Reforming the US Electoral System

Feel the Johnson democraticunderground


A couple of days ago I posted a clip from Dave Rubin where he suggested that supporting Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson in polls in order to get him the 15% support required to feature in the presidential debates might help to force the two major parties to reform. Whether or not that would work is questionable, but I thought it wouldn’t do any harm. In the comments I was rightly criticized for my defeatism in saying that I thought it was unlikely that things would change in the US, so this post is an attempt to offer a starting point for reform.

I’ve also been criticized for continually extolling the virtues of the New Zealand electoral system. My opinion of our system is fairly widely held – it’s not just me being a proud Kiwi. However, we didn’t get out current system by accident. As recently as the 1980s we too had an unfair system. The political party that received the most votes didn’t necessarily get to form a government, and parties that got as much as fifteen percent of the votes didn’t get a single seat in parliament. Different groups campaigned on alternatives, and much of the establishment wanted to retain the old system. A referendum was held and a majority chose to change. Since then there has been another referendum to see if we still prefer the new one or want to go back to the old one (we chose to stick with the new one) and there has been a commission that recommended some changes that would improve the new one. The point is that in this, as in many other areas, successive governments with the support of, or pressure from, the people, we made a change.

I was also criticized for not mentioning Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. It’s a fair criticism. However, Stein not only promotes the ridiculousness of homeopathy, she sympathizes with anti-vaxxers. She’s a doctor for goodness sake! I find her pandering to leftist elitist extremists appalling. Therefore she’s not a candidate I could ever consider voting for.

Anyway, back to the post from two days ago. Personally, I’m not sure I could bring myself to vote for a Libertarian even as a tactic, as I said then. Although they’re more socially liberal than the Republican party, they embrace trickle-down economics. I also find their foreign policy naïve and Gary Johnson himself lacking the foreign policy knowledge to be the leader of the free world. His stance on climate change is also weak. His website states that people are “probably” contributing to climate change, and that the environment should be protected, but he’s against any active policy to do that such as a carbon tax. He thinks the free market will sort it out.

The idea of freedom from government regulation is not all it’s cracked up to be either. I’ve heard Fox New‘s John Stossel, for example, witter on at length about the number of regulations required to be met in order to open a restaurant. He says people should just be able to open a business and they will succeed or fail based on how good they are. But just imagine the reality of that. Staff being underpaid and required to work long hours without breaks, hygiene regulations not being met, and food not being bought from reputable suppliers, stored safely, or cooked correctly. Saying the business will fail because customers will soon stop using it is all very well, but in the meantime it is likely that, at the very least, multiple customers will suffer illness and maybe even die because of the lack of food safety regulations.

So here are some suggestions for reforming the US political system:

Move Election Day to the Weekend
Average voter turnout 1945-2001 in the USA of 66.5% is 120th out of 169 countries. That is appalling in a First World country. There are many countries around the world, including Australia (1st – 94.5%), Singapore (2nd – 93.5%), and New Zealand (19th – 90.8%) where elections are held on Saturdays. Many more, including almost all of South America and large parts of Europe, hold them on Sundays. In The Philippines and some others, election day is a public holiday.

Voting in Australia and Singapore and Australia is compulsory, but not in New Zealand. It is easier for most people to get to the elections on the weekend, especially if they need to wait in line.

Election Days Around the World

Monday – Red; Tuesday – Orange; Wednesday – Yellow; Thursday – Green; Friday – Light Blue; Saturday – Dark Blue; Sunday – Purple; Multiple days – Pink. (Source: Wikipedia – Election Day)

Move Election Day to late-September or mid-October
The weather is warmer which makes it easier for people to vote, especially those who lack transport, warm clothes, are elderly, or disabled. The transfer of power could then take place on 1 December, getting it all out of the way before Christmas.

