cases pending against them are statistically more likely to win elections. Moreover, the ever-greater spending on elections means that winners, in addition to lining their own pockets and saving for the next election, need to repay those who helped them prevail. The more money politicians spend on elections, the more they need to earn back or repay through political favors.

The high payoff to candidates who win elections (often because of the opportunities for corruption) both attracts dishonest individuals to seek office and encourages ever-higher election spending, which in turn inspires corrupt behavior to repay debts, whether through money or political favors. Therefore, any serious attempt to reduce corruption in India has to begin with electoral reform. The constitutional body tasked with administering elections in India is the Election Commission (EC). The EC oversees the election process, and it also can issue advisory opinions (though not binding decisions) regarding the post-election disqualification of sitting MPs and Members of State Legislative Assemblies (MLAs). The EC is also responsible for scrutinizing the election expense reports submitted by candidates. But the EC is in many ways a toothless tiger, able only to recommend actions and electoral reform to Parliament, without any real power to fix the electoral system. 

There are, nonetheless, a few things that the EC could do now, acting on its own, to help address at least some of these problems. But more comprehensive and effective reform will require action by the legislature or the Supreme Court.

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Israel Needs to Fight Official Corruption. That Doesn’t Mean It Should Deprive Elected Officials of Their Right to Silence.

On April 9, 2019, millions of Israeli citizens will vote in the national legislative elections for the party they wish to represent them in the parliament (the Knesset). Numerous ongoing investigations into corruption allegations against senior officials and various public figures (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) ensure that anticorruption will feature prominently on the agendas of most major political parties. One can only hope that the next elected Knesset will manage to pass effective anticorruption legislation. However, one piece of anticorruption legislation that has been repeatedly proposed should not be adopted: a de facto limitation on senior elected officials’ right to silence in criminal interrogations in which the officials are suspects. (The proposed legislation would also de facto limit elected officials’ narrower right of refraining from answering specific questions when doing so may put them at risk of criminal prosecution; for the sake of brevity I will discuss only the broader and more comprehensive right to silence.) Currently, elected officials enjoy the right to silence just like any other suspect in a criminal case in Israel, yet proposals have been repeatedly floated that would require certain high-level elected officials (such as the prime minister, ministers, Knesset members, or mayors) who exercise this right to be removed from office. Most of the bills, which differ from each other in certain respects, would apply to criminal interrogations related to the officials’ duty, but some go even further, with a broader application to any kind of criminal interrogation in which the officials are suspects.

The explicit goals of these bills are strengthening the war on corruption and promoting public trust in the rule of law. So far, none of these bills have been enacted, but Knesset members from across the political spectrum have been flirting with this idea for the last few decades, almost always in response to occasions in which Israeli officials (whose political views typically diverge from those of the proposing Knesset members) chose not to cooperate with the interrogators in corruption investigations. It is very likely that something like this will be proposed again in the next elected Knesset, as some parties have already declared in their official platform that they intend to promote such legislation.

While I agree that an elected official’s refusal to answer interrogators’ questions inspires a great deal of unease, adoption of the aforementioned bills would be unjustified and even dangerous. Although the proposed bills do not technically eliminate elected officials’ right to silence, requiring a public official to give up his or her position as a condition for exercising this right is a sufficiently severe sanction that the bills unquestionably impose a severe practical limitation on this right. If Israel were to adopt such a rule, it would be a significant outlier among peer nations: Research conducted by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center in 2007 found no equivalent limitation on elected officials’ right to silence in numerous legal systems around the world. Taking such a step would therefore be unprecedented, but more importantly, it would be unwise, for several reasons: Continue reading