How to Fix Our Elections: An Immodest Proposal

Term limits misses the point of what is wrong with our electoral system.

A dear, and wrong-headed Libertarian, friend recently promoted term limits on politicians to fix our nation’s political problems.  I told him it won’t work; at best it is missing the point of what is wrong, and at worst, it will make our corrupt system worse. He challenged me to suggest ways to “fix” our broken political system. That is a fair request, so here is my sincere set of suggestions written without fear nor favor to incumbents nor dominate parties.

At base, the logic underpinning the term limit argument is that morally “good” candidates become morally corrupted “bad” incumbents.  Politicians come to like the perks and power and sell their souls to keep their office incumbency.  While there is certainly some amount of personal venality and ego that motivates politicians to aggressively seek reelection, I don’t believe they gained those traits only after sipping inside-the-Beltway water.  Jacksonian, yeoman farmer politicians no longer exist in 21st century America, if they ever did. Even the first time candidates must be “career politicians” to succeed in our very expensive election system.  What better expert on politician’s motivation than Mitch McConnell stated it well in his memoir:

The truth is that very few of us expect to be at the center of world-changing events when we first file for office, and personal ambition usually has a lot more to do with it than most of us are willing to admit. That was certainly true for me, and I never saw the point in pretending otherwise. – The Long Game: A Memoir.

[Quoted in New York Review of Books, review by Robert Kaiser.]

It is not being in Washington that corrupts politicians, it is getting to Washington that corrupts (would-be) politicians.  We have a system where too few Americans vote and the campaign costs for winning those few votes is obscenely high.  The necessity of relentlessly pursuing rich donors’ money is the original sin that corrupts our politicians – both incumbents and wanna bes.  Again, let’s listen to political expert Mitch McConnell, from a recent book review:

McConnell writes candidly about how his own career depended on unfettered access to campaign cash: “I never would have been able to win my [first run for the Senate in 1984] if there had been a limit on the amount of money I could raise and spend.” His rationale here is telling:

The only way a guy like me had a chance—a guy with no real political connections [after six years running the state’s largest county] and no money [in fact he was a champion fund-raiser], no strong political apparatus to rely on, holding views opposed by the mainstream media and organized political groups like the labor unions—was to get around the inherent advantages of the liberal majority party [four years into the Reagan presidency] by raising enough money to take my message directly to voters.

Whatever the honesty or intellectual merit of this analysis, the implicit advice he was giving to himself was sound, and he took it to heart in 1984 when he challenged Walter (“Dee”) Huddleston, a two-term incumbent in the Senate. McConnell raised nearly $1.8 million, a large amount for a Senate race in those days.

New York Review of Books, review by Robert Kaiser.]

Weak and transient politicians are absolutely beholden to powerful institutionalized forces (lobbyists representing moneyed interests) that resided in Washington long before the politician arrived and will remain there after the politician leaves.

In contrast to term limits advocates belief, politicians’ self-interest in remaining in office, properly constrained, is the single best protection of our democracy.   We can view the political class — properly empowered and yet properly beholden to their electorate — as a counterweight to entrenched institutional power.  If politicians survival in office is actually contingent every 2, 4, 6 years on appealing to the majority of people in their district, nation, state, respectively, then the institutionalized manipulators of Washington influence will be somewhat constrained. This admittedly requires a committed electorate, but so too does any theory of term limits, solving the problem of unrepresentative politicians.  My argument below tries to align incumbents’ self interest with that of their electorate, by limiting the influence, power, and hidden access of entrenched institutional interests and making voter engagement easier. Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” — that bureaucratization and specialization result in even democratic organizations becoming oligarchic — is very likely true. But it is naive to think that we can undo the level of modern world social and economic complexity that requires bureaucracy and specialization, therefore we should seek to align the bureaucrats’ and specialists’ self-interests with the electorate’s interests, as much as possible.

A world of caution.  I do not equate “money” and “voice”, as is often the case among the right in our country.  Many conservatives argue that political voice is just another form of property right — the more property you have, the more voice you can have — protected by the 1st Amendment.  I don’t agree with this assumption.  I associate “voice” with the right to vote – and we only get one, equally weighted vote per person. If you don’t agree with this foundational point, much of what will follow will fall on deaf ears.

I propose 10 fixes to make national politicians more responsive to the full arrange of citizens they represent. These fall into a few categories: make elections competitive; reduce the cost of running for office; make voting easier; limit the power of lobbyists; and open up the electoral process to third-parties.  After each proposal I list “whose ox is gored”, to make explicit what encrusted constituency or interest group will lead the objections to each recommendations.

While many will want to nit-pick at the practicality or technical implication of any one of these recommendations, it is important to view these as a collective program.  Our problems are the result of the structural evolution of our electoral system, decades and even centuries in the making.  No one or two things will fix our problem.  Only a comprehensive, systemic change to the structure of elections in our country will have a chance of materially improving our problem.  I do not hold these recommendations as the panacea, but the minimum conditions for reclaiming a truly representative liberal democracy.

Make Elections Competitive Again

(1) End Gerrymandering.

