Pete Buttigieg wants to abolish the electoral college. Sen. Elizabeth Warren hopes to ban gerrymandering. Sen. Cory Booker talks about limiting terms for Supreme Court justices. Beto O’Rourke is weighing an expansion of the high court.
The Democratic presidential hopefuls, prodded by a frustrated base, are pushing fundamental changes to the American political system. Aimed at changing how presidents are chosen and laws are passed, the proposals go beyond typical campaign issues such as health care and taxes to challenge the basic rules of American democracy.
Many of those ideas face long odds against enactment. But the conversation speaks volumes about the state of the Democratic Party in the age of Trump, reflecting a sentiment in the party that the system has stopped working fairly — a grievance once voiced more often by conservatives, including President Trump.
The list of Democratic complaints is long. Trump captured the White House despite losing the popular vote to a Democrat. So did George W. Bush (though he won reelection with a majority). Republicans draw congressional districts to elect themselves, and Democrats remain angry over what they consider the hijacking of a Supreme Court seat by Republicans in 2016.
Trump’s willingness to flout long-standing rules has prompted Democrats to look for their own ways to reshape the system.
“When we’re talking about things that might entail constitutional reform, it’s a very long game,” said Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. “But I think you do it out of the gate, if only to remind people of the level of ambition we have. . . . We’ve sometimes underestimated how much America can handle.”
Republicans say these proposals are radical efforts by Democrats to change the rules because they’re losing the game. After years of benefiting from left-leaning judges, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says, liberals now want to pack the courts because Trump is appointing conservatives.
“We must prevent further destabilization of essential institutions,” Rubio tweeted recently. “Court packing is quickly becoming a litmus test for 2020 Democratic candidates.”
Democrats and Republicans are also waging a state-by-state battle over voting logistics, including what kind of ID to require and when to purge electoral rolls. Democrats accuse Republicans of suppressing votes; GOP leaders say Democrats are protecting electoral fraud.
The ideas bubbling up in the 2020 campaign are far-reaching, encompassing all branches of government, and sometimes raising constitutional issues.
Few of these notions have sparked as much passion as the push to abolish the electoral college, the winner-take-all system in which each state is apportioned a certain number of votes based on congressional representation.
Under that system, the last two Republicans to win the presidency received fewer votes than their Democratic opponents: Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by about 3 million votes but prevailed in the electoral college, and George W. Bush received about 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000.
Republicans say the electoral college rightly preserves the influence of small states; Democrats warn that if presidents regularly win with a minority of the vote, Americans will reject the system as unfair.
Warren (D-Mass.) has been among the most outspoken, arguing that the electoral college encourages candidates to ignore any solidly red or blue state.
“Here’s the deal,” she said in March at a CNN town hall meeting in Mississippi. “We get to the general election for the highest office in this land, and no presidential candidate comes to Alabama or Mississippi. They’re not going to Massachusetts or California, either. They are not coming because we are not the states that are in play.”
Before he won the presidency, Trump agreed, calling the electoral college “a disaster for our democracy.” But a few days after his victory — when he won the electoral college and lost the popular vote — he called it “genius.”
Democrats have also become increasingly impatient with partisan gerrymandering, the process of redrawing district lines to benefit one party. It’s a practice both parties have used to their advantage, but Republicans have benefited more in recent years with majority control of more state governments.
Booker (D-N.J.) has called gerrymandering “undemocratic,” and Warren says it should be abolished. A bill approved by House Democrats in March, dubbed H.R. 1, “provides for states to establish independent, nonpartisan redistricting commissions” in addition to addressing voter access and election integrity.
Few events in recent years have also angered Democrats as much as the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to deny a hearing in 2016 for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland — a move that paved the way for Trump to appoint Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the high court and ensure a narrow conservative majority.
The idea of adding justices to the Supreme Court — “court packing” — has carried a negative connotation since President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to expand the court in the late 1930s. Roosevelt hit a political wall and suffered one of his most resounding political defeats on the issue. That some Democrats are willing reconsider the idea is perhaps a testament to their frustration.
Other ideas abound, such as lowering the voting age to 16, a proposal supported by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), among others.
Former senator Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said it was natural that the discussion among Democrats had taken this turn.
“It’s not surprising when two of the last five presidential elections gave the presidency to someone who received fewer votes than the opponent,” said Dorgan, now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It’s not surprising someone would say, ‘Let’s take a look at this.’ ”
Dorgan warned, however, that too much focus on improbable structural changes could siphon attention from Democrats’ more powerful messages on issues such as health care and wages, which matter much more to voters.
“I don’t think we’re going to change the electoral college. I don’t think we’re going to pack the courts. That’s not going to happen,” Dorgan said. “So it’s interesting to hear the discussion, but I think it detracts from the message that matters most.”
Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) agreed the message carries risks.
“I think President Trump is going to take full advantage of these ideas as examples of being too far to the left and being too far out of the mainstream,” Daschle said. “Ironically, him making that charge would be — interesting. But that’s always the danger.”
Trump is already pushing back, accusing Democrats of attempting to rig the system in their favor. The president, who is proud of his installation of two conservative Supreme Court justices, has attacked, in particular, the notion of expanding the court. Rubio, joined by 12 other Republicans, introduced a constitutional amendment last month to prevent that.
“The only reason they’re doing that is they want to try to catch up,” Trump told reporters last month. “So if they can’t catch up through the ballot box by winning an election, they want to try doing it in a different way.”
Some of the Democrats highlighting new proposals are also voicing caution, caught in the middle of an impassioned Democratic base, a broader electorate focused on bread-and-butter issues and a need to govern and set priorities if they win.
Some of the senators running for president, for example, are treading carefully with the push to end the legislative filibuster, which requires at least 60 Senate votes for most major bills to pass. Some liberals contend that the filibuster makes it too difficult to pass progressive laws, but many senators from both parties view it as important to preserve the rights of the minority.
In Ankeny, Iowa, in late February, a man asked Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to imagine a “very simple” hypothetical: She wins the presidency in 2020 and Democrats take control of both houses of Congress. Would she want to abolish the filibuster?
“Let’s change the subject,” said Harris, laughing. “I’m conflicted, to be honest with you.”
She’s not the only one. Some Democrats warn structural changes made by Democrats could benefit Republicans if the landscape shifts. If they did somehow add seats to the Supreme Court and fill them, for example, Republicans could presumably do the same when in power.
Democrats say these changes are not partisan grabs but necessary fixes for a broken democracy, echoing an argument made by Republicans in the past. Some Republicans have previously gone so far as to push for a constitutional convention to rewrite the nation’s founding document.
In 2016, the GOP platform advocated for five constitutional amendments, according to a study by the National Constitution Center: banning abortion, balancing the budget, imposing congressional term limits, letting states define marriage and allowing parents to dictate their children’s education.
Democrats also proposed changes that year — one to guarantee women’s equality and another to regulate campaign contributions.