Put all Elections on a Four-Year Cycle
From the outside, the United States appears to be perpetually in election mode. There are elections every two years and when that’s happening little or nothing can get done. Politicians are constantly worried about getting themselves or their colleagues re-elected. They feel they cannot be seen to be working with those from the other party and therefore cooperation and compromise have become dirty words. The work of government doesn’t get done. It is surprising to almost every other democratic country, for example, that the US government doesn’t present an annual budget. It is also impossible in most other countries for the government to be shut down the way it is the United States and the fact that happens is frankly shocking. I think politicians would be able to work together better if elections were not constantly hanging over them.

Repeal the Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission Decision
Big money has too much control in US elections. Following the 2014 elections the Brennan Center for Justice did an analysis of money spent in the senate races.

Money = speech

As reported by US News, they found:

… outside spending more than doubled since 2010, to $486 million. Outside groups provided 47 percent of total spending … in 10 competitive races in [2014’s] midterms.

“The premise that the Supreme Court was relying on, that these groups would be truly independent of the candidates themselves, is very questionable,” says Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, one of three Democrats on the six-member Federal Election Commission. …

The court effectively has said a donation of $1,000 does not, legally speaking, indicate a stronger association with a candidate than a donation of $10. So even when a candidate is aware of a huge donation to his or her single-candidate PAC, it’s not considered a problem.

“Plainly, if you worry about the corrupting influence of somebody making a million-dollar contribution directly to the candidate, the notion that the candidate can’t be corrupted by a million-dollar contribution that they know about to a super PAC that’s advocating solely on their behalf – it just doesn’t make sense to a lot of people,” [Weintraub] says.

As the rules are currently written, these PACs are able to circumvent restrictions preventing them from directly coordinating with campaigns, even though they’re often run by members of candidates’ inner circles. Sometimes those efforts are literally laughable … as campaigns and PACs hide their unofficial coordination in plain sight, such as through public announcements of their plans for television ad buys or through out-of-the-way Twitter accounts. …

As a result, a small group of wealthy donors has gained even more influence on elections, and are able to maintain that influence once candidates take office.

Of the $1 billion spent in federal elections by super PACs since 2010, nearly 60 percent of the money came from just 195 individuals and their spouses, according to the Brennan Center report. Thanks to Citizens United, supporters can make the maximum $5,200 donation directly to a candidate, then make unlimited contributions to single-candidate super PACs.

The huge amount of money coming from a small number of donors should be a concern to everyone. It flies on the face of the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Stop Gerrymandering
Like many other countries, electorate boundaries in New Zealand are decided by an independent Electoral Commission. Politicians have no input whatsoever. As the New Zealand Electoral Commission states:

The Electoral Act 1993 imposes strict electoral population limits binding on the Commission. These provide an overall constraint to ensure that there are approximately equal numbers of people in each electorate so that they have equality of representation in Parliament. All electorates must contain electoral populations varying not more than ±5% from the following quotas which are calculated in accordance with the Act.

They also have to make allowance for such things as “existing electoral boundaries, community of interest, facilities of communications, topographical features, and any projected variation in the general electoral population of those districts during the life.”

This system provides electorates defined fairly. In the United States the electorate boundaries are decided by who is in power in a state. Both parties adjust electorate boundaries in their own favour. The shape of some electorates beggars belief as their boundaries wander across the state like a dog sniffing out a trail. Gerrymandering must stop.

Independent Information for Electors
In New Zealand when there is a referendum on the ballot, the Electoral Commission is required to provide independent, non-partisan information for voters to help them make a decision on how to vote. This also enables them to assess whether the advertising they are seeing and hearing from campaigns is accurate and fair.

I’m sure there are lots of things I haven’t thought of – I’d love to read your ideas in the comments. I’d also be interested to know whether you think these things would help, and how hard or easy they’d be to introduce if so.

Elections are the most important part of our democracy, and I strongly believe everyone should vote even if they only spoil their ballot in some way. In my opinion, if you don’t vote you have no right to complain about the government you get.




