Lawrence Lessig Criticizes Tweedism in Public Elections at ASM

After highlighting American civil rights activists’ 1965 march from Selma, AL., to Montgomery, AL., and student-led strikes in Hong Kong in 2014 as examples of grassroots movements to change voting laws, Lawrence Lessig stressed the importance of combatting corruption in the modern voting system in the United States in his speech at All-School Meeting on May 6.

Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, concentrated on the influence that funding has on public elections. His talk referred specifically to “Tweedism,” a political structure named after William “Boss” Tweed, a prominent New York politician in the 1800s.

“Tweedism is any multiple stage election where the ‘tweeds’ get to control the first stage; we all get to participate in the last stage, and that control [creates] a system responsive to the ‘tweeds’ only,” Lessig said during his speech.
Lessig added that Thomas Jefferson wanted the United States to be a representative democracy, including an executive branch dependent on the people alone. Tweedism, however, creates a dependence on candidates’ financial backers, effectively disregarding Jefferson’s principle that the vote of each citizen should carry as much weight as the next.

Lessig explained that there are essentially two primaries in each election within the United States: the “green” primary, influenced by donors who determine who has the funds to run a successful campaign, and the subsequent primary open to the public. “A tiny fraction of the one percent dominates this first stage with a consequence: by producing a democracy responsive to the funders only, ” said Lessig.

Only 1.7 percent of Americans gave any amount of money to a congressional campaign, but of those funders, only 0.02 percent of the American population gave the maximum amount of $5,200, Lessig said.

“If we have a system responsive to the funders, people who give $5,200 or more, then what we have is a system responsive to the rich more than the poor. We have produced precisely the inequality which the framers were driving against,” he continued.

Lessig said that, in order to solve the problem of the “green” primary, it is necessary to increase the general public’s role in financing elections.

“We have to publicly finance elections. There are a couple ways of doing that – the way I support is the bottom-up public financing. One idea is matching funds, so small contributions get matched up to 9:1. The other idea is vouchers, where everybody has a voucher used to fund campaigns,” said Lessig in an interview with The Phillipian.

To illustrate the idea of vouchers, Lessig referenced a plan designed by Jim Rubens, a New Hampshire politician, that would remove all funding limits, but provide all citizens with a fifty-dollar voucher to assist the candidate of their choice.

“Both of these are ways of bringing in millions of people to the funding of campaigns, away from a system where it is basically 5,000 who are the relevant funders,” Lessig said.

He continued, “I think this is the civil rights issue of our age. We have allowed our government to evolve to a place where we have fundamental inequality of citizenship, meaning citizens have a radically unequal role in influencing their government. The way we fund campaigns is just one part of it, but I think it is the most urgent part to solve right away.”