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

Preserving Electoral Integrity Without Disenfranchising the Poor: Suggestions for Improving a Voter Residence Verification System in Colombia

Vote-buying—a particularly corrosive form of political corruption—is present in many jurisdictions, especially in the Global South. And not only is vote-buying itself a form of corruption, but the practice exacerbates other forms of corruption, because politicians need to raise enough money to buy enough votes to beat their opponents (who are also engaged in vote-buying), and in order to raise enough money, politicians often enter into deals with private parties who (illegally) “lend” the politician the money he or she needs to buy enough votes to win the election, and then, once in office, the politician pays back the private parties—either directly, with embezzled funds, or with inflated government contracts (see, for example, here and here).

But sometimes a candidate might worry that she won’t be able to buy enough votes from voters who actually live in the district where the candidate is running. This is especially true when competing candidates are trying to buy votes. In a competitive district, a relatively small number of votes can swing the election, so politicians have an incentive to scrounge for extra votes. This, understandably, also drives up the “price” for votes in the district. In Colombia, one way that politicians have developed to increase the pool of voters they can “buy,” and hence keep the price down, is to pay voters to illegally register in a district other than the district where they actually live. (In Colombia, as in many countries, adult citizens may only register to vote in the district where they actually reside.) So, the politician pays these voters twice—first to illegally register in another district, and then to vote in that district for the politician—and on both registration day and election day the politician will arrange for the transportation of these non-resident voters to the district where the politician is running. This practice, known as electoral transhumance, is illegal, yet there have long been concerns that it is pervasive in many parts of the country.

In October 2015, Colombia introduced a new tool to fight this sort of electoral fraud. Using so-called “big data analytics,” the authorities were able to cross-reference the National Electoral Registry databases with the System for the Identification of Potential Beneficiaries of Social Programs (known as SISBEN), and as a result of these checks, nearly 1.6 million voter registrations to vote were declared void—a large number in a country with 33 million registered voters. That seems like a big win, and a nice example of how new technologies can help crack down on pervasive corruption (here, electoral corruption). But a closer look reveals that the picture is not as rosy as it first appears: Despite its good intentions, and some positive results, this purge of the voter rolls ended up disproportionately disenfranchising low-income voters. Continue reading

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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Can U.S. History Teach Us Anything Useful About the Fight Against Corruption in the Developing World Today?

A little while back I attended a very interesting talk by California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar about a paper of his, co-authored with the political scientists Margaret Levi and Barry Weingast, entitled “Conflict, Institutions, and Public Law: Reflections on Twentieth-Century America as a Developing Country.” It’s a short, provocative paper, well worth reading for a number of reasons, but what I really want to focus on here is less the substance of the paper itself than the broader theme, captured by the paper’s subtitle, that it may be valuable to think about the pre-World War II United States as not so different from modern developing countries. Most relevant for readers of this blog, it may be worth looking to U.S. history (and the history of other developed countries) to better understand the process by which endemic public corruption may be brought under control.

The Cuellar-Levi-Weingast paper itself touches on, but doesn’t really delve into, this issue. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about three features of the historical U.S. struggle against systemic corruption—a struggle that, while certainly not complete, does appear to have successfully transformed the United States from a system where corruption was the norm (with some happy exceptions) to one where integrity is the norm (with some unhappy exceptions). Importantly, each of these three observations casts doubt on prominent claims in the modern debate about fighting corruption in the developing world: Continue reading

Why Does the Chinese Communist Party Tear a Hole in its Own Democracy Cloak?

The People’s Republic of China recently uncovered the biggest vote-buying scandal since its founding in 1949. On September 13, 2016, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the national legislature, dismissed 45 of the 102 NPC representatives from Liaoning province for securing their seats in the NPC through vote buying. These NPC representatives had apparently bribed representatives to the Liaoning provincial Congress, which elects NPC representatives; 523 out of the 619 Liaoning provincial congress representatives were also implicated in this scandal, and have either resigned or been removed for election rigging, rendering the Liaoning provincial legislature inoperable. The central authorities stated that the “unprecedented” bribery scandal challenged the “bottom line” of China’s socialist system and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

For many observers, reports of this vote-buying scandal came as a surprise. Some commentators wondered why people would risk getting caught and punished for corruption, just to secure a seat in a legislature that has been derided as little more than a rubber stamp. The most plausible explanation is that a seat on the NPC facilitates access to the rich and powerful, and it is this consideration, rather than the mostly symbolic power of the legislature itself, that motivates candidates to buy votes in NPC elections. (See here, here and here). There is, however, a second puzzle about the recent vote-buying scandal—one that is in fact more puzzling and important, though it has not received as much attention: Why do CCP leaders care about electoral corruption in NPC elections, if the NPC merely rubber-stamps party decisions? True, the CCP under President Xi Jinping has made the fight against official corruption a top priority—but given the prevalence of corruption in so many areas of Chinese government, many of which have immediate practical consequences, why target electoral corruption in the NPC?

The question becomes even more interesting when one considers that calling attention to vote-buying in NPC elections—a form of corruption that might otherwise not attract much attention—poses certain risks to the CCP. First, even if the NPC is mostly a rubber stamp legislature, it represents the symbolic core of state power, and is central to the CCP’s “socialist democracy,” a model the Party has long used to resist the Western-style multi-party democracy. As one commentator put it has observed, the exposure of the NPC vote-buying scandal has torn a large hole in the country’s “democracy cloak.” Second, exposing widespread corrupt practices could also increase pressure for systemic reforms. So why did CCP leaders choose to crack down on corruption in the legislature so openly? Continue reading

Can U.S. Efforts To Fight Vote Buying Offer Lessons for Others?

Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.

Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.

While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.

Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them: Continue reading

Is it Legal in the U.S. To Buy Delegate Votes at Party Nominating Conventions?

As bizarre as the U.S. presidential campaign has been so far, it may get even more so this summer. There is a chance (although maybe not a probability) that the Republican Party will have its first contested convention since 1976. If no candidate has a majority of delegates on the first ballot, then many “bound delegates” can switch their vote to any candidate for the nomination (here is a brief primer on how a contested convention might work). If that happens, might some candidates (or, more likely, their surrogates) actually try to buy delegates’ votes—offering them cash or other crude material inducements in exchange for support? Donald Trump recently told a friend—apparently (and hopefully) in jest—he would “buy the delegates” if he did not obtain a majority in the primaries.

Such conduct would certainly be corrupt in the traditional sense. Believe it or not, however, such vote buying might not be against the law. Buying votes in a federal election is certainly illegal. But, as a recent Bloomberg article explained, “There is nothing in the [Republican National Committee]’s rules that prohibits delegates from cutting a deal for their votes, and lawyers say it is unlikely that federal anti-corruption laws would apply to convention horse-trading. (It is not clear that even explicitly selling one’s vote for cash would be illegal.)” Similarly, when respected former Republican National Committee counsel Ben Ginsberg was recently asked whether an unbound delegate to the convention could legally accept a suitcase full of cash in exchange for a vote for a candidate for the nomination, Ginsberg replied, “That is a great legal question that I’m not sure there’s an answer [to]. It’s not official [] action.” (Ginsberg did, however, emphasize that most lawyers “would not want to be defending somebody who just took a suitcase of cash for a vote at a convention.”)

So while outright vote buying at a contested convention is not exactly likely, it’s a serious enough concern to make it worthwhile to assess the risks, the current law that might apply, and the steps that Congress and the political parties can take to do something about this concern. Continue reading

Does Compulsory Voting Increase or Decrease Corruption? (Preliminary Thoughts)

As Courtney discussed in yesterday’s post, Peru’s presidential elections are scheduled for next month, and issues of corruption loom large in the public debate. The role of corruption in Peruvian politics is such a rich and complex topic, one about which I must confess I know very little. But one feature of the Peruvian election system, about which I was previously ignorant, caught my attention during conversations at a fascinating meeting in Lima last month (sponsored by the Peruvian Controller General’s Office): In Peru, voting is compulsory–there are penalties for failing to vote. Compulsory voting requirements, while not exactly common, are enforced in quite a few democracies, including (in addition to Peru) Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, Ecuador, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Nauru, Singapore, and Uruguay. Some sub-national jurisdictions (such as the Indian state of Gujarat and the Swiss canton Schaffhausen) have compulsory voting, and there are also several countries that had compulsory voting at some point in their history, but have since abolished it (including, for example, Italy, the Netherlands, and Venezuela). In the United States, President Obama himself has suggested that the U.S. should consider some form of compulsory voting.