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21 Responses to “Reforming the US Electoral System”

  1. nicky says:

    Indeed some small changes that could improve a lot of things, you’re so clever (no sarcasm).
    Especially the gerrymandering. However, with the USA so polarised, would it be possible to form a non-partizan forum to redress the distortion of electoral district boundaries? I guess possible, but not easy. And of course it/they will be sued.
    I also think there are some successful efforts under way in the USA to counter disenfranchising by-laws, but I stand to be corrected there.
    No need to make it weekends, In SA they make it another public holiday, A better reason for a public holiday than most.
    I happen to know that in Belgium voting is compulsory too. I’m in 2 minds about compulsory voting. Has pro’s and cons.
    As for financing, maybe a fixed amount paid for by the taxpayer, no donations allowed, would be an option?

    • The money thing is something I should’ve included. Some countries have public funding of political parties. We have strictly enforced limits on how much can be spent. I suspect neither option would go down too well in the US, though I vaguely recall Obama suggesting the public funding option so I might be wrong there. It’s not something he’d suggest if it wasn’t possible. Good person to be in like minds with nicky!

  2. Larry Sullivan says:

    I know this is going to be hard to understand but the US is not a democracy, we are a representative republic. our founding fathers saw how democracies ended and chose a different way, that way has worked for over 200 years. how many democracies have lasted that long? our system looks chaotic from the outside and in someways it is. we have the potential of a bloodless revolution every 2, 4, and 6 years. 2 years for the house keeps the sward of Damocles over their heads 6 years for the senate for stability and 4 years for the president to prevent a tyrant. all offset to maintain that stability. personally i think we should expand term limits to the legislature and judiciary 12 years in congress and your out permanently, 16 years for judges.

    • I think you’re the only country in the OECD that has life appointments for the Supreme Court. I’m not sure whether or not term limits are a good idea, but there do seem to be politicians and judges who carry on past the time they can do a good job, sometimes for purely political reasons. I think you’re right that needs to be dealt with somehow.

  3. Larry Sullivan says:

    repealing citizens united I agree with.
    one thing you have to realize Americans never agree on anything. if you hear that 90% of Americans agree on blah, you are being lied to, the best I have ever seen was 75% displaying the American flag after 9-11. most of the time it will be very close to 50-50. look at our constitution we only agreed 27 times to the 75% level in 215 years.

    • I agree with how difficult it would be to change. 75% is a pretty high bar. We changed our electoral system with a 53% vote. (We don’t have a formal written constitution like most countries.)

  4. Tumara Baap says:

    The Green Party does pander to the nutty Left: anti-GMO, organic farming as a panacea, anti-nuclear energy to a fault etc. But a sense of proportion would be in order. These are minor nuisances next to the really big issues that afflict us. Climate change is by far the most dire threat looming. As you mentioned, Citizens United basically legitimizes corruption and the erodes democracy. Inequality is downright poisonous to our wellbeing. If you carefully peruse through the Green Party’s policy platform, their prescriptions correlate very well with the scale and severity of the problems afflicting us. The U.S. would be vastly better off if the Green Party had more clout. In an ideal America, the Green Party and Democratic party would be parrying for top honors. Nothing good can possibly come out of the other duo: wide eyed Jesus freaks on the one hand and Ayn Rand freaks on the other hand.

    • That’s one of the things I like about NZ’s electoral system, which is more representative. The Green’s get enough votes (10.7% last election) to give them good parliamentary representation and a strong voice without being in charge. Basically how it works here is a party gets the same percentage of seats as the percentage of the vote you get as long as you get at least 5% of the national vote. There’s a bit more to it than that – I won’t bore you with the full details, but if you’re interested, you can see how it works here. I personally like a lot of Green policies, and I think you’re right about how important the climate change issue is. Their voice being stronger has had a positive effect on the policies of the bigger parties.

  5. Ken says:

    Good piece on improving the electoral system, Heather. Unfortunately it is marred by your comments on Jill Stein.

