How to Improve American Presidential Elections in Four Steps

American presidential elections are plagued by four main issues:

  1. The first year or two of a president’s first term are spent building political power. And then right about the time that things are hitting their stride, the president has to start campaigning for reëlection, which kills that policy momentum.
  2. The Electoral College means that candidates can virtually ignore all but eight or nine states and still win the election. It is absurd that major population hubs like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles are ignored because the states they reside in are thought to be “locks” for one party or the other. Instead, candidates spend their time wooing New Hampshire citizens and a small group of Iowan corn farmers. The concept of a “swing state” creates bizarre campaign strategies that ignore huge swaths of American voters.
  3. The two-party lock forces candidates into one of two predefined buckets. And if there is essentially no difference between the parties (as there is on drug policy, foreign policy, and a bunch of other important issues), Americans effectively have no choice on these matters.
  4. The states all implement different voting standards. In some cases you can vote by mail. In other states, you can only vote by mail if you can prove you’ll be absent from the county on voting day. Some states have early voting, which allows people who work long hours to come vote on a weekend. Other states have no early voting. It’s a mess. It leads to long lines on election day, which leads inexorably to disenfranchisement.

Here are my solutions to these problems:

1. Change the presidency to a single six-year term

If the presidency were changed to be a single six-year term, there would be no incumbency advantage, no campaign to distract from governing, and presidents would have at least a solid four years to get some serious work done.

2. Switch to a national popular vote

The electoral college is a good idea in theory — preventing more populous states from steamrolling the smaller states. But the balance has swung too far the other way. Additionally, America has changed a lot since that system was implemented. We’re not as geographically polarized as we once were. The concerns of Californians are not that far off from those of Floridians. There is more variation within a state (county-to-county) than there is between the states. It’s time to switch to a national popular election for the presidency.

3. Implement instant runoff voting (voting preferences)

Instant runoff voting (or IRV) is the only realistic way to break (or at least challenge) the two-party lock. With IRV, you don’t cast just one vote for president: you list candidates in order of preference. For example, I might have voted “1: Johnson, 2: Obama”. Votes are counted by first running the numbers with everyone’s first preference. If there is no candidate with a majority (more than 50%), the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and everyone who voted for that candidate gets moved to their next choice. Then this process is repeated until there is one candidate with a majority. What is fantastic about this is that voting third-party no longer helps out a major party candidate you don’t agree with, because you can specify which major candidate you’d prefer in the case that your third-party candidate doesn’t win. No more Nader or Perot spoiler effect! Because there would be no more spoiler effect, people would be much more willing to support third party candidates. With sufficient levels of support, these candidates could not be ignored by the televised debates. Their viewpoints would be represented, and the major party candidates challenged on the issues that they ignore because both parties are in lockstep. We could have real, substantive debates instead of a bunch of superficial tweaking on taxes, spending, abortion, how much each candidate loves the military and supports a certain middle eastern religious conflict theme park.

4. Baseline standards for national elections

National elections should have national standards. Universal vote by mail (regardless of physical absence), early voting that includes at least one weekend, and perhaps some standards around the ratio of voting machines to registered voters in a precinct.

There. I just solved presidential elections. You’re welcome, America.

Comments

  1. says

    Good stuff. Interestingly enough, I would’ve voted 1-Johnson, 2-Romney … which tells me there’s a healthy libertarian minded portion of the electorate who are extremely dissatisfied with the two party system and feel like their voices will never be heard because of it. Thanks for the article.

  2. says

    Great. So you go from focus only on the ‘swing states” to focus ONLY on the biggest population zones./ Your “solution” fails miserably to make the candidates pay more attention to the whole of the country. If the popular vote is all they have to contend for, then they will campaign only in the most populated centers and ignore everywhere else.

    • says

      Swing states are an arbitrary thing. They’re the states that just happen to be close to evenly divided between the two major parties. Population centers should get disproportionate attention. They have disproportionately more people in them.

  3. Nancy Naus says

    limit length of campaign to 6 months, all have equal amount of money to spend, no foreign donations allowed. If you don’t pay federal income tax you don’t get a vote- use your tax return as proof of voter ID as well as voter ID. Why should a person who doesn’t pay in have a right to determine how the money is spent.

    • says

      That’ll show all those millions of vets, working poor, students, retired, disabled, etc. etc.! If a disabled elderly vet wants to vote, make the lazy SOBs get a job first!

      As much as I agree with you, your plan could be even better: we should give more votes to someone depending on how much they’re worth. Buffett, Soros, etc. would get, say, 100,000 votes, while someone who’s conservative-leaning but working poor in, say, Ohio wouldn’t get a vote at all.

      P.S. There are issues where all or almost all candidates agree, even though most Americans disagree. For instance, immig. Romney, Obama, Johnson, and Stein are all on the same basic side of the issue. Goode was OK last time I checked (several years ago), but there isn’t enough redundancy there in case he’s no longer good or not able to make good arguments.

      P.P.S. I have two plans to clean up debates and politics in general. Not only would they be far more effective, I have implementation plans for the plans too.

