The 2012 Presidential election is fortunately over and the relief is palpable. But the real issue we now face is how to fix a deeply broken electoral system.
Regardless of one’s political views, it’s hard to deny our democracy is dysfunctional. What follows is an outline for massive, far-reaching and much needed reform. It’s not a perfect roadmap but getting the discussion going is a step in the right direction.
Super PACS & Campaign Funding
Many political scientists, columnists and pundits have pointed to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling as the latest blow to democracy. The ruling opened the floodgates for unchecked special interests groups to spend as much money as they please, wherever they please—at the cost of every other citizen’s voice. This has never been more apparent than in the past election cycle. Some estimates project that 2012 election spending topped $6 billion dollars. The figure includes the presidential election ($2.6 billion), congressional elections ($1.82 billion) and spending from outside groups (over $1 billion).
The $6 billion doesn’t include “secret money,” from 501 (c) (4) organizations where there are no limits and no reporting requirements, so these funds will never be accounted for. Some estimates place this number at an additional $1 billion. As these same commentators have written before, corporations and wealthy donors have essentially hijacked the election process and democracy, which is supposed to be cornerstone of America.
This needs to change and the first step is to repeal Citizens United. Everyone has the right to act in his or her personal interest, but some voices should not be worth more than others. It’s a very simple proposition, which our one-person one-vote system is built upon.
Next, we need to mandate publically funded campaigns, from local elections all the way up to the presidential stage. If both candidates had run only on public funding, which would level the playing field of influence, each candidate could have spent a maximum of $91.2 million, according to the FEC.
This is a lot less money, but it would force campaigns to actually earn votes, instead of buying them. It would also encourage campaigns to better allocate resources and might decrease the sheer amount of advertising swing states see each day (more on that later). In addition, the caps would act like a speed limit on spending. In the 2012 election, the rich and wealthy corporations have been driving Ferraris on the freeway at 180 MPH while the average-Joe has been driving at 30 MPH. And going 180 MPH has been totally legal. This sounds outrageous, right? Because it is.
The other benefit of publicly financed elections is the distribution of spending by state. In the past election, both campaigns dumped $862 million—just on advertisements—into ten swing states, leaving the other forty mostly untouched. Federal spending limits would distribute this much more evenly, with the discrepancy between states minimized to single digit millions, instead of over $40 million. The limits are determined based on population, which makes sense.
The Electoral College
The very basic narrative of a presidential election is as follows: campaigns move into a half dozen states more than a year before Election Day. They build up robust operations and bombard residents with thousands of ads, events, robo-calls and the like. Then, when the last vote is counted and the winner is announced, everyone forgets about “swing states” for another two and a half years, until the cycle starts over again. Does this system still make sense in the twenty-first century?
As Bradford Plumer wrote in Mother Jones a month before the 2004 elections, “At the most basic level, the electoral college is unfair to voters. Because of the winner-take-all system in each state, candidates don’t spend time in states they know they have no chance of winning, focusing only on the tight races in the ‘swing’ states.” This is true more than ever today. Just looking at the distribution of advertising spending by state that I mentioned before proves this is an issue.
Why are we putting the outcome in the election in the hands of Ohio, Florida and a few others? I’m from Cleveland. I love Ohio. But I don’t think they are or should be in a better position than any other state to determine the outcome of the election. The system itself undermines one person having one vote. Residents of California, New York and dozens of other non-competitive states say it every day: My vote doesn’t matter, why should I vote? The fact that people are questioning if they should vote, the one power that America doesn’t deny, should be a fair warning.
Many aspects of election logistics, from election laws to polling hours, are equally corrupt. There is no reason that elected officials should control and influence the laws that might keep them in office and their opponent out. There is a reason why the NFL sets the standards for the size of the field: The sport would be incredibly inconsistent and a mess if the Jets had a different sized field than the Green Bay Packers, who had a different sized field than the Broncos. Or if each quarter were a different length depending on the stadium. The point is this wouldn’t happen in sports, so why is it happening in presidential politics?
We need a centralized government agency to oversee and run the election process, at least on a national level. This would set uniform standards across the country for voting hours, locations, machines and other important details. These officials would be appointed, not elected, so they wouldn’t have an incentive to rig the system in their favor. In addition, the agency could be dedicated to developing more efficient voting machines that utilized twenty-first century technology. It’s pathetic that we are still using paper ballots, which still jam and slow down the process.
Better proof of the need for a government intervention is how big of a disaster Florida voting was on election day in 2012. It took until Saturday, November 10th; over six days after the election to get a final ballot count in the state. This is a joke. We need a voting system that is reputable and constantly updating, so we don’t face more catastrophes in Florida or anywhere else in the future.