    “I find her pandering to leftist elitist extremists appalling. Therefore she’s not a candidate I could ever consider voting for.”

    I don’t believe this is true. I think if Jill were the Democratic nominee instead of the Green nominee, you would be encouraging us all to vote for her, just like you’re doing with Hillary, despite her far greater pandering to rightist elitist extremists.

    • BigBillK says:

      While I agree with you about Hillary’s pandering, I strongly agree with Heather about rejecting Jill Stein for her myriad anti-rational thinking positions. That has long been the hallmark of conservatives and I am really disappointed to see it infect the left, as well.

    • My “pandering to leftist extremists” comment was strictly in relation to her support for homeopathy and anti-vaxxers. If Clinton did the same I’d be similarly disgusted, but since she doesn’t I can’t know what my overall reaction would be. It’s a stance that I think would have damaged her to the extent she wouldn’t be where she is today.

      I like things like Stein’s advocacy for renewables by 2025, which I don’t consider extremist (unlike many who are in my part of the political spectrum) and it’s also something I admire the NZ Green Party for.

      • Ken says:

        Even the Patheos article shows Stein isn’t anti-vax, but even if she was, it is a sad comment that that might dis-qualify her, while Clinton’s warmongering and so many other anti-progressive positions that have done and continue to do more damage, are deemed acceptable. And I still can’t believe that if it were Stein vs Trump, you would drop your lesser-of-two-evils stance because of Stein’s vax/homeopathy positions.

        • If it was down to Stein vs Trump, I’d go with Stein.

        • nicky says:

          Obviously we’d go for Stein in that case. But if it were between Hillary and Jill, I’m less sure, maybe I’d go for Hillary. Jill has so much less experience.

          • Ken says:

            Respectfully nicky, how can experience possibly be the reason you’d choose Hillary? All other things being equal, of course experience is better than a lack of experience. But other things are so far from being equal in this case that it seems surreal to me that this could be the deciding factor, as though invading countries is somehow similar enough to not invading them, or that being owned by Wall St is somehow similar enough to not being owned, that it needs almost a coin toss to decide.

            I’m not against the Donald due to his lack of experience, or that fact is so far down the list of reasons that it’s practically not worth mentioning. And Hillary’s experience positively condemns her. We don’t have to guess whether we’re taking a risk that her foreign policy will be neocon; she has demonstrated it beyond a doubt. She has been tested and failed. That her experience would mean she is more efficient and effective is positively terrifying. It’s one of the biggest reasons not to support her.

          • Probably the main reason I’m against Trump is his lack of experience. He’s just not capable of running a country. His sexism, racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, constant lies etc are symptoms not causes.

            I’ve seen no evidence that Stein would be a better president than Clinton. She would be better than Trump and Johnson, but that’s not a very high bar.

            Receiving donations from Wall Street doesn’t mean you’re owned by them. Obama received donations from most of the same people. Giving paid speeches was her job and some were to Wall Street firms, but as I wrote about earlier, they are only a small fraction both in terms of time and money. I’m not saying this about you, but I find a lot of the criticism re the speeches to be jealous, self-righteous, virtue signalling.

            There is no evidence that there’s anything wrong with the Clinton Foundation either though I admit that there’s a problem with perception that she needs to sort out.

            And the FBI found no deliberate wrong-doing re her e-mails. She’s admitted she stuffed up and wouldn’t do it again, but personally I’m getting sick of it. I want to hear what she would do in the future.

          • Ken says:

            I think that’s a very odd formulation, Heather. Like if only all the candidates had the same experiences, they’d have the same policy positions. Sure, experience can change one’s views, but I think most wouldn’t even understand that the way you mean it. There will be many causes of Trump’s deplorable views and lack of experience just isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, particularly if we’re going to then use the same logic to disqualify others with views worthy of support. Trump has a f*cked up world view and that’s enough to disqualify him.