  4. Scott Taylor says

    The blue states make up for the Electoral College by having a disproportionate amount of wealthy people.and control of the major media outlets. Also, while the largest population centers were never in play, a number of good sized population centers were (Cleveland, Milwaukee, Denver, suburban D.C., to name a few). Finally, the smallest of the states by population are almost always on the outside looking in, despite the electoral college.

  5. DBinNJ says

    If you are going that far why not add the following:
    5) All elected officials, including all of Congress, Senate and the President, are considered contractors, 1099 employees. They have to deal with their own health care, insurance, retirement,…

    6) Limit congress to one(1) 4 year term and the senate to 1 six year term

    7) Make all elected or appointed officials put all their assets into a triple-blind trust and when they leave office they get back what was in the trust.

    For all you that will say that ‘good’ people won’t run, then, maybe all those “good people” aren’t so “good” and are only looking to enrich themselves at the public trough,

  6. Jill says

    1) a 6 year term sounds good except for the fact that person would be a lame duck on day 1. Plus, it’s helpful to have election hanging over a politician – they tend to be a little less likely to ignore the voters.
    2) NPV could lead to the mother of all recounts in a close election. Frankly, I’m not willing to trust the voting integrity of Phila, New Jersey, Louisiana, etc. I could be persuaded to consider a system like Maine and Nebraska have: award 1 electoral vote per congressional district won and the two electoral votes for the Senate seats go to the statewide popular vote winner. It would limit the scope of recounts, give every candidate some interest in each state, and ensure only the most homogeneously blue/red states would be ignored.
    3) IVR is interesting. Talk to me when you sort out he constitutional amendment issues.
    4) Your national voting standards have some merit. Early voting shouldn’t start too early – make people at least have the opportunity to hear the debates. Early voting should end a few days before the election to ensure poll workers can sort out who has already voted before the in person polls open. Photo ID should be required. Absentee voting should have some limits on it because otherwise it’s too easy for fraud to occur that way (dementia patients having voting forms filled out for them, etc.). Primaries have to be completed in time to ensure ballots being sent out to Americans overseas or in the military can be received and returned in time to be counted. Screwing up the absentee/military ballots should be grounds for loss of some federal aid (highway tax funds, etc.).
    Thanks for contributing to the discussion about how to improve elections.

    • says

      Re: 1 — Wouldn’t this apply during a president’s second term anyway? Like Obama right now?

      Re: 2 — That’s interesting. I’d certainly be willing to consider a system that has more granularity than “the whole state” while having less granularity than “each individual voter”. Of course, recount woes could also be addressed by having voting technology that doesn’t range from “MAKE X HERE” to “no, trust the black box closed-source voting software”.

  7. Lawrence Hasara says

    Absolutely love instant runoff voting, which members of BOTH parties should love, as it allows introduction of more ideas, without allowing a vote more ” left or right” of your party’s position to actually hurt the candidate who is more closely aligned with your position by “wasting” your vote for the libertarian or green candidate for example.
    Actually like number four as well, but would favor a totally uniform election time for the entire country, so that polls would open and close at the exact same time in every state of the union. To do this would likely best be served by a whole weekend of voting, with only the military allowed to cast an absentee ballot. I suspect many will squawk about this, but I feel this would greatly lessen the potential for abuse/fraud by requiring a vote in person, if you want it to count.
    A single six year term is OK by me, and may be best as the incumbent would ideally do what is best for the country, and not what is best for his re-election prospects.
    I would NOT favor going to a popular vote only. I would instead allot electoral votes by Congressional district, and would give the two “Senatorial EV” to the winner of that state’s popular vote total. This would force a more national election, and lessen the power of the so-called swing states, but would not necessarily empower the large metropolitan areas to control the overall election due to their population size.
    Lastly, I would mandate some form of PHOTO ID for ALL voters in order to exercise their voting privilege.

    LCH

  8. says

    As to a six-year-term, that isn’t just something we can change because we feel like it. It is in the Constitution. Plus, as said above, he’d be a lame duck on his very first day in office and would never have any influence over Congress at all. You want to make the President superfluous? Give him a a single term limit. Also, your idea of voting is alos anti-Constitutional. Two of your changes would require Constitutional conventions to change. As to this run off business, it is all shutting the door after the horse got out of the barn. The 17th Amendment upset the way we vote for Senate. It was ill-advised. That went a long way to damage our electoral process and should never have been done. I’d sooner call a Con. Convention to get rid of that amendment than add yours. Further, the bigger reason why all of this is so bad is because the Federal Govt has taken on too much power unto itself. Eliminate much of that power and all this election trouble won’t be as big a deal.

    • says

      As to a six-year-term, that isn’t just something we can change because we feel like it. It is in the Constitution

      Which isn’t immutable. Heck, we’ve already changed it in this area by limiting the presidency to two four-year terms. Feasibilty is, granted, another matter.

      Further, the bigger reason why all of this is so bad is because the Federal Govt has taken on too much power unto itself. Eliminate much of that power and all this election trouble won’t be as big a deal.

      I agree there. If only there were some document that outlines and limits federal power. Oh, right. Sigh.