 

The sculpting of congressional districts to protect incumbents is the foundation of a broken representative system.   Gerrymandered districts reduce competition of ideas and politicians.  It leads to the perpetual disenfranchisement of sizable minorities of district voters.  If they don’t have to fear the minority opposition party voters, candidates come to only fear challenges internal to their own majority party.  This prompts the zealotry and unwillingness to compromise seen by both parties today.

The chart below shows the shrinking number of contested congressional races in the last 25 years, which tracks with our politics getting more sclerotic.  State legislatures are the political culprits here.  A few states, like Arizona, have experimented with less partisan redistricting methodologies, with some success.

swing-districts-dwindle

Source: Nate Silver.  “As Swing Districts Dwindle” New York Times, 2013.

Arizona have moved to using a nonpartisan committee of experts to define congressional districts, resulting in (statistically speaking) demonstrably more competitive elections.  See an article on that here.

Related E Pluribus Unum blog posts on gerrymandering.

Whose ox gets gored?  All current incumbents. This includes white suburban safe Republican district office holders and black urban safe district office holders.  Just as we shouldn’t have “protected” party or class districts, nor too should we have protected black or latino districts.  Minority candidates (whether white, black, or brown relative to their district’s racial composition) need to win their constituency via moderation and group boundary-spanning appeals, just like the next candidate.

Reduce the Cost of Running for Office.

(2) Shorten the Election Cycle.

We don’t need a two-year long campaign cycle.  This just serves to drive up the entry costs of would be candidates.  No other liberal democracy takes this long to elect their leader (England election cycles typically last 6 weeks).  We should have a 26-week presidential and congressional election cycle, mandated by federal law.

Working backwards from a November election:

  • Parties nominate their tickets around Labor Day (first week of September)
  • Party conventions in August.
  • Rotating, regional primaries and caucuses in the late Spring and Summer

Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary, Super Tuesday etc. will all be replaced with a rotating, regional system that gives different states, regions, and urban/rural, and population clusters, a similar chance for being first and thereby serving as the first filter on candidates.

The states would be aggregated into perhaps 6 regional groups:

  • Pacific
  • Mountain
  • Central
  • Northeast
  • Southeast

A random lottery determines the order of the regions every four years. Each regional primary is 3 weeks long, for a total of 15-weeks.

In this way, no state or region gets a permanent “first filter” priority.  Clustering primaries and caucuses into regional events allows candidates to focus their resources, thereby reducing campaign costs.  Candidates ignoring the smaller states and only chasing the votes in the bigger regional states (e.g. Rhodes Island) will do so at their peril come convention time.  It will make current discrepancies no worse.  Shorter election cycles will reduce the ballooning cost of elections (Congressional seats costing on average $1.3M and Senate seats $10.4M, as of 2013 according to the NY Times).

Whose ox is gored?  Iowa and New Hampshire hoteliers and state-level party poobahs- two states that have very limited representativeness to the majority population in the nation.

(3) Give Candidates Free Airtime

Give qualified candidates for primaries and general elections free airtime.  The airwaves are public property leased to the networks.  Let’s take some of that public property back for an important public good – quality elections.  

Each viable candidate gets one hour to use as they see fit.  Use random lotteries to assign 1-hour of prime time broadcast spots to each candidate.  Lotteries and randomization will distribute the “bad luck” of any candidate’s time being slotted against a popular program or any one network bearing the burden of too much lost ad revenue.

Further, using the same public broadcast rights reclamation method, each candidate should be offered a 90-minute interview format prime time session with a panel of two legitimate network and/or press reporters.  This would be modeled after English 1:1 interviews or Charlie Rose. The primary benefit is a candidate cannot hide in meaningless platitudes on a topic for 90 minutes.  An independent candidate interview commission can operate similar to the presidential debate commission to pick dates, threshold qualifying candidates and legitimate press interrogators.

The current form of information poor candidate debates and town halls can continue, in addition to the above.

Whose ox is gored? – Network and local broadcasters who currently provide little or no public service broadcasting and how will be forced every four years to provide perhaps 50 hours collectively per region.  It seems like a reasonable patriot duty for their shareholders to be granted the public airwaves monopoly.

Make Voting Easier.

See generally the Brennan Center infographic on making voting easier.

(4) End First Tuesday in November Election Day.

This is an archaic artifact of 1848 agrarian society, when elections were arranged so as not to conflict with church day and market day for the majority farming population. Both the regional primaries and national general election should allow voting up to 3 weeks in advance of an election that ends on a Saturday.  Incumbents want to suppress voting, because they got elected via a small number of die-hard voters.  I want to open up voting to all eligible voters — many of which have a hard time getting to the polls on weekdays.  Let’s fix that.  It is important to have a clear end to the voting period, to bring finitude to an election.  This two-week window will provide that with a firm end at, say, 5PM local time on the designated Saturday.

Whose ox is gored?  Local government officials and volunteer election day workers.  The disruption to their lives will increase from one day to two plus weeks, but convention and convenience should not stand in the way of preserving our democracy.