What does this have to do with corruption? Well, that’s actually the question I want to explore in this post. Although there’s a small political science literature on compulsory voting, there seems to be very little sustained discussion of the implications of compulsory voting for corruption control. (There is a bit, some of which I’ll mention below, but usually the mentions are brief and in passing.)

I’ll readily admit I don’t know much about this topic, but it seems to me an interesting question, and I can see a few arguments cutting both ways. So, without reaching any firm conclusions, let me first sketch out a few reasons why compulsory voting might reduce corruption, and then suggest a few reasons why compulsory voting might increase corruption. Continue reading

Order from the Court: Judiciaries as a Bulwark Against Legislative Corruption in Vanuatu

Imagine that one-third of the members of your national legislature were convicted of bribery, and then decided to pardon themselves, and you’ll only begin to appreciate the scope and oddity of Vanuatu’s current political drama.

On October 9, Vanuatu’s Supreme Court convicted 14 of the 33 members of the ni-Vanuatu Parliament of bribery. The politicians, who at the time of their unlawful conduct included the deputy prime minister and four other members of the cabinet, had last year accepted around US$9,000 each to support a vote of no confidence in the prime minister—that is, to kick him out of office. Though the prime minister discovered the scheme and suspended the participants, they successfully sued for an end to their suspension, and promptly followed through on their plan to eject the sitting government.  Now holding Parliament’s top-ranked positions themselves, the bribe-takers nevertheless fell under police investigation, and a trial against them began this September.

After the bribe-takers were convicted but before they were sentenced, the president, who was not a member of their coalition, took a trip abroad. Under Vanuatu’s constitution, that left the Parliament speaker in charge. The problem? That Parliament speaker was one of the people convicted of bribery—and he promptly decided to use his temporary power to suspend the Ombudsman (the officer charged with investigating corruption) and pardon himself and his co-conspirators. The president quickly returned to Vanuatu and revoked the pardons, but it’s not clear that he had the legal authority to do so. With the Court of Appeals having recently rejected the appeals of the members of Parliament (MPs), the MPs are now kicked out of the legislature, and new elections may have to be held.

As idiosyncratic as this story may seem, it still speaks to some deeper truths about the problem of corruption in the Pacific Islands—and may yet resolve itself in a way that provides some clues about effective ways to fight it. So, what went wrong in Vanuatu, and what can still go right?

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It’s Time to Stop Branding Public Works in the Philippines

In a post a few months ago, Matthew noted some challenges involved with education initiatives in the Philippines, where income disparities played a significant role in the success of an anti-vote-buying campaign. In particular, poor Filipinos perceived one campaign as condescending or insulting, and believed that the middle- and upper-class individuals behind those campaigns demonstrated a lack of respect in their approach to voter education. The issue goes much deeper than a single poorly-executed education campaign. Even popular anticorruption movements—such as the one that ousted President Joseph Estrada in 2001—were divided along class lines. Poorer Filipinos celebrated (and continue to regard) Estrada as a champion of the poor, while middle- and upper-class Filipinos demanded his resignation following allegations of plunder.

This tension between socioeconomic classes affects countless issues tied to Philippine corruption—from how Filipinos view their politicians, to how they define corruption at all. In his post, Matthew noted one such definitional problem–whether a politician helping constituents to pay for expenses associated with events like funerals or weddings can be classified as “vote buying”–but there are many other similar socioeconomic disparities in the perception of such interactions. It seems that members of different socioeconomic classes expect different things from their local, provincial, and national governments and politicians. To many of those facing extreme poverty, receiving a free birthday cake each year, or having government officials pay for a funeral, are not acts of impropriety, but rather are demonstrations of goodwill and a concern for wellbeing—values which they admire in political candidates.

But the conceptual problem is not simply borne of economic disparity. In many ways, politicians exacerbate these problems by “branding” public acts as their own personal contributions to society, rather than as official acts of their office. A simple drive around any Philippine province demonstrates the extent of this problem. Countless bridges, banners, buses, public housing units, food, disaster relief goods, and even announcements of recent public school graduates prominently feature the names and photographs of politicians. These purposeful efforts to put ones personal stamp on government works are insidious and must be eradicated from Philippine politics.

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