  9. Blindman says

    Don’t be an idiot. The Electoral College is one of the main reasons we are still a constitutional republic. Even when the popular vote is close, the EC, and the winner-takes-all EC vote assignment, tends to create large margins of victory and this unambiguous and peaceful transfers of power. There have only been to contested presidential elections in 200 years: 1800 and 2000.

    The EC’s histogram of outcomes is bimodal. Which means that ties are statistically less likely than a clear winner and loser. THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT WE WANT TO PRESERVE THE REPUBLIC.

    Just imagine a national recount. The EC specifically rigs the system so that we almost never have to worry about a tight election.

    Math, it’s a cool thing. Maybe you should try to understand it sometime. Our founding fathers clearly did.

    • says

      Don’t be an idiot.

      You’re forgive me if I ignore this and just address the substantive portions of your otherwise dickish comment.

      Even when the popular vote is close, the EC, and the winner-takes-all EC vote assignment, tends to create large margins of victory and this unambiguous and peaceful transfers of power.

      The electoral college doesn’t make people ignorant about how the majority of the country voted. Even without the close election in Florida in 2000, it would have been a contentious result. A plurality voted for ther other guy. By a margin of half a million.

      The EC’s histogram of outcomes is bimodal. Which means that ties are statistically less likely than a clear winner and loser.

      If you’re talking about actual ties, then the electoral college is absurdly more likely to result in a tie than a national popular vote. If you’re talking about situations that come close to ties, there has never been a popular tally as close as Florida in 2000 (either by absolute numbers of votes, or by percentage).

      Just imagine a national recount. The EC specifically rigs the system so that we almost never have to worry about a tight election.

      A national recount now wouldn’t be pretty — but with a better designed voting system, it wouldn’t be a problem. To your second sentence, “the EC specifically rigs the system” may be more correct than you intended.

  10. Dave says

    I’ll go for popular election for President in return for state legislative election of senators. Somebody needs to represent the interest of all states as co-equal members of the same union.

  11. Blindman says

    Popular election of the president is a terrible idea. There is a reason why no country on earth popularly elects their chief executive.

    We need to keep the EC and we need to repeal the 17th amendment and let the states decide how to select their senators. There is a reason the states were set up as the supreme special interest groups in our republic.

  12. says

    There. I just solved presidential elections. You’re welcome, America.

    A huge over reach, but probably within the realm of poetic license :-)

    I’ve thought a little bit about the idea of a single 6 year term, though not enough to feel a high degree of certainty that it is the right move. Similar feelings about national popular vote and IRV, definitely interesting.

    The national voting standards is in a different realm entirely though. In an era where many would like to see the Federal government be reduced in reach this is an area you are suggesting it should expand.

    As others and yourself have noted, the actual process of making these specific changes (or ones like them) require changes to the constitution. For amendments that had broad support the process has completed in less than a year. For amendments where there is less agreement we’ve seen the process take over 200 years. I think it safe to say that the type of changes you are suggesting will generate sufficient disagreement that the process of passing an amendment to make them happen would likely be closer to the 200 year time frame than the one year time frame.

  13. says

    A huge over reach, but probably within the realm of poetic license

    Faux hyperbole, nothing more!

    In an era where many would like to see the Federal government be reduced in reach this is an area you are suggesting it should expand.

    Sure. National issues deserve a national solution. We wouldn’t want each state handling their own national defense or having border states in charge of immigration, for instance. The presidency is a national election, and dictating some baseline standards for national elections seem like a reasonable area for the feds.

    I think it safe to say that the type of changes you are suggesting will generate sufficient disagreement that the process of passing an amendment to make them happen would likely be closer to the 200 year time frame than the one year time frame.

    Agreed. These are ideas, not a short term roadmap. I’ve ignored the implementation details.

  14. says

    This is a *great* post, and I agree with you on almost every point. I’ve been advocating the single six-year term for a while now—it seems so obviously better than the current system, for the reasons you outline. I also have been talking about IRV for a while now, and that seems like it would obviously improve the system as well. There’s only one thing I disagree with you on, and that is regarding the electoral college system.

    I’m a major proponent of states’ rights, and I believe that the electoral system supports that view. It ends up being that each *state* votes for a candidate, rather than a simple popular vote. I see what you’re saying about the swing states being arbitrary, but nevertheless, it gives those swing states more individual power than they would otherwise have regarding the election if it was a popular vote system. NOT more power than a state like California, mind you, but more power nevertheless. The country was founded on states’ rights (albeit much of that was to allow slavery to continue in the southern colonies), and I think that affording the states individual power is the proper way to support that system.

    It was a pleasure reading your post!

    - P

  15. Pat says

    Step 5: severing Congressional elections from Presidential election has many advantages to make a President effective Day 1, without hasty cabinets chosen, and for tracking to prevent political corruption during Presidential campaigns.

    since much momentum is generated only during Presidential-election years, those conflicts, and potential conflicts of interest might be avoided, and all elections might be improved by that protocol of easier transitions by longer President-elect waiting periods than from Nov-Jan 21st., already the busiest time of the year in America, often with the worst weather.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anti-Spam Quiz: