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A common problem where I live, and I assume everywhere, for at least the past 4 decades (and I assume it has been a problem for centuries), is that politicians make a lot of campaign promises which they never keep. They always have the same excuses such as, "what we received was a very bad situation", "something unexpected happened and we can't do what we promised anymore", etc.

Is it possible, or has it ever happened, that a politician ran under certain campaign promises, whatever they are (lower taxes, raise pensions, etc.) and were required to sign a contract stating that if they don't comply with a promise they made on the campaign there would be repercussions? For example, all of their assets are taken away, or they can't run for public office anymore, or whatever?

Is it technically possible for politicians to sign a contract where they are punished if they don't comply with their campaign promises? Or has it ever happened where politicians were required to comply with their campaign promises?

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  • Related: politics.stackexchange.com/q/11314/26455
    – Rick Smith
    Commented Jun 5 at 20:41
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    A contract is between two parties. Who would be the other party in such a contract?
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 5 at 20:52
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    @Barmar A class which as a matter of law can't be established due to secret ballots.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 5 at 21:39
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    @ohwilleke Yeah, that was what I was planning on leading him to. But maybe the class could be the entire constituency. But then there's no consideration, because only the voters had an expectation of action from him.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 5 at 21:49
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    In the specific example of the US electoral college for choosing the president and vice president, it is legal for states to (a) require candidate electors to pledge in advance who they will vote for, (b) fine them if they do not honor their pledges, and (c) replace faithless electors with others who will honor the pledge. This has happened in some states.
    – Henry
    Commented Jun 6 at 17:24

6 Answers 6

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Is it possible a politician, or has it ever happened a politician run under certain campaign promises, whatever they are (lower taxes, raise pensions, or whatever from whatever political spectrum), and that they sign a contract stating that if they don't comply with x promise they made on the campaign, they are removed of all their assests, can't run for public office anymore, or whatever?

Is this technically possible for politicians to sign a contract where they are punished if they don't comply with their campaign promises, or has it ever happened, as a solution for politicians to comply with their campaign promises

No.

Documents prepared by politicians while running for office are prepared now and then and are sometimes signed by those politicians, although they rarely identify any penalty to the politician for breaching the contract. See, e.g., the GOP Contract With America in the 1994 election campaign for Congress in the United States. (Incidentally, while this was an effective campaign strategy and many of its promises were fulfilled, as the link indicates, it was breached in some respects: "A November 13, 2000, article by Edward H. Crane, president of the libertarian Cato Institute, stated, "the combined budgets of the 95 major programs that the Contract with America promised to eliminate have increased by 13%.")

But, campaign promises are not legally enforceable.

Plaintiffs provide no legal authority for the proposition that political statements made during election campaigns constitute enforceable promises; indeed, courts have long held that such statements are not enforceable promises under similar theories. See St. John's United Church of Christ v. F.A.A., 550 F.3d 1168, 1170 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (noting that political promises have “no legal force whatsoever”); East Side Plating, Inc. v. City of Portland, No. 3:18-cv-01664-YY, 2019 WL 3979658, at *6 (D. Or. July 11, 2019) (holding that statements made by city commissioners were “political promises” not enforceable promises); Weinstein v. Trump, No. 17 Civ. 1018 (GBD), 2017 WL 6544635, at *4 n.5 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2017) (“[O]nce a candidate is elected to office, it is for the politicians and the people they represent—not the courts—to decide which campaign promises will be fulfilled and which will become abandoned rhetoric.” ); United States v. Washington, 887 F. Supp. 2d 1077, 1100 (D. Mont. 2012) (holding that “public statements were not promises but rather statements of principle and intent in the political realm” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Berg v. Obama, 574 F. Supp. 2d 509, 529 (E.D. Penn. 2008) (“[O]ur political system could not function if every political message articulated by a campaign could be characterized as a legally binding contract enforceable by individual voters.”); May v. Kennard Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 9:96-CV-256, 1996 WL 768039, at *7 (E.D. Tex. Nov. 22, 1996) (“A political campaign promise is legally insufficient to create a binding contract unless it is so intended by the promisor and promisee.”).

Hardt v. City of Portland, No. 3:23-CV-01980-AN, 2024 WL 1286542, at *5 (D. Or. Mar. 26, 2024).

The “promises” that Plaintiff identifies are statements of principle and intent in the political realm. They are not enforceable promises under contract law.

Indeed, our political system could not function if every political message articulated by a campaign could be characterized as a legally binding contract enforceable by individual voters. Of course, voters are free to vote out of office those politicians seen to have breached campaign promises. Federal courts, however, are not and cannot be in the business of enforcing political rhetoric.

Berg v. Obama, 574 F. Supp. 2d 509, 529 (E.D. Pa. 2008), aff'd, 586 F.3d 234 (3d Cir. 2009).

