It’s always so bittersweet, isn’t it, when Election Day has passed? After Americans come together in a unified show of civic pride and duty, fully informed about the issues and candidates to pull the lever — excuse me, attach the stamp (stamps!) — and the sleek, well-oiled machine of this little experiment called democracy hums toward a brighter future.
Not your experience? Hmm. Your mood Wednesday morning was probably determined in part by whether your “team” won. But don’t worry — they’ll all get back to the business of refusing to work together for the betterment of the nation soon.
As a booby prize, here are some political reforms I’ve seen batted around in recent years. All are imperfect, would be savaged by one team or another (or both) for conferring partisan advantage and are utterly unimaginable in the current political atmosphere. But the system is broken; I’m all ears.
A single, six-year term for president. Under the current system we almost always get eight-year terms: Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s final term, just two presidents who sought a second term — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — have been rejected (Truman and Johnson didn’t run; Kennedy was assassinated). Presidents spend enormous amounts of time, energy and money, and calculate their every move with an eye toward re-election. Meanwhile, second terms are notoriously subject to scandal, antsy voters’ mindless need for “change” and finally, “lame-duck” status.
Eighteen-year, staggered term limits for the U.S. Supreme Court. We blew past the old argument for lifetime appointments long ago. The court is anything but “non-partisan” (research data on one-vote majorities) and partisan courts haven’t served us well. We currently have one justice who won’t speak during oral arguments, whose vote is 100 percent predictable —a big middle finger to a country he believes treated him poorly during his confirmation process; he’s only 66 — he could easily be with us another quarter century. And as one proponent wrote in The Week, “Since the Supreme Court is already a mostly political body that has taken upon itself to legislate, it only makes sense to treat it like a kind of legislature.”
Forget “bipartisan” elections. Ever voted for the “least bad” candidate? Ever been disgusted at the “choice” you have? California did away with traditional primaries in 2010 (except for president), opting instead, all candidates appear on a single ballot. The top two candidates move on to the November election, regardless of party affiliation, or lack thereof. This sometimes results in two Democrats or two Republicans on the final ballot, which supporters say forces them to differentiate and run a more issue-oriented campaign.
Better yet, some kind of “preference” voting. Australian ballots list all candidates and parties. Rather than just check one, voters number the candidates in order of preference. If any candidate gets 50 percent of the primary vote, he or she is elected. If not, the candidate with fewest votes is eliminated and those voters’ next preferences are distributed to the other candidates. This continues until one has at least 50 percent plus one vote. The system ensures that the winning candidate has the support of an absolute majority of the electorate and opens the door to “third” parties (the term itself is telling), who under the current U.S. system have no chance of election. By the way, voting is compulsory in Australia — dirty Commies.
Public financing of elections. Citizens United and big money have been an unmitigated disaster for American democracy.
Drive a stake through gerrymandering. Crass manipulation by equally culpable political parties has resulted in 90 percent or more of Congressional districts being all but uncompetitive (and, interestingly, has resulted in a majority that was elected by a distinct minority of overall voters). States should establish standing, nonpartisan committees of non-politicians to take the process of redistricting out of politicians’ hands.
Do away with winner-take-all elections. Blowhard politicians can claim to “represent the people” with 50 percent plus one vote, but that leaves 50 percent minus one vote unrepresented. Under proportional representation, a 10-member congressional delegation from a state that cast 40 percent of votes for Party A, 50 percent for Party B and 10 percent for Party C would be split 5-4-1.
Congressional term limits. One possible consequence would be to increase the clout of parties, but worth discussing.
Four-year U.S. House terms. Giving House members 4-year terms might reduce the influence of big money and reduce the need for constant campaigning and triangulation.
Owning war. American citizens no longer make any sacrifice when politicians and generals send troops to war. Fewer than half a percent of citizens serve in the military and the cost of wars of choice are put on a deficit card, quite literally kept off the books. This results in the misuse of those who serve in the military, as an unbeaten string of ill-considered wars demonstrates. So, no more skirting the War Powers Resolution: Presidents must win Congressional approval for all overseas military action longer than 60 days in a formal vote (everyone except the people, and the troops, would hate this, since presidents love waging war and members of Congress are deathly afraid of going on the record about one that might just turn sour). Just as important, pass legislation requiring that once troops have been in the field for 90 days, an across-the-board tax increase on individuals and businesses — no loopholes — kicks in to pay for prosecution of the war and care of veterans.
National service. The all-volunteer military has become a plaything of politicians and generals that results in the misuse of soldiers. The system makes it more likely that troops will be put in harm’s way for dubious wars of choice and literally endangers our democratic system. Two-year mandatory national service with both military and non-military options will give citizens a greater stake and voice in decisions about war. Read a longer essay on this topic.
Feel free to comment below or email claybonnyman (at) gmail.com.