The World’s Worst Electoral System

Foreign observers
eye our polling stations,
as yellow press scribblers
push lies and sensations.
I find myself won’dring,
with some consternation,
when we turned into
a big third world nation.

The little poem above is called “Election Day.” I wrote it in November 2004, two full Presidential cycles ago. It seems even more germane now than it did then.

When Marcia and I went to see President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter a few weeks ago, the President referred to our electoral system as the worst in the developed, democratic world. He’s got some pretty good perspective on the topic, not only because he’s been through the process twice, but also because he has observed 92 elections in 37 nations since 1982 via his and the First Lady’s work with The Carter Center. His opinions carry weight.

President Carter noted, especially, the impact of the Citizens United case on the current election, which has allowed essentially limitless corporate and individual funding to be devoted to campaign advertising — most of which takes the form of attacks on opponents, rather than advocacy for candidates. He believes that such unrelenting negativity, over time, produces fatigue with both candidates. Once the election is over, therefore, people are as tired and sick of the limping, damaged winner as they are of his or her vanquished foe. I think that’s a wise observation.

So is the solution to just to work the courts to have a case come before some future formation of the Supreme Court so that Citizens United can be over-turned? Maybe, though that could be a long time coming, and I personally think the structural problems run a whole lot deeper than just the issues associated with partisan political advertising by corporations.

While our soundbite driven culture leads many people to think that the bottom-line take-out of Citizens United is embodied by the seemingly dubious phrase “Corporations are People,” this (simplified) statement has actually been an underlying assumption for most of our Nation’s history, and the issue of “corporate personhood” has been a contentious point back to the earliest days of our Republic, e.g. Dartmouth College vs Woodward (1819). To simplify to that same soundbite level, Citizens United did not say “We now declare corporations to be people, so they have the following rights,” it said “Because corporations are already people, they have the following rights.” And odds are that corporations are always going to have (most of) those rights once they’ve been granted, since our Nation’s judicial tendency over the long term is to extend rights, not reduce rights. Even to corporations. (This bit of disappointing legal history notwithstanding, Andy Prieboy’s 2012 single “All Hail the Corporation” remains one of the best political songs, ever).

So I believe that changes to the electoral process must come from directions other than a full frontal assault on Citizens United. If I could be King, President, Federal Election Commission Chairman, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Speaker of the House, Pope, Sheriff and Chief Justice for a day, here are some of the changes that I would make before our next Presidential cycle gets underway:

1. Shorten the cycle: Party conventions one month before Election Day, and first caucuses and primaries no earlier than six months prior to Election Day. The only people who benefit from the endless formal cycle we engage in now are second-tier advertising agencies, while potentially great candidates are deterred from running by having to give up two years (or more) of their working lives to do so.

2. Expand the size of the Electoral College by expanding the size of the House of Representatives: The House of Representatives was supposed to represent more “local” concerns on the Federal stage than the state-wide Senate does, but since the number of House members has been frozen at 435 since 1911, the number of citizens represented by each member of Congress has increased exponentially, to the point where it’s easier (and more effective) for our Representatives to answer to mobilized corporate interests than it is to answer to the voters who elect them. In the way that electoral votes and representation are recalculated every 10 years following the census, at some less-frequent rate (let’s say, once every five censuses), the total bottom-line number of representatives (and electors) should also be increased to reflect the growing size of the Nation. With more electors representing smaller portions of their home states (yes, I know they’re not literally assigned to districts like Representatives are, but maybe we should make that change, too), more states would have the chance to have their votes really matter, making the map of the United Swing States of America more inclusive.

3. Require some form of proportional allocation of electors: Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that don’t currently follow a “winner takes all” approach to allocating electors, so in those states, some electoral votes may (in theory) go to one party, and some to the other. Imagine if mega-states California, New York and Texas followed their lead, so that a Republican could have some slim chance of earning some electoral votes in New York and California, while a Democrat could possible score some votes in Texas. Add this to proposal number two above, and the list of swing states becomes even more inclusive. (At this point, someone should say “Why not just get rid of the Electoral College altogether”? I don’t support that, because I think that a true direct national election would be a nightmare, especially if it was a close one and a recount was required. It’s hard enough to do that within a state, much less the nation as a whole).

4. Apply truth in advertising principles to the campaigns: Businesses can’t make fraudulent claims about their products in the commercial world, so why can politicians and their supporters do so in the electoral process? People can differentiate candidate-sponsored commercials from independent commercials today because of the requirement that candidate’s verbally approve of the content of their own advertisements, e.g. “I’m Barack Obama, and I approved this ad.” People should also be able to differentiate factually accurate commercials from untruthful propaganda or attack ads, via the insertion of some seal of accuracy at the end of the commercial that would be provided by an independent, public interest, nonpartisan, nonprofit body, something like Consumers Union, the organization behind Consumer Reports. If you don’t see the seal, you are watching lies. Caveat emptor.

5. Apply public broadcasting underwriting principles to corporate-sponsored advertisements: Public broadcasters don’t have advertisers, but they do have underwriters. It’s a subtle distinction, but generally the way it manifests itself is that underwriters can only state descriptive, objective facts, not subjective value judgements or claims to superiority about their business and products. Campaign advertisements, even on public airwaves, should be held to that same standard. Fines for violating such standards should be levied against the national political parties affiliated with the offending candidates, giving those interstate organizations an incentive to keep their local troops in line.

6. Public election funding should be provided on a state-by-state basis, proportionally, to all qualified candidates: All candidates who manage to pass required State rules to get onto state ballots for the Presidency — or even just onto one state ballot — should have public campaign funding made available to them on population proportional scale, e.g. getting on the California ballot gives you more federal campaign money than getting on the Wyoming ballot. If a qualified candidate is  on the ballot in multiple states, let’s say California and Wyoming, he or she may split the federal funding on spending as needed between the two states. This approach could allow regionally-strong third parties to wield influence in national elections, as is the case in most of the developed, democratic world, where strict two-party systems are not at all the norm.

How would you propose modifying the electoral system to preclude us from becoming ever-more of an international subject of derision when it comes to our electoral process?

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