There are a number of legal reasons for this bottom line conclusion:

  • One reason for this is that it would conflict with the duty of a politician to exercise independent judgment at the time of actually making decisions.

  • Another is that campaign promises routinely require the cooperation of other political actors and a determination that it is legally possible to do what was promised. Often campaign promises assume that they will be able to get cooperation from the necessary people, but don't actually manage to achieve it. Impossibility is a defense to some contract lawsuits.

  • In the same vein, it is often challenging to determine if a political promise has been performed or has been breached, since their terms are often vague (e.g., "I'll take strong measures to fight crime."), and vagueness can be a defense to contractual liability.

  • If such a contract is made, the person on the other side of the contract would have to have to have also agreed to it, despite not having to do anything in exchange (often it is legally impossible to even prove that you voted for the candidate making the promise).

  • Yet another reason that campaign promises are not enforceable is that they are not supported by consideration. If a politician receives personal benefit in exchange for promising to take official action, that is criminal bribery. If a politician receives no personal benefit in exchange for promising to take official action, then there is not a contract supported by consideration. Spending to help a candidate win office is basically conclusively presumed to be for the purpose of getting the candidate elected "as is" and is not conditional on any particular official acts if the candidate is elected.

  • There is also a closely related question of standing. To sue over something, you have to show individualized personal harm from conduct that forms the basis of the lawsuit. But the benefits or harms caused by a broken political promise are rarely individualized and instead are shared by the whole society, unless the promise amounts to bribery.

  • Then, there is the immunity from liability of the speech and debate clause of the U.S. Constitution for Congress, and similar laws in other legislative bodies (e.g. most states and Australia's federal legislature and the U.K. Parliament). The speech and debate clause for the U.S. Congress states:

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

U.S. Constitution (1789), Article I, Section 6, Clause 1.

This means that legislators are immune from civil or criminal liability from their official acts subject only to some narrow exceptions set forth in the clause. So, speech and debate clause immunity from liability would override any civil contract liability arising out of the legislator's legislative conduct. As explained at the link:

it is well established that the Clause serves to secure the independence of the federal legislature by providing Members of Congress and their aides with immunity from criminal prosecutions or civil suits that stem from acts taken within the legislative sphere. As succinctly described by the Court, the Clause’s immunity from liability applies even though their conduct, if performed in other than legislative contexts, would in itself be unconstitutional or otherwise contrary to criminal or civil statutes. This general immunity principle forms the core of the protections afforded by the Clause.

See, e.g., Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168, 204 (1881) (no liability for contempt of court for a member of Congress who refused to testify about his official Congressional acts in a lawsuit arising out of a real estate partnership to which the member of Congress was a party).

Even when no immunity from liability due to a constitution or statute, courts may devise a common law doctrine of immunity from civil liability for official acts as they have in the case of the U.S. President.

As a practical matter, if such liability existed, every elected official would be sued in almost every election cycle because somebody could claim credibly that at last some campaign promise was broken by that politician, leading to massive satellite litigation and unreasonably discouraging people from running for office.

Instead, our system leaves enforcement of broken campaign promises to voters who must decide if breaking a campaign promise was so serious that other good things that happened when a candidate was elected should be outweighed by the broken promise.

No legal system of which I am aware, anywhere in the world, allows campaign promises made by elected officials to be legally enforced. I am not aware of even a single case in history in any country where legal enforcement of such a promise has been allowed, although I'm not omnipotent and maybe somewhere, sometime, this did happen in some obscure case.

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    "Plaintiffs provide no legal authority for the proposition that political statements made during election campaigns constitute enforceable promises" but what I meant was, what about if they actually sign any of those statements in a paper contract, which includes written compromises if they don't (like giving away their assests) . One of the points you mentioned .. (continue in the next comment)
    – Pablo
    Commented Jun 5 at 21:19
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    @Pablo In politics, the expected "punishment" is to be voted out of office during the next election.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 5 at 21:30
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    @Pablo I never claimed it was a solution to the problem. It's just the best remedy we have. No one would ever run for office if they could be held legally responsible for every decision they make while in office. Sometimes conditions change or you get new information, and your campaign promises are no longer appropriate.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 5 at 21:35
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    @Pablo "They don't care, they already made money" is not that constructive, even if the Q is a valid one and bears asking. One reason we have such dysfunctional politics these days is so many people claiming all politicians are crooked. If "they" are all crooks, then why not take a chance on someone who throws away the rulebook and promises to drain the swamp? Then, if that person does do - quite a bit of - nepotism in office? 'Oh, "they" all do it'. Plus, there is such a thing as impeachment or criminal prosecution, even while in office. Commented Jun 5 at 21:51
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    @Pablo - The isn't about what gets put in the contract. Even if they signed something that said "If I get elected and break this promise, I'll give away everything I own", if they then break their promise and don't give everything away, there's no one who can enforce it to make them do so. So what's the point of the contract, then?
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 6 at 11:46
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That would be unconstitutional.