            We never know for certain who will make a good president or a bad one. But if we can’t use the candidate’s track record as a predictor, we might as well throw darts at a board. The starting point has to be track record and what they say about key policies of interest. Stein has no track record, but very progressive policies, while as I said, that Clinton would likely deliver most effectively on so many bad policies is more a cause for worry than celebration.

            Re donations, I hardly know where to start given the massive evidence of money influence in the US system, so it’s incredibly trusting of you to think politicians aren’t fundamentally compromised in a system so awash with cash. Personally, I think Trump is telling the truth when he says he always gives to politicians when they ask because it always pays off later, and that that is the sign of a broken system. And it’s not just about outright corruption anyway, but about being immersed in a system set up by elites to maintain their elite positions. One becomes inculcated to acting on behalf of the 1% without even thinking about it. This is the fundamental fact of the last 40 years of US politics.

            This discussion isn’t about the specifics of the Clinton Foundation or her emails, but since you raise it, the FBI did find wrong-doing, but said they hadn’t prosecuted others who’d done similar, so wouldn’t prosecute Hillary either. Only fair perhaps, but what a dismal statement on the state of the rule of law in the US and hardly something Hillary supporters can brag about.

  6. j.a.m. says:

    Don’t get me wrong, a political system that twice produces a useless nincompoop like Obama is due for reform. But I’m not so sure about your diagnosis.

    Between early voting (up to a month in some states), and several states that conduct all elections by mail, most voters do have an alternative to Tuesday.

    California and a few other states do use independent commissions to draw both Congressional and legislative districts. In other states there are various schemes with varying degrees of partisanship.

    “Politicians are constantly worried about getting themselves or their colleagues re-elected.” — That sounds like a feature, not a bug. It’s odd to argue that elections are the most important part of democracy, so let’s have fewer.

    You also undercut your own argument when you imply that voters can’t be trusted to evaluate claims regardless of the volume of advertising and come to their own independent informed decisions. I don’t want those people voting.

    For that matter, it undercuts your argument to say that elections are so important, they should be easier. I really don’t get the point to making it easier for unmotivated, uninformed people to vote. If they have better things to do, so be it. They’re voting for the status quo, or giving me their proxy.

    On Citizens United, the problem with regulating speech is always the same: Who decides? And the remedy is always more speech. If free speech means anything at all, it is the right to criticize those in power.

    • I agree with you about unmotivated and uninformed people voting, which is why I’m personally against compulsory voting. Australia is actually a bit of a mess electorally imo and I can’t help wondering if compulsory voting has something to do with that.

      I’m only advocating independent information for referenda, not elections. I’d disagree that people are good at discerning the truth though. At the Republican convention Antonio Sabato Jr gave a speech that included a statement about Obama being a Muslim, and that is believed by a significant minority of Trump supporters, many of whom are still spouting the birther nonsense.

      Separate from elections but perhaps influencing which party they support, more than 40% of USians believe the earth is no more than 10,000 years old and evolution is a lie. I remember eight candidates on stage for a GOP primary in 2008 and they were asked if they believed in evolution. Jon Huntsman started to put up his hand, but it didn’t stay up long when he saw none of the others had. He didn’t last long, and he was a good candidate. Some of those people obviously did accept it but clearly thought they needed to lie about it to get votes.

  7. BigBillK says:

    Nice piece, Heather. Many of your suggestions sound good. Unfortunately, because of the extreme polarization and the resultant tendency to reject out of hand any suggestion by “the other side” (not to mention the “not-invented-here syndrome,) I am not sanguine about the prospects of any real reform any time soon.

    • Thanks. I think your right about the prospects for progress. I lot of the world looked to US democracy as an inspiration in developing their own systems, including us, but many improved on it or have continued to move forward. We’re always looking at positive things other countries have done for ideas on what could work here. It’s a shame the US tends not to do that. As you say, it would be a benefit.

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