Sunday, February 24, 2008

you can't fix new problems with old ideas...or in this case, an old election system

In my opinion, the most important issue facing America today is that of reforming the process by which public officials are elected. Though America may pride itself on having the oldest Constitution still in use, much of it is antiquated, and nothing is more fundamentally out of date and contrary to the ideals of American equality and opportunity than our election system.

The recent presidential election of 2000 is a perfect example. For the fourth time in our nation's history, democracy was made a fool. President George W. Bush received less votes than did former Vice President Al Gore, but due to confusion and an arbitrary selection system in the Electoral College, Bush was awarded the presidency on a 5-4 vote, a decision that many have heralded as the worst supreme court decision since Dred Scott v. Sanford. Beside the fact that many constitutional scholars have held that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over Florida's electoral process, thousands of citizens were disenfranchised because allowing their votes to be counted would run the risk of "casting a cloud upon what [Bush] claims to be the legitimacy of his election."

But it is not just the Electoral College that makes a mockery of the freedom of choice. A more significant detractor of democracy is the system by which campaigns and elections are funded. The inordinate power of big businesses and powerful lobby groups severely limits the ability of the mass public to choose its leaders. With PAC's and other loopholes making it easy for candidates, Democrat and Republican, to bypass what little limitations legislation has placed on campaign contributions, it is clear that our process for selecting and then influencing public officials needs vast restructuring. The Almond-Lippmann consensus holds that, in the matter of foreign policy, public opinion is volatile, incoherent, and irrelevant. This reality can only partly be attributed to the constant dilution and trivialization of the news. Also at play are the powerful interest groups who provide the money officials need in order to get in office and stay there. Most big lobby money goes to incumbents, for the simple reason that they are easier to elect, and with the unfortunate consequence that the fundamental structure of our government rarely changes. It is no wonder that they listen to the hand that feeds.

Finally, our means for determining a winner is unfair and precludes our legislative bodies from accurately representing the diversity of political opinion. First past the post electoral systems are inherently unfair in that they allow only the two most popular choices to ever have a shot at winning. By sacrificing legitimacy for simplicity's sake, plurality voting systems make anyone who votes for their top preference a loser if that preference is not a member of the two major parties. By creating waste vote candidates such as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, the United States' election system keeps those candidates who have grass roots appeal but lack the support of major lobbies and businesses out of the contest. It is completely unfair for a party to win 51% of the vote in a state with 44 votes and have all 44 votes go toward their candidate. The 49% may well have not shown up.

The 2008 presidential race is also revealing the failings of this system. Ralph Nader's recent announcement to run for President no doubt has many Democrats already up in arms against the man who, many believe, ruined their chances in 2000. Voting discrepancies have cropped up in either party: Mike Huckabee wants a recount in the confusing state of Washington, where both the primary and caucus results determine delegates, while Obama supporters are reading conspiracy into reports of heavily black congressional districts in New York that went to Hillary by margins of 118-0 and 141-0.

Marc Ambinder's article "A Fine Mess" in the New York Times (7 February 2008) highlights just how convoluted this process has become. After unimportant white people in Iowa and New Hampshire set the tone for the Democratic primary race in 2000 and 2004, chief Democrat Howard Dean devised a new plan to make the early selection process more representative of Democratic voters: move Nevada, and its Hispanic vote, and South Carolina, with its heavy black concentration, up in the calendar and punish any other state that tries to hold its primary before the 5th of February.

The ramifications of this decision were seen when Michigan and Florida tried to snatch the spotlight by moving their primaries up, thumbing their noses at the DNC. Now the Democrat party chiefs face a crucial dilemma: seat the delegates and suffer a loss of influence, or stand firm on their earlier decision and risk being portrayed as disenfranchising millions of voters. It wouldn't matter so much if the race wasn't so close. With Obama and Clinton neck and neck well through the halfway point, that earlier decision is looking like it could be a deal breaker. HRC has made her opinion clear: the delegates should be seated. This of course despite the fact that Clinton, along with all other Democratic candidates, agreed not to campaign in those states. Why does she want the delegates seated? Either she firmly is against stealing the voice of millions of Americans, or she just won those states. The fact is that she did win Florida and Michigan, her name being the only one on the Michigan ballot. Now, I'm not intending this as an anti-Hillary point. I believe the delegates should be seated too, for the simple fact that they represent one of the few forums the public has to influentially weigh-in on who will be the next President. Nevertheless, the episode is a great illustration of the problems that follow a confusing, arbitrary electoral process.

It is my sincerest belief that, were this issue to be remedied, all other problems in America and the world would be more easily solved. Beyond the corruption inherent in allowing big business and special interest groups to completely finance campaigns, the system itself is ridiculously confusing. There is no way the average American could relate the difference between caucuses, open and closed primaries, and conventions or proportional, first past the post, or single-transferable vote systems, much less identify where and when each type is used. How can we expect the public to be engaged when the mere arithmetic is so hard to follow?

Was significant restructuring legislation to be passed, voters would be more likely to feel a part of the process. The debate over the capital gains tax and hearings regarding steroid-use in the majors would cease, and legislators would start tackling the issues of health care, wealth discrepancy, and the disparity of education quality between wealthy suburban and poor urban districts. Candidates would have a keener interest in solving those problems if they knew that voters really dictated who won and who lost.

I have no detailed plan in mind to fix the problem, but I can offer a few suggestions:

1. Make the entire process easy to follow and simple to understand. Even CNN and the New York Times take weeks crunching the numbers to figure out who is going to win. Personally, I believe this means abolishing the Electoral College, making all primary elections on the same day, and making all delegate apportionment proportional. Of course there are a variety of ways to accomplish simplicity, not all of them being preferable. But any system in which participation is effective and easy to measure would be better than our current one.

2. Eliminate every cent of corporate and individual money from campaign coffers. While the Supreme Court has made clear its belief that restrictions on campaign contributions constitute in undue restriction on the right to free speech, I side with Stanford professor of philosophy Ken Taylor, who argued on a recent episode of Philosophy Talk that, if this is the constitutional case, then nothing short of amendment must be done to remedy the situation.

3. Force all persons running for federal election to utilize only government money. This point fills the void left by the second point. Obviously there will be issues such as who qualifies as a legitimate candidate, but those could be easily resolved in much the same way that qualifications for FECA matching funds act. The New York Times, in the editorial "Read Their Lips" (16 February 2006), has agreed, to a point, urging Clinton, Obama, and McCain to use public financing. Yet I think an even more effective tool would be getting rid of all contributions other than those put up by the federal government, be it the FEC or some other body. The point is to ensure that all serious candidates have the exact same means available to reach the electorate. Ceteris paribus, voters will be left with nothing but the issues by which to judge the candidates.

So those are my suggestions, criticize or applaud them as you will. But please take away one idea from this editorial: the current system of electing public officials is fraught with problems, and there is never anything wrong with hypothesizing on a means to rectify such a situation.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

The only problem I have with the "use govenment funds" is that our tax dollars go to commercials, signs, planes, buses, hotels, and meals for candidates. I think instead there should be a cap on how much money candidates are allowed to spend: even third-party and grassroots candidates are able to raise a significant amount of money to run. By placing caps on contributions, it forces candidates to stay within a certaini budget. This far you may come and no further. Yeah, I know there are a lot of problems with that but I can't stand the idea of publicly funded elections. Our tax dollars need to go to education and healthcare, not to candidates' fluff and empty rhetoric.