Poll: Americans' wish list for new Congress shows frustration with political systems

At least one in four Americans, regardless of party affiliation, wish for electoral and political reform

Cloud hang over the U.S. Capitol building.
Clouds pass over the U.S. Capitol on April 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s most recent Mood of the Nation Poll asked Americans what law they would choose if they could enact any law at the start of the new Congress. The results show that Americans are eager for political and electoral reform, especially instituting term limits.
Joshua Roberts | Getty Images

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s most recent Mood of the Nation Poll asked Americans what law they would choose, in their own words, if they could enact any law at the start of the new Congress. The results show that Americans are eager for political and electoral reform, especially instituting term limits.

Poll director Eric Plutzer said, “I think it says a lot that term limits and similar reforms are the first things that come to mind for so many people. Many Americans are prioritizing fixing the system over any particular policy that might contribute to security, freedom, equality or prosperity. That’s a symptom of deep frustration with government and how it has been functioning—or not—lately.”

Over one-quarter of Americans are eager for political or electoral reform

As part of the latest poll, fielded in mid-November, respondents were asked what law they would enact if they had a magic wand that would make it the law of the United States automatically at the start of the new, 118th Congress. Responses were recorded verbatim and the APM Research Lab coded those responses into broader categories.

More than one-quarter of respondents (28 percent) gave an answer related to political or electoral reform. We combined political- and election-reform answers since both seek to change the mechanisms by which our government functions. Even when split into two separate categories, political reform remains the frontrunner with nearly one in five Americans (18.5 percent) wishing for some sort of political reform.

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In addition to political or electoral reform, Americans also desired to enact laws pertaining to justice (9.5 percent), equal rights (8.5 percent), abortion (7.9 percent) and income or taxation (7.7 percent), among others.

Overhauling the political system and instituting term limits are most common suggestions for political or electoral reform

What exactly do Americans mean by political or electoral reform?

Among those who gave an answer that fell under political or electoral reform, 21 percent felt that some sort of change to our political system was needed to overcome dissatisfaction with America’s two-party system.

“Change to Parliamentary Democracy and new constitution.”
— 66-year-old white man from North Dakota, Independent

“To do away with the political labels that currently define our government representatives, specifically the parties of ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican.’ These labels have become destructive…”
— 44-year-old white woman from Missouri, Independent

Some respondents expressed a desire to eliminate political parties or currently in use political labels, such as one 55-year-old white woman from Indiana, a Republican, who wished for “the abolishment of the party system.” While a handful of others, like this 35-year-old Black man from Pennsylvania, a Democrat, suggested that “making political representation proportional” would bring about necessary political reform.

Nineteen percent of those who gave an answer that fell under political or electoral reform wished to enact a law instituting term limits for those holding political office. Some respondents just said “term limits” without specifying a particular office, while others specified term limits for members of Congress. A few wished for legislation instituting term limits for Supreme Court justices, and a subset of respondents, like this 43-year-old white man from Florida, an independent, sought “Term limits for every political office.”

“Term and benefits limits for House and Senate.”
— 54-year-old Black woman from Tennessee, Republican

Those who wished to enact legislation instituting term limits came from across the political spectrum and a range of other demographic categories.

Finally, changing the laws around election finance was the third most popular type of suggestion related to political and election reform. Respondents frequently named the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC as a target of their proposed legislation. Other respondents, while not citing Citizens United, said that there should be a law that elections be only publicly financed.

Americans who would enact a law regarding political and election reform are by and large significantly more likely to identify as male, white and Republican, to have higher levels of educational attainment and higher family income. The largest of these differences are seen across gender, race and family income, as shown in the graph.

Abortion, equal rights and healthcare legislation favored by larger proportions of women, Black Americans and poorer Americans, respectively

Although smaller proportions of Americans overall said they would enact legislation related to abortion, equal rights or healthcare as compared to political reform, certain patterns emerge that reveal these issues are particularly salient among certain demographics, perhaps due to addressing more immediate needs than political system change.

Eight percent of Americans cited abortion as the focus of their legislative wishes. The vast majority of Americans who would enact an abortion law, four in five, said they would legalize abortion access on a national level, while one in five said they would outlaw abortion in any circumstance.

Women, in particular, were significantly more likely than men to say they would enact a law related to abortion (14 percent compared to 2 percent). Interestingly, all the men who gave an abortion answer were in favor of legalizing abortion.

The specific form the abortion answers took varied. At least seven respondents mentioned their desire to “codify Roe v. Wade.” Some respondents emphasized bodily autonomy at the root of their legal safeguarding of abortion access. Several people thought abortion should be legally accessible in all cases. Still, other respondents linked abortion to broader concerns around healthcare.

“Free health care for all (abortion is health care).”
—37-year-old white female respondent from Washington, Democrat

“Very accessible/encouraged birth control/abortion/reproductive care.”
—28-year-old white female respondent from Kansas, Democrat

Those who wanted to institute a nationwide ban on abortions mostly kept it focused on that. But a 42-year-old woman from Texas, a Democrat, said she “would overturn Roe v. Wade and outlaw certain guns.” And another respondent emphasized “no abortions of any kind, ever, that we value all forms of life. That we never start to devalue life in infants, elderly, different people.”

There were also significant differences in frequency of response based on household income. As the level of family income increases, a somewhat higher proportion of Americans point to abortion policy as their law of choice. This is especially true for those with a family income of $100,000 or more.

Nearly nine percent of Americans prioritized enacting legislation that would secure equal rights for marginalized groups. But there are significant differences among frequency of response when it comes to race and ethnicity, and political leaning.

One in five Black Americans said they would enact a law regarding equal rights, and just over one in 10 Latino Americans would do the same. Only seven percent of white Americans, however, prioritized legislation pertaining to equal rights.

There is also a significant political difference when it comes to those suggesting a law regarding equal rights. Democrats (15 percent) were far more likely than either political independents (5 percent) or Republicans (2 percent) to say they would enact equal rights legislation. This difference between political leanings may also be influenced by race, since a higher proportion Republicans identify as white.

Many respondents said they would enact a law securing “equal rights for all.” Others sought to advance equal rights specifically as it came to racism, or gender equity, or marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights. One respondent specifically cited enacting the Equal Rights Amendment.

“That everyone is treated equal no matter their gender, race or beliefs.”
— 35-year-old Hispanic woman from Idaho, Democrat

“Equal opportunity, education, trades, careers, housing.”
— 47-year-old Black man from New Jersey, Independent

Comparatively speaking, healthcare legislation was among the less frequently cited categories, only 6 percent of Americans gave an answer related to healthcare. But there is a significant difference in the frequency of response when analyzed by household income: those with a lower household income were more likely to say they would enact a law regarding healthcare access than those with a higher household income.

Twelve percent of Americans with an annual family income less than $30,000, double the overall rate, prioritized healthcare access. That proportion drops to seven percent for those with a family income between $30,000 and $59,999, 4 percent for those with a family income between $60,000 and $99,999, and 2 percent for those with a family income over $100,000.

Among those with a household income less than $30,000 who would enact healthcare-related legislation, one said they would make it so “that we will never be forced to pay a mandate for health insurance again.” But all others advocated for some form of  universal healthcare, such as: “Medicare for all!!”, “that all citizens have health insurance regardless of income”, and “comprehensive, single payer healthcare for everyone.”

For additional findings and detailed survey methods and disclosures, see APM Research Lab’s full report.