Here we are on the eve of Election Day! Tomorrow, everyone will be cheering like sports fans and coloring in states like third graders; Wednesday everyone will be pretty irrational about the results and what they mean, and after that half the public will go back to not caring about politics, so I’d like to use this window of opportunity to suggest some improvements to our political process.
Primary Structure: Sometimes I wish we could return to the smoke-filled room days when party bigwigs selected the candidates. This year’s primaries were flawed. Too much influence is given to Iowa and New Hampshire, smaller states that are not necessarily representative samples of the country as a whole. Plenty of states moved their primaries up to compete with them, and as a result we had a crowded set of January and February primaries but an overall season that absurdly stretched until June.
The advantage of starting in a few states is that a candidate with limited resources, like Mike Huckabee, can catch on with a small group so that the rest of the country can give him a look. The disadvantage is that voters in following states often blindly follow the Iowa and New Hampshire selections since they then become more “electable.” This most obviously happened in 2004, when the Democrats went with John Kerry because he won Iowa and thus seemed like a winner. And he wasn’t good at all. In 2008, Huckabee and McCain had states that were made for them, and they were able to crowd out Romney, Thompson, Giuliani, and Paul, all of whom were superior to them in my opinion. The advantage of an extended primary season is that it shows how candidates can deal with failure and provides a more concrete week-to-week barometer than national polls.
Political writer Michael Barone has suggested using a 10-week primary system, with 5 states per week, the order randomly selected. We could even weight the pool so the big states are spread out or regions are clumped together to make traveling easier. And it should start in March. January is too cold and too close to Christmas.
Two-Party System: I sometimes hear complaints about America only having two parties, but this seems like the most orderly way to organize preferences. Multi-party states aggregate into governing coalitions themselves, after all, and they still have a hard time keeping things together. However, there are some things we can do to open the process to third parties. For one, states should lower the standards for getting on the ballot. Parties like the Libertarians and Greens have to spend most of their campaign season canvassing for signatures, so they don’t really have time to introduce their ideas. Two, many voters agree more with third parties than with the big two, but they have to vote with the major parties because they consider it a more effective way of getting roughly what they want. Perhaps computers are advanced enough now that we can address this with a scaled preference system for voting. To explain, I’ll go to a new paragraph.
Duke Student Government had a lot of trouble running elections, but the basic apparatus was something I really liked. You ranked the candidates for an office (typically there were three to five) from first choice to last choice. Finally, votes were counted. If any candidate had more than 50% of the first choice votes, he won. If not, the candidate with the least number of first place votes was eliminated; everyone’s ballots were automatically reordered to reflect this; and votes were counted again. This process continued until someone had a majority (which has to happen when there are only two candidates left). If we did this, people could vote with their heads and their hearts at the same time; third parties wouldn’t be spoilers, and we’d have a better idea of what kind of support the ideas of various third parties have.
Negative Campaigning: Do you remember all the people talking about how tired they were of the Democrats’ negative campaigning against George Bush in 2004? Me neither. But I don’t care because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with negative campaigning, especially in a two-person race. (Just like there’s nothing wrong with short selling on the stock market.) Attacks and negative ads are a necessary counterweight to all the promises and self-aggrandizing claims one’s opponent makes. As long as you’re honest, then whether you make yourself look better or you make your opponent look worse, you’re being equally effective, and you’re informing the voter. Will negative campaigning from both sides dampen the opinions the people have of their future president? Sure, but the executive branch is so massive now that we could use a little skepticism.
Debates and Advertisements: Our political aesthetic is too weighted toward clever turns of phrase, avoiding gaffes, and emotional impressions. During both the primary and the national election, we should organize forums where each candidate can talk about a given subject (foreign policy, economy, and the like) for 20 minutes. If you think this is boring, the AP can sum it up for you later. If we do debates, perhaps they shouldn’t have moderators. Just let the two candidates run the argument themselves.
Voter Fraud: When we ran Iraq’s election, we used deep purple ink to mark everyone’s fingers and make sure no one could vote twice in the same day. Why can’t we do the same thing here in America? It seems like the simplest way to deal with the problem of homeless voters, dead voters, etc. It would also look patriotic.
Regardless of how tried and true our democracy is, I think we can agree it could be better. Or at least less frustrating.