American Elections Need a Face Lift

Alan Zendell, February 5, 2020

Anyone who has ever worked as a consultant advising businesses about how to handle data and information could explain what’s wrong with our electoral process in a matter of minutes. It would only take a few additional minutes to outline how to fix it. Here are four ways it can be improved.

Presidential Campaigns are Much Too Long – If I have to explain this, either you haven’t been paying attention or you’re too young to remember when presidential campaigns lasted less than a year. John F. Kennedy didn’t announce his candidacy until January 2, 1960, a mere ten months before the election. Election seasons have gotten longer every cycle, until incumbents today seem to be always running for re-election. Donald Trump filed for re-election the day he was inaugurated and treats virtually every photo op and speech as a campaign event.

Overlong campaigns turn most Americans off and never having a respite from campaigns exacerbates divisiveness, partisanship, and lack of transparency in government. We can’t stop people from announcing their candidacy and spending money on campaign ads two years in advance, but we can decide as a nation to discourage formal campaigning until it’s appropriate. How do we do that?

One way is to define the length of an election season by statute, as many other countries do. Candidates and incumbents would be prohibited from filing for election or re-election before the official start date and fundraising entities like PAC’s would not be allowed to function before then either. Other nations that elect their leaders democratically get it done in weeks or months. Canadian national elections are limited by law to no less than thirty-six days and no more than fifty, and UK elections are required to occur within twenty-five working days, roughly five weeks after the dissolution of Parliament.

Caucuses Should Be Abolished – Except for a lucrative media blitz every four years, caucuses make no sense. They’re not elections – they’re really their own kind of animal. If we weren’t convinced before now, Monday’s disaster in Iowa ought to be the final nail in the caucuses’ coffin. Caucuses require voters to be physically present in large groups, regardless of weather conditions and individual mobility. Caucuses do not permit voting by absentee ballot and they are the polar opposite of secret ballots.

Worse, as caucus rules become more complicated and arcane, vote counting becomes unnecessarily complicated, as we saw in Iowa.  Caucuses make interesting if confusing spectacles on national television, (how many people outside of Iowa understood how or why they work?) but is there any aspect in which they are as effective as elections?

End Scattered Election Schedules – Scheduling primary elections and caucuses has evolved into a states’ rights issue. States like Iowa and New Hampshire vote early in the process simply to attract national attention, and the revenue that accompanies it. There is no rational reason to hold primaries of any type in two states that are relatively insignificant in the overall election process ahead of every other state. Neither state is representative of either party’s national profile, and the effect is to skew the primary process for reasons that have nothing to do with finding the best candidates.

The solution is obvious. General election dates are specified by federal law, while primary election dates are set entirely at the discretion of the political parties and states. That makes no sense, unless we truly want to turn our presidential elections into permanently airing soap operas. The best way to regulate the length of the election season while simultaneously creating a rational process for picking candidates is to establish a national primary election date, just as we define the dates for general elections.

Electoral College – Last but certainly not least is the Electoral College, an artificial eighteenth century construct that has no place in the twenty-first. It worked in a pre-electricity, pre-telegraph, pre-radio era. It does not work in an era that includes high speed transportation and broadband internet. It worked when the only people allowed to vote were white, male land owners. It’s simply absurd when more than 100 million votes are cast throughout the country. No other nation in the world counts its votes in such a ridiculous manner that can be skewed by gerrymandering local legislatures.

Our Two Party System is in extreme peril. Our government is in danger of strangling in terminal, partisan gridlock. It’s not clear how the two party system can be fixed, or whether it can survive the current climate of divisiveness and lack of cooperation, but making our elections fairer and more representative of the will of the people surely won’t hurt.

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3 Responses to American Elections Need a Face Lift

  1. A. L. Kaplan says:

    “Candidates and incumbents would be prohibited from filing for election or re-election before the official start date and fundraising entities like PAC’s would not be allowed to function before then either.” — I like this idea. How do we make it happen?

  2. alanpzendell says:

    By writing to our Senators and Representatives?

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