This collection on American democracy challenges and complements blog posts and opinion pieces that are typical staples of the 24/7 news cycle in the lead up to US elections. You'll find reports about election and campaign administration, voting access and participation, government performance and perceptions, the role of the media in civil society, and more.

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"VOTE!" by Paul Sableman licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Continuity of Government: Presidential Succession

December 5, 2022

Questions about the continuity of our key institutions have arisen at pivotal moments throughout our nation's history. Watershed events such as the Cold War, the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy brought continuity-of-government issues into sharp public relief. Ultimately, these events led to significant reforms, including the 25th Amendment and a new Presidential Succession Act.A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 attacks forced continuity issues back into the public consciousness. One result was the creation of the first Continuity of Government Commission, the predecessor to the current commission. More than two decades after 9/11, we still have to ask ourselves, Do we have the legal and constitutional framework in place to ensure that our key institutions of government could recover from a catastrophic event?America has in place legal and constitutional provisions that address presidential succession. These provisions serve us well in the straightforward case of a president's death while in office. However, the current system does not adequately address less straightforward scenarios, such as a mass attack on multiple people in the line of succession, the simultaneous incapacity of the president and vice president, and unique succession issues that could arise between Election Day and Inauguration Day.In this report, the Continuity of Government Commission recommends several changes to the Presidential Succession Act that address these vulnerabilities. These recommendations would not require constitutional amendments; they are achievable through simple legislative changes.

Who Decides Disputed Presidential Elections: Congress or the Vice President?

November 18, 2022

The 2020 elections raised fundamental questions about the resolution of disputes over presidential electors. Challenges to the legitimacy of President Joe Biden's victory arose because of the 12th Amendment's silence to the Constitution, saying in the passive voice that, after the vice president opens the electoral ballots before both houses of Congress, "the votes shall then be counted."We argue that the best reading of the Constitution finds that the vice president has the primary authority to resolve disputes over the legitimacy of electoral votes. While this is a difficult question with several alternative solutions, the constitutional structure and design should provide the answer. The Constitution rejects popular selection of the president by the electorate as a whole, Congress, or the House of Representatives.Instead, the framers created a state-centric process for choosing the president that relies on state legislatures to choose electors. Allowing Congress to reject electors sent by the states on grounds created by Congress alone would undermine the founders' design. Instead, the Constitution leaves the resolution of disputes over competing electoral slates up to the vice president as the least-worst option among the various alternatives. Short of dueling electors, the Electoral College system relies on the states to create a system for choosing electors and settling questions over their legitimacy.This reading of the Constitution has important implications for recent proposals to amend the Electoral Count Act (ECA). These amendments would raise the minimum number of votes required to challenge electoral votes in the House and Senate, and they would set out presumptions in favor of different branches of state government in the certification of electors.These proposals, while perhaps useful in the context of the ECA, do not address its core constitutional defect. Even if Congress adopts these proposals, it has still seized the power to reject electors even if a state has sent a single slate forward for opening and counting in the special joint session under the 12th Amendment. This violates the separation of powers and the founders' design that presidential selection rest on the people acting through the states, rather than Congress.

Campaigns and Elections

Attitudes About the Federal Government: Major Trends

April 15, 2022

In 2008, AEI released a comprehensive Public Opinion Study on attitudes about the federal government from the earliest days of polling. This new study updates some of the major trends that appeared in the 2008 report. Today, because pollsters are less focused on updating old trends, many important questions in the earlier compilation have not been updated.Key PointsWhile the public is ambivalent about government, Americans generally favor a smaller government than a larger one. When taxes are included in the question wording, Americans favor smaller government more strongly.In the early days of COVID-19, many Americans said they wanted the government to do more.At the turn of the century, when the economy was performing well, around 10 percent said they were angry with the way the federal government works. Since 2010, two in 10 or more have given that response.Pollsters should regularly revisit public views about government's role, size, and responsibilities and public levels of satisfaction with it.


