Most people considering a presidential run dream of eight years in the White House. Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig proposes that his term should last a single day — just long enough to sign into law a transformational election rights bill, before resigning and passing responsibility for governing our reformed American democracy to his vice president.
Lessig calls his proposed legislation the Citizens Equality Act of 2017. It would end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, extend ironclad voting rights to U.S. citizens and make Election Day a national holiday. Most vital to Lessig, it would move toward public financing of elections — giving every voter something like a $50 voucher to back the candidate of her choice, blunting the influence of special interests.
A Democrat who once clerked for arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Lessig does not offer a plan to fix Citizens United or the unlimited donations to super PACs. But he insists his bill is the essential first step to making our representative democracy once again represent voters, rather than the nation’s tiny donor class or well-heeled oil lobbyists.
Lessig’s “referendum” candidacy is an intriguing longshot, with unexpected upsides: As the man who would handpick the vice president (soon-to-be president), Lessig suggests that his victory could be the key to installing a liberal heartthrob like Elizabeth Warren, or even a titan of Silicon Valley like Sheryl Sandberg, in the Oval Office.
Rolling Stone recently chatted with Lessig about his plan, and the philosophy behind it.
Talk about your “referendum” idea. What does that look like in a presidential campaign?
We have an issue with basic corruption that the vast majority of Americans would vote to reform, but which it’s almost impossible to imagine Congress actually addressing. Representative democracy is not going to work. So we need a way around representative democracy.
Some states have referendum processes to do that. The idea was: let’s hack a referendum into the Constitution. We do that through a referendum candidate, who would say, “My mandate is to do one thing, and when that one thing is passed, I’ll step aside for the vice president.”
You have an election where you’re getting two for the price of one. You’re getting the reformer — the person who makes it possible for the next president to actually accomplish something. Then you have a president who gets to enjoy all the benefits of a reformed system.
But what happens if you get elected president, and then — before your big bill gets passed — Iran goes crazy? Who, then, deals with the ayatollahs, or ISIS, or whatever the crisis is?
The person who is elected the president. That person has to convince the public that, in the case of something extraordinary, they could act as a kind of leader that the nation needs at the time of crisis.
You’re saying you’ve got the qualifications to make those kinds of decisions in the interim?
Absolutely. If I’m not qualified to be that person, I shouldn’t be president.
But, if I were elected in November, I would hope that somebody would start making the argument as forcefully as they can: “Congress, pass the bill! So the first hour of his administration, he can sign it and get the hell out of there!” Right? The people have spoken.