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Sunday, October 23, 2016

A law professor known for his activism in the realms of digital rights and campaign finance reform has announced a run for president — and it’s unusual.

In what he’s calling a “referendum campaign,” he’s running on a single-issue platform with the sole purpose of radically transforming the political process — and with the stated intention of handing over power to others once that’s been accomplished.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor who has written eight books on topics such as the intersection of digital culture and the law and the influence of money in politics, is aligned with the Democratic Party, although he has said that there’s no way the party will be able to enact reforms without fixing how policies get written in America.

In another atypical move for a candidate, he said that if he didn’t raise enough money and support to continue his campaign, he would return the money to donors and bow out of the race. His target: $1 million by Labor Day, roughly four weeks after his announcement.

After that, Lessig’s team “will crowdsource a process to complete the details of this reform,” according to his website, and shape it into proposed legislation by January 1.

As he told The Washington Post, “Until we find a way to fix the rigged system, none of the other things that people talk about doing are going to be possible. We have this fantasy politics right now where people are talking about all the wonderful things they’re going to do while we know these things can’t happen inside the rigged system.”

As part of his platform, he told the Post that, if he were to win, he’d serve only as long as it took to pass a certain number of government reforms. After that, he says, he would resign to be succeeded by his vice president, selected for having a set of ideals aligned with the Democratic Party. In an interview with Bloomberg Politics, he explained that this “would create a mandate that is more powerful than any mandate possible in our political system.”

Lessig’s campaign issue (singular) is the Citizen Equality Act of 2017, a collection of reforms proposed by other legislators and experts, which would change the role of big money in politics and alter the way Americans vote.

According to his campaign website, the Citizen Equality Act would consist of three parts, each “designed to restore citizen equality” through representation.

The first part would revolve around voting reforms, giving each state the power to create official public websites for online voter registration. Under this proposal, Election Day would become a national holiday.

The second — equal representation — would end gerrymandering, the process of redrawing districts to favor one political party based on past voting behavior, and enact “ranked choice voting,” where voters would be allowed to rank candidates in order of preference.

The last part, what Lessig terms “Citizen Funded Elections,” is the reform that has received the most support and criticism. Donald Trump has been able to run for president because his considerable independent wealth allowed him to buy his way into the race and remain there without backing from the usual interest groups and oligarchs. Most politicians depend on big bankrollers to finance their campaigns, essentially making small donors irrelevant and squeezing them out of the process. Lessig’s proposals would provide tax credits for campaign contributions, and offer matching donations from a nonpartisan fund; this would create greater transparency, he says, and impose strict limits on lobbying and the “revolving door” of jobs between lobbyists and legislative staffers.

In a piece titled “Why I Want to Run” published on The Huffington Post, he wrote that while the type of candidacy he is proposing is “implausible,” his ideas — reforms he calls “the most important moral issue of our time” — aren’t: “The system is rigged. Sensible change cannot happen until it is unrigged. Any campaign that makes un-rigging just one issue among many cannot achieve the mandate fundamental reform will require.”

Image: Lawrence Lessig, constitutional law scholar, is just as unconventional a presidential candidate as Donald Trump. Screenshot via

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  • Allan Richardson

    Unfortunately, neither Lessig nor any other third party candidate has any chance of winning 270 electoral votes UNTIL the reforms to the voting and vote counting process he recommends can be enacted. Many other political leaders, pundits and intelligent citizens would like to enact some or all of his platform, but a third party candidate who pledges to enact them AFTER winning will not win until some or all of them are elected.

    The reform with the best chance at the moment is the National Popular Vote initiative, in which states pass legislation saying that, after states containing 270 electoral votes have enacted identical legislation, all those states will begin giving their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. This would be a positive because, under the current system, the only votes that matter are in states which have a nearly 50-50 partisan split, and the largest of these “battleground” states are the ones which receive the majority of the organizing, advertising and GOTV organizing money. Democrats don’t worry about California or Massachusetts, for example, so “blue” states like them do not get Democratic attention in the general election, and their policy needs are ignored by Democrats; but since they are not “winnable” by a Republican candidate, they are also ignored by that party. Increasing the California Republican vote from 30 percent to 40 percent, if possible, will make no difference in getting California in the R column. A similar, mirror image situation exists in “red” states like Texas or Alabama: the R’s don’t need more than 51 percent of the vote to win them, and the D’s cannot benefit from less than 50 percent, which is not currently attainable, so both parties ignore those states also — other than as sources of funding, that is. The Floridas, Ohios, Pennsylvanias, etc where a few percentage points will swing the entire state, get both the policy attention and the persuasion attention. But if the national total popular vote were known, in advance, to swing 270 electoral votes, regardless of where those votes were cast, both parties would be forced to pay attention to EVERY state. And the politicos who want to win elections with as few votes as possible, depending on MONEY to influence those votes, will not like that one bit. But the American people would benefit.