(5) On-Line Voting

Several states have demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of mail-in ballot and electronic/internet voting.   It is quaint and fun, but unnecessary to force voters to drive to their local school gym or fire station to cast their ballot.  If we can manage the nation’s and our personal finances and medical records on-line, we can do elections on-line too.  The legitimate concerns about identity theft and vote counting glitches pre-existed any on-line voting and they remain real but are not exacerbated by on-line voting.

Whose ox is gored?  The only imaginable defender of our archaic ways are the voting machine manufacturers and evidenceless defenders of the way we have always done things.

Limit the Power of Lobbyists

(6) Increase Congressional Staff Budgets.

The Gingrich Revolution dramatically reduced the size of personal and committee congressional staffs in a theatrical show of cutting the federal budget. But this failed to halt the budget growth and did increase the power of lobbyists relative to the congressional politicians.  We are now in the age of lobbyists drafting proposed laws for their congressperson to present as if written by their now weakened staff. While counter-intuitive, there is an argument to be made that well staffed congressional back offices increase elected officials power relative to the lobbyists pressuring them.  This is discussed most recently by Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic.

Whose ox is gored? The Washington Beltway institutionalized power brokers and their lobbyists.

(7) Require All Campaign and Party Contributions be Transparent.

All contributes in cash or in kind must be documented and publicly available.  Contributions from individuals, not-for-profits, and corporations must be traceable back to the original source — no more pass-throughs and opaque “money laundering” of the source of the cash.

If you want to speak up in the public forum, you need to identify yourself.  The littering of anonymously authored and distributed pamphlets across the town square is not protected speech.  However, the very same political screed is protected speech if attributable to a author.  Because the author has free speech protection, not the speech itself.

Similarly, money, as “speech” should not be allowed to be anonymous. It amounts to litter.  If a speaker is unwilling to stand up for his/her statements, we have to question if they are making the statements in good faith.

Whose ox is gored?  Rich individuals, corporations, trade groups, and to a lesser degree unions who act through thinly or thickly disguised front organizations to attempt to shape public discourse on topics without revealing their identity.

(8) Congressional Staff Calendars Made Public.

All congressional staff and elected officials’ activity, meeting, event, and call calendars are public information and discoverable within 5 days. This is already true for elected officials, this rule only expands it to their staff too. Yes, of course, people will still find a means of cheating, but this will shine light into many more nooks and crannies of lobbyist – congressional interactions, reducing the unlit places where nefarious activity can occur.  

The calendars must be made public in a generally accessible, structured data, digital format, to allow quick analysis and sorting and avoid the congressional expense reporting incumbents dirty trick (see for example, here).

I’m not anti-lobbyist per se.  I understand that lobbyists can be an efficient conduit of industry points of view to law making elected officials and their staff.  I further understand that groups of citizens have a right to “appoint a representative” to represent their collective interests to an elected official.  But any group’s rights for collective action ends when the channel of engagement is differentially biased in their favor relative to the number of other constituencies represented by that congressional member.

(9) Record All Lobbyists Meetings with Congressional Staff and Politicians.

Registered lobbyists — people whose jobs are to influence legislation — are already required to be registered.  Because of their collective power, we need to be particularly cautious about their undue influence.

Whose ox is gored? Lobbyists and special interests.

Open Up the Election Process to Third Parties

(10) Nationalize and Normalize Ballot and Debate Access Requirements.

Imposing consistent, lower threshold ballot and debate access standards opens up the primary election season to a wider diversity of candidates and political opinions.

The two parties collude to control access to election ballots at the state-level, long before the national elections occur.  Between very high petition signature requirements and registration fees, the major parties discourage third party candidates from providing competition.  While the US winner take all system discourages third parties in general elections, third party runs during the primary season can serve as an effective jolt to mainstream party complacency (examples include Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ross Perot).

Similarly, the Commission on Presidential Debates, is a dominant party controlled and funded organization.  It has no incentive to allow alternative viewpoints to be aired.

Whose ox is gored?  The two major parties, who have a shared interest in keeping primary and general elections limited to their own chosen topics and theme.

* * * * * *

I did not include the Common Cause standard solution of limiting overall campaign spending and perhaps even the public funding of campaigns.  I believe in getting dark and gray money out of campaigns and I believe in equating speech and votes, not speech and property, so I am sympathetic to not allowing rich people to buy elections via their ability to buy up the airwaves with advertising.  I’m just not sure that campaign spending limits are practical and constitutional.

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Perhaps We Need Washington Apparatchiks Afterall

Jonathan Rauch’s July 2016 Atlantic Magazine article argues for the lubricating role of strong political party machines to keep the legislative system working and that the good government reforms of the 1960s and 1970s have had unintended consequences.

This challenged several assumptions I held and is worth a serious read.

Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

The disorder has other causes, too: developments such as ideological polarization, the rise of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican base. But chaos syndrome compounds the effects of those developments, by impeding the task of organizing to counteract them. Insurgencies in presidential races and on Capitol Hill are nothing new, and they are not necessarily bad, as long as the governing process can accommodate them. Years before the Senate had to cope with Ted Cruz, it had to cope with Jesse Helms. The difference is that Cruz shut down the government, which Helms could not have done had he even imagined trying.