Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Elections?

It's not even the presidential election year and how many candidate debates have occurred? I've lost count. U.S. presidential elections last too long, cost too much and the results are unimpressive. There are solutions.

As regards timing, I like the 90-day campaigns under the system that prevails in much of the British Commonwealth. Granted, that's because elections are not fixed at four year intervals.

Also, there are no truly national elections under the parliamentary system: you vote for the candidates in your riding or constituency and cumulatively a party acquires a majority -- or not; thus, most voters have some personal knowledge of the person they are voting for -- or against.

The cost has amply been remarked elsewhere as a barrier to truly popular candidates and the inevitable end-result that presidents first enter the White House already hostage to the sources of cash that put them there.

The duration of the campaign is a factor in raising the cost, but there are silent partner in this: the uninformed voter and the relative secrecy in which decision-making occurs.

Every campaign involves debate of policy questions posed in overly simplified terms for citizens who have not attended to the duty of keeping up. Nothing struck me as more symptomatic of the problem than the question posed to President George H.W. Bush at an open forum by an individual who obviously did not know the difference between the federal deficit and the national debt. (Hint: the deficit is a negative annual balance, the debt is the cumulative borrowing to cover the deficits.)

The cost of the quadrennial education campaign -- or in many cases, the quadrennial play on people's ignorance and basest emotions (yes, Republicans, I mean you) -- is largely the result of poor citizenship. If we don't look after our interests, no one will.

Is it any surprise that the results are so unimpressive? Think about the notion that the electorate in 1980 chose an actor whose sole talent was the ability to read and declaim as if the words he was using were his own. Yes, of course, the current president also comes to mind among the disasters of the electoral system.

Hunter Thompson cannily remarked that up to the 1972 campaign neither major political party had put up a candidate that garnered less than 40 percent of the vote nationally.

Yet the percentage of eligible citizens who vote has been cumulatively declining from the 63 percent recorded in 1960 to the low of 49 percent in the 1996 election. The massive electoral fraud of the year 2000 changed that: in 2004, a full 56 percent of the eligible electorate actually voted.

So think about it. John F. Kennedy got a razor thin margin (49.7 percent of the popular vote), garnering in reality about 31 percent of all eligible citizens' votes. Even Lyndon Johnson, with his "landslide" 61 percent of the popular vote, really had the assent of 37.1 percent of eligible voters. The Ronald Reagan "landslide" of 1984 (58.8 percent) still only won 31.2 percent of all citizens eligible to vote.

So neither qualitatively nor quantitatively can anyone argue that two years of bombast achieves worthy results.

Thus, three remedies strike me as plausible incentives for change:

1. Set presidential campaigns to take no more than 180 days, with one national primary and one national election.

2. Establish a public fund to subsidize candidacies and bar any other source of funding.

3. Make voting mandatory, with periodic citizenship tests and penalties for failing to keep up with the basic decisions that we must make as a society.


Julie Pippert said...

I agree that the campaigns are long and way, way too costly---which makes candidates vulnerable to conflicts of interest.

As for your solutions...those are interesting to consider.

The time limit for campaigning, I'll ponder that.

#2 is a good idea and one I support. How to get the funds is a question.

#3 I'm against.

Using My Words

Cecilieaux said...

What's wrong with #3?

Geneviève said...
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Geneviève said...
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jen said...

slightly off topic but in this week's TIME there was an interesting piece about how the Repubs can't find their candidate, and how that alone screws up their entire process of domination.

other things are mandatory - many other things. seat belts, for one. voting might as well be too. voting and seatbelts. both might just save your life.