As we once again make our way through another Presidential election cycle (not to be confused with a “tricycle” even though it too is often occupied with those who speak with the reasoning of a 5 year old), we again take for granted the environment and ground rules that represent American democratic elections.
But has our system become so encumbered by intended and unintended constraints that elections are really an electoral Harry Houdini act in which democracy must escape the straightjacket the process wraps it in before time runs out and Election Day ends?
Below is a proposed list of changes to electoral obstacles that if removed from our democratic process, may allow our elections to be more democratic and lead to a more representational government that truly serves the people.
1. PUBLICLY FUND ELECTIONS AND REVERSE CITIZENS UNITED
Here is the dictionary definition of “democracy”:
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
Is there any way that allowing those in the highest percentile of the wealthiest 1% to use their money to influence who runs in elections and who wins, becoming our most powerful representatives in government, is compatible with the definition of “democracy”? I would argue that as a factor, money is undemocratic, it undermines democracy because it does just the opposite, gives power and determination over those who run our government to the few instead of the many.
Money is not speech, it is a loudspeaker that drowns out the voices of 99% of Americans.
In this election cycle, we have witnessed that money may not always dominate all other factors but it is a requirement to be a viable candidate and in the end, will be hugely influential in who controls our government in 2017. Our corrupt election system, helped greatly into deeper corruption by the 5 Supreme Court justices who gave us the Citizens United ruling (that opened the flood gates on unlimited spending on campaigns by the wealthiest people and companies), has brought our elections to the outrageous and insane point that the 2016 Presidential race alone may cost $5 billion or more.
$5 billion spent to elect a President? If you think that sounds crazy, some suggest that $10 billion may be spent in the entire 2016 election cycle. And if, as the Ignorant 5 on the Supreme Court insist, money doesn’t buy political favors, why are the wealthiest and most powerful in the country putting up the lion’s share of that money?
In the country that many Americans might name as a comparable democracy, the United Kingdom, each political party in 2015 was limited to spending $47 million. That’s still a lot of money to normal people but for a national election, spending less than $100 million for both parties versus $5-$10 billion in the U.S. is quite eye opening. And does the UK have a less democratic election because they spend the limited amount that they do? That hasn’t been the complaint by UK voters (except the wealthy on the Tory side).
We should not accept such an obvious perversion of our electoral process. Massive amounts of money should not be a requirement for someone to become an alleged representative of the people. Which is why it is critical that America revise electoral policy to limit federal elections to being solely publicly financed.
Democracy is not served by carpet bombing campaign ads, wealthy donors gaining leverage over eventual office holders and so much time spent by incumbents on raising money for their re-elections.
If all candidates are given an equal standing as candidates through public financing, the public will also have an equal playing field on which to compare all candidates. And, the power of special interest groups and the wealthy would be greatly reduced from our elections and the lawmaking that follows.
2. REDUCE THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN PERIOD TO 3 MONTHS
As it is right now, Presidential campaigns begin roughly around a year and a half before a Presidential election. By Fall in the year before an election, most candidates have already announced and are campaigning and fundraising to one degree or another. This is one reason campaigns are so expensive and perhaps it accounts for why turnout is so low in November. Plain and simple, people get burned out and turned off by a year and a half of campaigning. This does not have to be the case.
As the UK was mentioned above for having campaign finance limits and spending a tiny fraction of what is spent in US elections, they also have a 60 day period for campaigning for elections. In that democracy, voters don’t express that it’s too short a period to understand what policies a candidate supports and what kind of person that candidate is, there are no outcries for having a year and a half of campaigning instead.
A shorter campaign period (coupled with public campaign financing as mentioned above), would help to eliminate the circus-like nature of our elections, forcing them to be more about substance because there wouldn’t be time for all the ridiculous machinations that take place.
A 90 day campaign period would be 50% longer than the UK’s, would allow for a number of debates in primaries and the General Election (there could be 45 days for primaries and the same for the General Election) and the public could be more involved and responsive, not having had their minds numbed by 18 months of election coverage and political ads (the MSM wouldn’t be happy about this of course). There would also be more of a sense of urgency to vote when one has 90 days to decide then vote rather than a year and a half.
Do we really need a year and a half or even six months to decide between candidates, there’s nothing drastically mind-changing that would have made a Romney supporter vote Obama or vice-versa in the last six months of the campaign. Elections can and should be run more effectively, in a more reasonable amount of time and for at a reasonably, public funded amount. Limiting the duration of campaigns would accomplish all of that.
3. ALLOW VOTING FOR A WEEK, AUTOMATICALLY REGISTER VOTERS, END VOTER ID LAWS
Is it really ideal to limit voting to between 7:00am and 8:00pm on a Tuesday? Most people who work, let alone have kids to take to school may have trouble getting to their polling place in the morning and during their work day (since where they work may be a distance from their polling place which is near their home). Which leaves going to vote after work when they are tired and hungry and may not even be home by 8:00pm.
What would be lost by allowing Americans a week to find time in their schedule to vote? Some areas have this already to a degree with early voting locations but why not institute and promote a more robust and nationally provided early voting system across the country? Americans would have the week before Election Day to vote at their convenience at a polling place and at minimal expense (just slice off a small fraction of that $5 billion campaigns wouldn’t have to raise or spend anymore) increase the strength and inclusiveness of our democracy.
Many states provide for voting by mail, this would also be great to have in every state.
We’ve had more than enough state legislation trying to prevent people from voting, it’s about time that was countered and this country stood up for a stronger democracy.