The Continuity of Congress

April 11, 2022

The Continuity of Government Commission was originally formed after 9/11 to address how our key institutions can reconstitute themselves after a catastrophic attack. A new version of the commission, including previous members and new ones, who have experience in all three branches of government, met in 2021 and 2022 to consider continuity-of-government issues in light of the recent pandemic and other developments. In this report, the commission issues its recommendations on the continuity of Congress.The core continuity problem for Congress is that if many members of the House of Representatives were killed in an attack or other catastrophe, the House would likely have no quorum and be unable to meet for months after the event. Unlike the Senate, the House can fill its vacancies only by special election, and those elections are likely to take months to conduct.The key recommendation is for a constitutional amendment to allow for temporary replacements to be appointed to fill the seats of deceased members until special elections are held to elect a permanent replacement. With immediate successors to fill the seats of deceased members of Congress, a Congress with nearly full representation could be reconstituted within days to work with the president to face the challenges of the present emergency.The commission makes several other recommendations that deal with other continuity-of-Congress issues:Creating a limited provision for allowing remote proceedings when members of Congress cannot meet in person in Washington,Allowing temporary replacement members to fill in for incapacitated members in the extreme case when deceased and incapacitated members number more than a majority of the House or Senate, andAdopting procedures to ensure that a new Congress could commence, perhaps even remotely, if a catastrophic emergency prevented the regular opening of a new Congress.


The conservative case for the Constitution, part VIII: A plea for the virtue of ecumenicalism

April 4, 2022

The purpose of this report series has been to defend the Constitution as an effective instrument of government. This is not to say we should be at all satisfied with the state of American politics. There is widespread agreement in the nation that the country's politics is in poor shape.Legislative inertia has emboldened the other branches to involve themselves more in the process of governance, distorting the Constitution's original vision, which had made Congress paramount. Presidents effectively legislate through executive action, and the courts peer at statutory language written half a century ago to resolve today's conflicts. Meanwhile, Congress does practically nothing.This dysfunction has prodded many on the left to call for fundamental changes to the Constitution. They argue, following in Woodrow Wilson's footsteps some 120 years ago, that our instrument of government is too old and obsolete. It must be updated—altered to fit the exigencies of the present crisis. Power is too dispersed, numerical majorities are not empowered to govern, and the result is aimlessness and drift.In the previous report in this series, I suggested circumstances in which constitutional amendments may be prudent. But everything depends on the goal of such changes. Is it to make it easier for the Constitution to facilitate consensus? Or is the ambition to tear down existing structures to empower majorities to govern in the absence of consensus? Oftentimes, it seems as though contemporary critics are more animated by the latter than the former.


A Democratic Norm Endures January 6th: Congress and Deference to States’ Election Certifications

March 26, 2022

The U.S. Congress rarely overturns elections to either of its chambers. Legislators tend to follow a norm of deference to election results lawfully submitted by states. This longstanding norm is the product of the Constitution, federal law, and habit. Yet, on January 6, 2021, the national legislature flirted with violating that norm and denying the presidency to Joseph Biden based on spurious claims of electoral fraud. Fortunately, legislators from both parties forged strong majorities to uphold the norm and subsequently reaffirmed it during Congress's review of a disputed Iowa congressional election. Viewing these events closely reveals both that those who sought to discard or uphold a norm argued from within the American democratic tradition and that partisan calculations were paramount.

Campaigns and Elections

The conservative case for the Constitution, part VII: When should the Constitution be amended?

March 4, 2022

The theme of this series is that the United States Constitution is a good instrument of government, worthy of defense. It is not perfect, of course, but perfection is unattainable in government. To borrow a concept from James Madison, men are not angels and thus are incapable of designing a flawless constitution. So, we should appreciate a constitution that works as well as ours does.But this does not require conservatives to reject any and all alterations to the constitutional regime. Indeed, the Constitution has been amended some 27 times, and most of these amendments have been for the better. That raises the question: When and how should conservatives support amendments to the Constitution? This report will present general rules that can serve as a framework for conservatives to evaluate whether to enact proposed amendments.


The virtues of American localism—and its 21st-century challenges

February 9, 2022

Localism can include such direct democracy formats as the ballot initiatives of 2021, which brought issues directly to local electorates. These included decisions such as "refunding the police" in Austin, Texas, and enacting rent control in St. Paul, Minnesota. Put another way, the intense interest in such local elections reflects voter understanding that a local vote can directly affect one's immediate quality of life. Localism makes such influence possible.American localism can allow for policy differentiation across a diverse country and for voters to signal preferences in ways that may presage and influence decisions elsewhere. It can also serve as a safety valve for voters who might otherwise feel overlooked. So, too, can recall elections, which force incumbents to face voters before the end of their terms.1 Localism is, to be sure, not an unalloyed positive. It can impede what may be viewed as social or economic progress—as in the cases of "not in my backyard" opposition to new housing construction or, as it did in the segregated South, laws impeding full rights for African Americans.This report highlights the extent and unusualness of such localism while emphasizing that, as more policy influence accrues to the federal government, American localism and its political virtues are at risk.


Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform

January 20, 2022

Stark partisan dividing lines in Congress currently distract from potential areas of common ground in fostering an election system that puts voters first by being fair, accessible, secure, and transparent. These crucial topics include voter registration, voter identification, options to vote before Election Day, clean and accurate voter rolls, and audits.This report outlines a realistic framework for bipartisan election legislation. If implemented, this framework would massively improve election administration and Americans' voting experience.Federal election legislation, while rare, has a long track record of being bipartisan. For as much attention as members of Congress and the public have paid to how Americans vote, the most recent comprehensive elections bill passed in October 2002. But the urgent need for shoring election infrastructure becomes more obvious with each election.This report authored by a working group of five nonprofit think tanks elevates the election and voting reforms that have gotten lost in the highly partisan federal debate about elections. The working group comprises individuals from five nonprofit think tanks from across the political spectrum: Bipartisan Policy Center, American Enterprise Institute, Issue One, R Street Institute, and Unite America. The data used in this report is sourced from Voting Rights Lab. We came together to publish this report to ensure that important concepts—such as accessible voter registration and accurate voter rolls—are understood to be nonpartisan proposals that will improve elections and not benefit one party more than another.

Campaigns and Elections

The Exit Polls: A History and Trends Over Time, 1972–2020

January 11, 2022

This study looks at how key demographic groups have voted over time. This compilation covers 13 presidential elections, and it will be invaluable for scholars, journalists, and others interested in how voting patterns have changed over time. To complement the data, the editors interviewed Joe Lenski (cofounder and executive vice president of Edison Research), who has been involved with the national exit poll since 1988 and who now, with a small army, conducts the exit poll for the four networks called the National Election Pool. Karlyn Bowman and Samantha Goldstein conducted the interview in June 2021. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Campaigns and Elections

Ohio, Texas, and the Future of American Politics

December 10, 2021

The emergence of the urban-rural divide in American politics over the past few decades is a critical development in America's voting patterns. Today, rural areas vote predominantly for Republicans, while urban areas vote for Democrats. As a result, America's suburbs have increasingly become a swing region. I discussed this development in broad terms in the previous report. In this report, I look at the political development of two states—Ohio and Texas—which illustrate how "urbanicity" has transformed the United States' political makeup.While Ohio has historically been considered the nation's premier swing state, its votes have become more concentrated in rural areas, thereby strengthening the GOP's performance statewide. Rural areas began moving toward the Republican Party in the 1970s, a movement that accelerated in 2016 with Donald Trump on the ballot. On the other hand, the rapid growth of Texas' cities has pushed the state into more competitive territory for the Democrats. Despite the rural and small-town vote shifting toward Republicans, the leftward bolt in Texas' large cities and megacities has contributed to better performance for the Democrats. If these trends continue in future elections, Ohio will become solidly red, while Texas may go blue in the next few cycles.

Civic Participation

Political Influence Efforts in the US Through Campaign Contributions and Lobbying Expenditures: An Index Approach

December 7, 2021

Efforts by private-sector entities, nongovernment organizations, and other interest groups to exert political influence are pervasive in American politics, as they are in Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and other high-income democracies. Such efforts are also found in more autocratic societies such as China and Russia. However, legalized forms of political influence such as campaign contributions and lobbying efforts are more widespread in well-established democracies such as the United States.Importantly, efforts to influence political and administrative decisions can be good or bad, but either way, understanding the extent to which individual sectors of the economy engage in efforts to affect policy and regulatory initiatives is of interest. In this report, using publicly available information on federal campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures associated with individual sectors of the economy, we construct a set of political influence effort indexes for 60 sectors of the United States economy.The indexes are estimated using publicly available data, compiled by OpenSecrets from public sources, on federal campaign contributions and expenditures on lobbying efforts, divided by each sector's gross value of output, for each year from 2003 to 2020. Thus, for each sector in each year, we obtain an estimate of the dollars spent on political influence efforts at the federal level per million dollars of sector gross output. Index values are obtained by dividing each sector's outlays by average outlays per million dollars of output among the entire 60 sectors (that is, total spending on campaign contributions and lobbying divided by total output for all 60 sectors). An index value of one for a given sector indicates that the sector's efforts to exert political influence through lobbying and campaign contributions are representative of economy-wide efforts. A value of two indicates that a sector is investing twice as much as the average amount among all industries; an index value of 0.5 indicates the sector's expenditures are half the average amount