The people elect legislators who elect a government, and §38 GG says that legislators are only subject to their conscience. That's the theory.

In practice, legislators are also subject to the "need" to be re-nominated by their party and re-elected by the electorate, but the constitution ignores this constraint since it does not affect the current term of the legislators directly. A party "whip" is constitutional since the legislator remains free to become an independent and to ignore the wishes of the party.

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  • The constitutionality of something depends on the country. Which country are you talking about?
    – Pablo
    Commented Jun 7 at 11:37
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    @Pablo The answer starts with a “germany” tag. Commented Jun 7 at 12:05
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That is explicitely forbidden by the constitution.

Article 27 of the Constitution states: "Tout mandat impératif est nul".

Official translation: "No Member shall be elected with any binding mandate."

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    what possibly could be thinking those who added that to the constitution. Looks like they wanted to protect a caste system
    – Pablo
    Commented Jun 7 at 11:36
  • @Pablo - Entire theses have been written to answer that question (see lgdj.fr/… - in French) - Long story short, it's been there since the birth of democracy in France in the 1790's - in an effort to demonstrate that all representatives represent the entire population (and not only their constituants)
    – Maxime
    Commented Jun 7 at 13:05
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It's pretty much universal that politicians fail to keep campaign promises for a variety of reasons. It could be naivete - prior to attaining office they have no access to information that a given promise is unachievable. Circumstances could change between the time a promise is formulated and the time comes it could be acted upon. Politicians sometimes shift priorities and associated agendas over time. A politician could come under adverse influence which alters their agenda. A politician could make promises to win votes with no intention of keeping said promises.

Ultimately, the accountability of a politician comes at the ballot box when due for re-election. If voters want to make their politicians accountable for their record in office, they will vote out the ones who betrayed their campaign promises (and exhort fellow voters to do the same). Some voters care about such things, others don't.

Depending on jurisdiction, elected positions may be subject to "recall" or similar processes, where a public petition or other action could lead to a re-election ahead of the normal term expiration for that office. Some positions are subject to impeachment, but this is usually reserved for serious misdeeds, criminal conduct, etc., not merely broken campaign promises.

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In a way, the electoral laws are such a contract - the politician that does not keep their promises may not have their contract (i.e., their mandate) renewed, or in some cases may be even fired earlier (e.g., via recall elections or a parliamentary non-confidence vote - depending on the political system.)

Still, once elected, politicians are not obliged to follow their promises. Interestingly, this was of the major criticisms directed at democracy by Marx and his followers. They even went further, pointing out that a politician in a democratic system is not so much bound to voters, but to those who help him win election - pleasing wealthy donors or party leaders is a lot more important than paying attention to voters, particularly in a red/blue district or if we consider the US presidential elections in post-Obama times, where most people simply vote against the other candidate.

The Marxist solution was to give more weight to the votes of those, who contribute in the actual productive activities, and less weight (or no voting rights at all) to the bourgeoisie and its allies (farmers, small business, intellectuals, etc.) Thus, they envisaged a system of "working councils" ("Soviets" in Russian) in every factory, electing their representatives to higher level councils, with a right of an immediate recall. This system was elaborated in details by Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, during his imprisonment in a fascist prison. Russian communists also obediently tried to implement such a system immediately after the revolution - which readily made obvious its principal shortcoming - those deciding who should and should not have the right to vote hold the real power. This is discussed in details in Terrorism vs. Communism debate between Karl Kautsky (for liberal democracy) and Lenin and Trotsky against.

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http://www.rbs2.com/elecprom.pdf

There are several reasons why courts refuse to enforce promises made by political candidates. First, we examine a possible basis in contract law. Then we look at other types of reasons. A. contract law Can a politician make a legally enforceable contract with one voter, a class of voters, or the entire constituency? The answer seems to be no, for several reasons:

  1. The subject matter is not proper for a legally enforceable contract. In common contracts, one person2 agrees to surrender some personal legal right (e.g., ownership of a thing, his time, his money, or a legal right to do – or not do – something) that belongs to him personally in exchange for “good and valuable consideration”.3 The ability of an elected politician to do certain governmental acts is not his personal right, but a power conferred on him by virtue of his elected office. ...

There are several reasons why it's not permissible.

First, the things politicians promise to do are not personal rights they can give up, but duties they perform as part of their elected position.

Second, offering votes as payment for promises is illegal and against contract law.

Third, since ballots are anonymous, it can't be proven that someone voted for a specific candidate, making votes unable to be considered as valid payment for a promise.

Fourth, it's unclear who the other party in the contract would be – all constituents or only those who relied on the promise when voting.

Fifth, political promises are often spoken, not written, and the timeframe of political office terms (typically two to six years) makes it difficult to enforce such agreements under the law.

Finally, there are legal doctrines and immunities that may prevent courts from enforcing these promises, meaning they're not considered as contracts under the law.

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