The U.S. Supreme Court Has an Appearance Problem: What FEC v. Cruz Got Wrong

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, campaign contributions are a form of political “speech” and are therefore protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the government may restrict such contributions only if doing so serves a compelling state interest. Currently, the only interests that the Court has recognized as sufficiently compelling to justify restrictions on political spending are preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Though sometimes presented as a single interest, the prevention of actual corruption and the prevention of the appearance of corruption are not the same. The reason the government has an interest in preventing actual corruption is obvious. The Court has explained the related but distinct interest in preventing the appearance of corruption by appealing to the importance of maintaining public confidence in the electoral process. If a certain campaign finance activity creates the appearance of corruption, then ordinary citizens may start to view their political participation as futile, and may lose faith in the integrity of elections. Because Congress has an interest in preventing this erosion of public trust, the government can regulate campaign finance activities that the public perceives as corrupt, even when those activities are not associated with actual corruption.

At least that’s what the Court has said. In practice, however, the Court has often failed to apply the appearance of corruption standard in a way that serves these objectives. This is nowhere clearer than in the Court’s recent decision in Federal Election Commission (FEC) v. Cruz. The case concerned a federal law that prohibited a candidate from using post-election campaign donations to repay more than $250,000 of personal loans that the candidate made to his or her campaign prior to the election. The government justified this law partly on the grounds that it prevented the appearance of corruption. After all, when a candidate uses donations to repay personal loans, the donor’s contributions go straight into the candidate’s pockets; the public could easily view such payments as fostering corruption. In support of this argument, the government pointed to a public opinion poll in which 81% of respondents thought it was “likely” or “very likely” that donors who make post-election contributions expect a “political favor” in return. Additionally, the government cited an academic study that found—on the basis of over three decades of empirical evidence—that politicians with campaign debts are “significantly more likely” than debt-free politicians to switch their votes after receiving contributions from special interests.

This evidence, on its face, would seem to support the government’s claim that the limit on using post-election donations to repay a candidate’s large personal loans furthers its compelling interest in preventing the appearance of corruption. However, the Court’s majority opinion dismissed the government’s appearance-based argument in a brief passage with relatively little sustained analysis, apparently treating the flaws in the government’s arguments as self-evident. The Court’s dismissive attitude to the government’s evidence in this case indicates a worrisome approach to the appearance-of-corruption issue more generally.

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How the Corporate Transparency Act Can Shine Light on Dark Money in U.S. Elections

Last year, in an effort to prevent the abuse of anonymous companies by malign actors, the U.S. Congress passed the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA). The CTA requires certain legal entities, like corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs), to provide information about their beneficial owners—that is, the people who actually own or control the entity—in order to make it more difficult to operate anonymous shell companies for criminal purposes. Pursuant to the CTA, beneficial ownership information must be submitted to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and maintained in a centralized database.

Much of the fight for beneficial ownership transparency was spearheaded by anticorruption advocates, who emphasized the ways in which foreign kleptocrats and other corrupt officials use anonymous companies to hide their stolen wealth. But the CTA’s beneficial ownership transparency measures will be helpful in fighting another kind of corruption, one closer to home: the corrupting influence that so-called dark money—spending by undisclosed donors to influence election outcomes—has on the integrity of U.S. elections and American political sovereignty.

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“Elect a Government That Works”: A Case Study in Populism and Corruption from India 

As the United States was reeling from President Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal, another imperiled leader—Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—was fighting for her political life thousands of miles away. Although Gandhi and Nixon never got along, their stories overlap. Both barely squeaked into power after close elections in the late 1960s, but then won resounding reelection victories in the early 1970s. Gandhi’s political fortunes, like Nixon’s, took a turn for the worse shortly after reelection, in light of substantiated accusations of illegal campaign activity. But at this point, Nixon and Gandhi’s stories diverge. Unlike Nixon, Gandhi stayed the course and refused to resign. And in the end she prevailed: Gandhi was popularly elected three times with some of the largest governing majorities in Indian history.

How did Gandhi convince the public to reelect her, despite her known, widespread abuses of authority? How did a leader ensnared in scandal and corruption hold onto power to become one of the most beloved leaders in the world’s largest democracy? The answer to these questions may lie in Gandhi’s concentrated emphasis on left-wing populism. She argued to voters that she alone was most capable of effectuating change for India and its most needy citizens by enacting social programs and redistributing wealth. Additionally, Gandhi spent much of her time as Prime Minister consolidating her power within the party and the central government. This enabled much of the corruption that marked her rule but was also what allowed her to argue to the public that she was uniquely capable of fixing the nation’s problems.

