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Fixing a Broken System

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Americans express gloomy sentiments over the state of our current leadership but they should also feel frustration over the eccentric, dysfunctional system with which we select those leaders.

Our presidential elections last too long, promote shallow demagogues over competent statesmen, reward the ideological extremes of both sides and do a consistently poor job of facilitating consensus or expressing the will of the majority.

Unlike the situation in other democratic regimes, our electioneering knows no limits, with both Trump and Biden feeling the pressure to declare their intentions immediately and to launch their campaigns more than two full years before the next presidential contest. The cost of the anticipated dreary duel will amount to billions of dollars that give wealthy donors, or political plutocrats who can fund their own ambitions, an unwholesome advantage in races at every level. Other democratic systems manage, somehow, to limit their campaign seasons to a matter of weeks instead of years, but there’s no indication that Britain or France or Germany or Japan or Canada or Australia do a worse job in choosing their top officials. It would take cooperation between the two established parties, but all sides would benefit from a reduction in partisan pummeling by shifting the political schedule much later in every election year – commencing, say, in May rather than in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire every January.

The nation would also benefit from concentrating all statewide contests on a half dozen days with 8-10 primaries or caucuses on each date. Would anyone miss the endlessly extended, ridiculously expensive, and hugely complicated process of intra-party combat leading to conventions that amount to nothing more than stilted made-for-TV events of puerile propaganda?

And as to those conventions, why should they occur at all when the decision as to a nominee has already been determined months before the delegates gather? Not since 1952 (and Adlai Stevenson’s nomination by the Democrats on the third ballot) has either party taken more than a single ballot to choose its candidate. A simple change of rules could change that situation instantly: if both parties required a two-thirds vote to select standard bearers (as the Democrats did for more than 100 years) it would mean that all segments of the party would need to work with one another, wheeling and dealing, to pick their most effective representative for the wider public. Yes, I suspect that political veterans who have already gotten to know the contestants and the issues would do a better job of reaching a creditable decision than confused voters in a small state, as the voters in South Carolina almost single-handedly anointed Biden.

But it’s not just the nomination process that needs urgent repair, it’s also the functioning of the Electoral College. No, this arcane institution won’t be abolished—there are too many small states that would insist on preserving their outsize influence, and it only takes thirteen of them to block any alteration of the Constitution. On the other hand, each state can make its own decision on the way that electoral votes are distributed. In Maine and Nebraska, the statewide winner gets two electoral votes corresponding to each state’s two senators, and then the House districts tally their votes separately so that even a statewide loser could get credit for those districts he carried.

This means that candidates would need to campaign in every state, or at least every major city, and to stop the anti-Democratic practice of simply abandoning big sections of the map. In contrast, with “winner take all,” a Republican campaigning in New York or a Democrat contesting Texas is probably wasting time and resources. In the last go-round (2020), Joe Biden won 5,259,126 votes in Texas but received no electoral votes.  In the congressional district system, however, Biden would have received 14 electors to reflect the 14 districts that he carried (some of them overwhelmingly). In California, instead of no electors for the 6,006,429 votes that Trump received, the Republican would have earned 7 votes in the Electoral College. It’s hardly a perfect means for replicating the distribution of the electorate, but it’s far preferable to the current system, and far less likely to produce a White House victor who received millions fewer popular votes—as occurred with George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016.

One final advantage in addressing and repairing the quirky and illogical elements of our electoral system: it might actually bring the two parties together for a common purpose. Republicans and Democrats largely agree in their contempt and distrust of our present rules, so why not get together and work on an overdue effort to try to fix them?

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