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Lessig calls it "Presidency as referendum," meant to address "the deep sense that most Americans have that their government is not theirs." (Photo: Joi Ito/flickr/cc)

To Un-Rig Electoral System, A Plot to Treat 'Presidency as Referendum'

"We've lived through 'change you can believe in'," says Lawrence Lessig. "What we need now is a reason to believe in change."

Deirdre Fulton

Campaign finance reform advocate and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig announced Tuesday that he is forming a committee to explore entering the Democratic primary for president—a job from which he says he would resign as soon as Congress passed a package of pro-democracy reforms.

"I want to run," Lessig wrote at the Huffington Post on Tuesday. "But I want to run to be a different kind of president. 'Different' not in the traditional political puffery sense of that term. 'Different,' quite literally. I want to run to build a mandate for the fundamental change that our democracy desperately needs. Once that is passed, I would resign, and the elected Vice President would become President."

He calls it "Presidency as referendum," meant to address "the deep sense that most Americans have that their government is not theirs."

Lessig's campaign and potential White House residency would be solely focused on passing the Citizen Equality Act of 2017, which he says aims to restore "the right that all of us have in a representative democracy to be represented equally."

"That right has been violated in America today—and brazenly so," he said. "In the way campaigns are funded, in the way the poor and overworked are denied an equal freedom to vote, and in the way whole sections of American voters get written into oblivion by politically gerrymandered districts that assure their views are not represented, we have allowed the politicians to cheat us of the most fundamental commitment of a democracy: equal citizens. And until we find a way to create a mandate to demand equality for citizens, we will never find a way to make real change possible."

Among other things, the Citizen Equality Act calls for overturning Citizens United, instituting Ranked Choice Voting, and adopting a campaign finance proposal that would give every voter a voucher to contribute to fund congressional and presidential campaigns and provide matching funds for small-dollar contributions to congressional and presidential campaigns.

As for his successor, Lessig told the Washington Post that he would pick a vice president "who is really, clearly, strongly identified with the ideals of the Democratic Party right now," offering Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as one possibility. He said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has railed against big money in politics on the campaign trail, was another option.

Lessig acknowledges that Sanders, more than any other presidential candidate, has talked extensively about the need for electoral reform. 

"Sanders is a rare hero among politicians," Lessig wrote at the HuffPo. "Throughout his career, he has been unwavering in his advocacy for the issues he believes in, however unpopular. There isn't a triangulating bone in his body. And as people have come to know him and his history, they are inspired by a man who has stuck by his principles and whose principles are now more relevant and true than ever. The picture of 28,000 people showing up to a rally more than a year before an election is the picture of hope for a democracy."

But even an "extraordinary" candidate like Sanders, Lessig continued, "is always divided among the 8 or 10 issues at the core of their campaign."

"What should be obvious to everyone—or at least the 82% of Americans who believe 'the system is rigged'—is that none of these incredible reforms is possible until we un-rig the rigged system first," he argued. "We've lived through 'change you can believe in.' What we need now is a reason to believe in change."

This is not the first time Lessig has experimented with an unconventional strategy for effecting political change. As Politico reports, Lessig recently left his position as chairman and CEO of Mayday PAC, a high-profile Super PAC he co-founded to back candidates committed to reforming campaign finance laws. But despite spending more than $10 million in 2014, the Super PAC had a spotty record of success, seeing victory in just two of the eight races it targeted, according to an analysis by Politico.

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