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A Media Advisor-Client Privilege Would Be Inimical to Anticorruption in Israel

The ongoing corruption trial of Israel’s Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu (who stepped down as Israel’s Prime Minister in mid-June 2021 after 12 consecutive years of service, replaced by Naftali Bennett), as well as the investigations that took place before it, have triggered a wide variety of legislative reform proposals. Members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) who oppose Netanyahu have proposed bills that would prevent individuals with sufficiently serious prior criminal convictions from serving as the Prime Minister (which Netanyahu is planning on trying to do again), or bar certain criminal defendants from running for Israel’s Presidency (which some had formerly speculated Netanyahu may do). Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, on the other hand, have pushed to bolster protections for criminal suspects and defendants, especially elected officials. For example, Likud members have proposed bills that would prohibit some forms of recording of public servants, or make it more difficult for the prosecution to appeal acquittals.

The fact that the criminal proceeding against Netanyahu has relied in substantial part on the incriminating key testimony of Netanyahu’s former media advisor (who became a “state’s witness” in 2018) is the likely (though not explicit) motivation for another recently proposed bill that would establish a “media advisor-client privilege,” according to which “matters and documents exchanged between a media advisor or a spokesperson and his [or her] client [] and which have a material relation to the services provided” could not be submitted as evidence unless the client waived this privilege. In other words, media advisors or spokespersons would generally be barred from testifying against their clients. The bill’s drafters argue that a media advisor-client privilege is justified for reasons similar to that of an attorney-client privilege—the need for “complete openness” between clients and their media advisors or spokespersons.

The impulse to resist the proposed media advisor-client privilege is understandable, given its seemingly blatant relationship to Netanyahu’s trial and the fact that its protection would be afforded to a very narrow class of powerful and wealthy criminal defendants. However, even though we should sometimes resist the impulse to oppose criminal justice reforms whose proponents have questionable motives, in this case even when considered independently from its problematic context, the proposal for media advisor-client privilege raises at least three strong anticorruption concerns that warrant its rejection:

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Sunday’s Election Will Not Be Peru’s Reckoning with Corruption

It has been a dramatic five years in Peru since the last presidential election.

A series of standoffs between the executive and legislative branches have seen one dissolution of Congress and three attempts at impeachment of the president. Two former presidents have been arrested for their involvement in the Odebrecht corruption scandal, and a third committed suicide moments before the police arrived to arrest him. Keiko Fujimori, the opposition leader and two-time presidential runner-up, was arrested for corruption, released, and is now running for president once more.

This turbulence came to a head last October, when Peru was engulfed in its biggest political crisis in a generation. Martín Vizcarra, the former president who had served for two and a half years since Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in 2018 in the face of a vote-buying scandal, was himself impeached by Congress following credible but unproven allegations that he had accepted bribes earlier in his career. Congress appointed Manuel Merino, the president of the Congress who spearheaded the campaign to impeach Vizcarra, as interim president. Peruvians, outraged at the abrupt removal of a president who enjoyed considerable public support for his commitment to anticorruption reform, took to the streets to protest. They were met with police violence, and two young Peruvians were killed. Merino relented, resigning the presidency after a five-day tenure, and Congress appointed Francisco Sagasti – a moderate who had voted against impeaching Vizcarra – to serve out the final months of the term until the April 11 election.

The magnitude of the public’s mobilization against Merino’s interim presidency was seen by many observers (myself included) as a decisive turning point in the Peruvian people’s willingness to tolerate a corrupt political class. The country’s public health and economy have been ravaged by Covid-19. If there were a perfect moment for a meaningful anticorruption movement to sweep from the bottom to the top – for Peruvian voters to have a sort of “day of reckoning” with systemic corruption – April 11 seemed like that moment.

But now, on the eve of the election, this reckoning looks doubtful to arrive.

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Guest Post: Do More Candidate-Centric Electoral Systems Help Reduce Corruption?

Today’s guest post is from Rumilda Cañete-Straub, Josepa Miquel-Florensa, Stéphane Straub, and Karine Van der Straeten.

Although many people hope and expect that regular elections will help reduce corruption, this is not always the case: In many democracies, voters elect and reelect corrupt politicians. Why is this? Scholars have suggested that the efficacy of electoral democracy in reducing corruption depends on specific features of the electoral system, and the information available to voters. With respect to the electoral system, a common view is that electoral rules that give voters more formal control over individual candidates—such as primaries in majoritarian systems or open lists rather than closed lists in proportional representation (PR) systems—are more effective in reducing corruption. With respect to information, the conventional wisdom holds that providing voters with more information should help them identify corrupt politicians, thus increasing the chances that those politicians will be punished at the ballot box.

In our recent article, we present findings that challenge both aspects of this conventional wisdom. We focus on the comparison between closed-list PR system (in which voters vote only for a party, with the individual candidates elected depending on their position on the party’s list) and an open-list PR system in which voters can vote for any number of candidates on the list, without any constraint. Continue reading

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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