As for registration, here’s a question I never really understood, why is it necessary to have people manually register to vote? If every American citizen over the age of 18 years old has the right to vote, why doesn’t the bastion of democracy allow them to vote without having to apply to exercise that right?
California and Oregon are the first two states to provide automatic voter registration to Americans in their states (through the DMV) so it’s already “a thing”. There is no reason that other states shouldn’t support the Constitutional rights of its citizens as well and display their commitment to our democracy.
And an additional benefit of this is that it would make the voter suppression goals of Voter ID laws moot. If a state agency such as the DMV declares that you have a right to vote and sends you a registration card, you would not need secondary proof (of course, if the purpose of the Voter ID laws were genuinely to prevent the imaginary voter impersonation fraud that isn’t happening anyway, all those Republican politicians should be supporting automatic registration…but of course they won’t).
4. MAKE GERRYMANDERING ILLEGAL, REQUIRE NON-PARTISAN REDISTRICTING
As with the other items above that appear so obviously contrary to supporting a democracy, how is it that gerrymandering is legal? It is in essence, the power to corrupt democracy. I certainly understand why many politicians would want gerrymandering to continue to be legal but neither they nor anyone else can argue why it is not anti-democratic.
Gerrymandering allows politicians to thwart fair representation for those in the opposing party and voters who they view as unlikely to support them. As the saying goes, elections used to be about voters choosing politicians, now they’re about politicians choosing their voters.
Some states such as Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington currently have independent redistricting commissions. Iowa, New Jersey and Hawaii have either non-partisan or bi-partisan commissions with a nonpartisan chairman. Last November, Ohio’s voters voted to restrict gerrymandering by using a more bipartisan redistricting committee but still allows gerrymandering for 4 years at a time.
So this is not a pipe dream, things are going in the right direction on outlawing gerrymandering but considering that some state governments are holding their majorities thanks to gerrymandering, a national law that would make this practice illegal, as it should be, could accelerate this.
5. REPLACE IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE AS THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY STATES
The only reason that Iowa and New Hampshire have the first caucuses and primaries in the country is that they thought of it first and put it into law in their states. The political parties have just gone along with it so these two states have usurped far more power and influence on who becomes President in the United States than is at all warranted.
In particular, Iowa Republicans are dominated by evangelicals who have repeatedly elevated extremists to winning their caucuses who could never win a GOP Primary (let alone a General Election). They are so far from representing today’s America, their outsized influence is contrary to democracy.
If the primary process is about having initial states make an impact on the primary races that is reflective of the country as a whole, then Iowa and New Hampshire should be replaced with states that are more reflective of all Americans.
Here’s some simple demographics that illustrate how unrepresentative Iowa and New Hampshire are compared to the entire U.S. and how New York and Illinois would be much more representative.
|DEMOGRAPHICS – CURRENT FIRST PRIMARY STATES|
|DEMOGRAPHICS – PROPOSED FIRST PRIMARY STATES|
Why should two small states that are wildly over-representative of whites and in New Hampshire’s case, almost entirely white, have the first says in which candidates should be our next President? After these first two contests, many candidates drop out of the race so frankly, white people are choosing for all of America who will make the first and main cut. That’s not right.
The case has been made that it’s better for candidates to stump in smaller states where they can get up close and personal with voters and there is something to that but there are small towns in New York and Illinois where such retail politics can be demonstrated and promoted in ads and on the news but the necessity of allowing those people who aren’t white have a meaningful say in the first primaries outweighs that quaint concept.
The alleged benefit that having the candidates pander to white folks in small states in more intimate settings is far from apparent. While in those states, candidates put on their “small state” act as is expected of them but when they move on to other states, they simply pander to those states as expected.
Buying into the Iowa and New Hampshire propaganda doesn’t empower the majority of Americans and certainly not those in minorities. It simply provides a windfall of money and influence to these two states and that should not be the purpose of a national election.
If campaigns were publicly financed, as proposed above and if network and cable stations were required and/or incentivized to provide free or low cost air time as a responsibility to the nation, being in the New York and Chicago markets which do have costly media, would not be an issue.
And the winning candidates in the first primaries would be chosen by a set of voters that represent the real makeup of America, not impacting the process with a racially skewed voter base that doesn’t represent the country as a whole.
Of course, presidential elections are a state-by-state process. Presidents are elected by the Electoral College, not popular vote. And each state has its own demographics that can vary greatly from others. But if we’re talking about which states should lead the electoral parade and be the most influential in winnowing the field, shouldn’t it be the states with greater populations and demographics that most resemble the country as a whole?
The Nevada and South Carolina primaries have been arranged to follow the first two White Primaries, as a gesture to minorities after the white people have had the first say on which candidates should stay or go but neither state is reflective of the country, Nevada has a very high percentage of Latinos (26.5) but is very underrepresented by African Americans (8.1%). South Carolina is the opposite story, African Americans are overrepresented (27.9%) while Latinos are greatly underrepresented (5.1%).
So, as much as it may hurt those in the Sarah Palin Real American Club (if anyone still knows who she is), New York and Illinois are the most representative states of America demographically and for that reason, they should have the first say.
The good news is that some of the proposals listed above are gaining traction in some states. Some have a way to go. It is no coincidence that Americans generally are displeased with their government and one could argue that much of it has to do with the fact that it is not very representative of Americans or responsive to them. Through gerrymandering, voter suppression, allowing the wealthy to buy politicians and other corruptions of our democracy, the average American has real reasons to feel disconnected from a government that doesn’t reflect their desires or concerns.
However, if we can reform the process, we can move down the road in restoring integrity to our democracy and the system as a whole.