This would also put an end to the numerous bogus voter-ID lawsuits that plagued the past election cycle. Anyone trying to disenfranchise voters doesn’t deserve a place in American politics. That’s what Iran is for. Putting all election-related logistics under the purview of a central government agency would be a big step in the right direction.
A Six-Year Term
Currently, a presidential candidate runs an intense campaign for almost two years. They finally get sworn into office and have two and a half years to govern. Then they go right back to the campaign trail, trying to convince the American people to reelect them, in addition to raising money. (A recent study even found that members of congress only spend more time sleeping that they do raising money.) I’m not trying to get rid of elections, but it’s worth considering if one six-year term for the president would be more effective than two four-year terms.
So much time and energy go into campaigning, effort that is clearly taken away from running the country. If presidents were elected into a six-year term, and then didn’t have to worry about election politics for their next election, I would bet that they could accomplish more, so much more that having two less years wouldn’t make a difference. Furthermore, candidates could assume their “second term mentality” right away, where they don’t care if something is popular or not and they could make decisions for the good of the country.
Many will probably object to this idea, since it absolves a check that we the people have on the president. But it’s worth considering what Congress and the President could have accomplished if Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, didn’t say his number one priority was to make Obama a one term president.
A Third Party
The polarization in Washington needs to end. I’m longing for the existence of a serious third party to tackle the divide. Specifically, a stronger independent party, which would have more sway and factor into congressional votes. Ironically, John Boehner’s failed “Plan B” bid—where he tried to pass a lower marginal rate tax-increase than Obama wanted, as a backup, but still failed—is proof of the power of a third party. The Speaker thought he had the votes, but a strong Tea Party coalition wasn’t having it, and decided to vote the measure down. Although the Tea Party’s ideology created polarized coalition, it still exhibited the power of multiple factions—at least more than two.
A new third party could bring back the idea of pragmatism and show Washington the power of it. One of the only pragmatic politicians I can name today is Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City. He doesn’t associate with a party and he isn’t ideological. He does what he says and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Regardless of your partisan preference, you have to respect the Mayor for his realism and for what he has accomplished. Yes, politics is a slow and dirty job, and New York City isn’t problem-free. But if you look at what he has done, from drastically reducing the crime rate, to banning smoking in public places, to beefing up counter-terrorism efforts, it’s clear Bloomberg does what he thinks is best for New York residents, not his reelection campaign.
These are the type of people we need in Washington. The only thing they stand for is safety, economic opportunity and quality life. Everything else they evaluate on a circumstantial basis. They don’t sign pledges, or engage in PR stunts. They do what they believe will benefit their constituency. A third party, toting these values has a lot of potential for success.
Election Day: A National Holiday
Exercising one’s vote is the backbone of America (and democracy). There shouldn’t be any barriers interfering with this right. For millions of people, finding a time to vote when they have an obligation is a struggle. Often, people won’t vote because they have to work, or need to look after their kids. Making Election Day a national holiday, which would also boost voter turnout, is a simple solution and one that many other countries have adopted.
Change and Update Debates
The current format of debates has one major problem: facts aren’t relevant or encouraged. If there is no method of verifying candidates’ claims when they are on the biggest stage (the first debate drew more than 67 million viewers, over 20% of the US population), perceptions and truths will continue to be easily skewed.
The solution I see is to charge the moderators to fact-check and call candidates out when they skirt the question. Again, if professional sports uses instant replay, presidential politics should use an equivalent. Candy Crowley faced a firestorm from the right when she fact-checked Mitt Romney in the second debate, but she correctly called out Romney. She also should have pressed President Obama further because although he did call the Benghazi attack an “act of terror,” the explicit meaning of that (if it was a terrorist attack or not) is still up in the air. The American people deserve honest responses with factually correct and direct answers. The debate format should be amended to encourage the truth.
The Media Needs To Step Up
In addition to amending the debate format, the media needs to bring fact checking to the front lines. As Margret Sullivan, The New York Times Public Editor correctly pointed out, reporters should include fact checking in official debate coverage. Currently, newspapers fact-check the debates, but present the coverage in a separate section of the site, usually as a live-blog. But little if any of the fact checking ends up in the actual debate coverage, which draws an immense amount more readers, and in turn exerts more influence. Because of this, few people, besides those deeply plugged into the race know what was true.
There was a general distaste for facts this election cycle. If this continues, the effects could be even more dangerous, and the truth could matter less and less. The media needs to play a big role in this battle, reinforcing the importance of facts, calling candidates out and holding them accountable when they aren’t telling the truth.
I’m relieved that the recent election is over, but the problem on our hands is only getting worse. We have a broken and nonsensical electoral system. Yet we are doing nothing to repair it and get American democracy back on track. Some of the ideas I mentioned are no-brainers, other are controversial. But, my hope is that regardless of your political views; you agree that we need to fix the current system. Now we must act.