We need to improve the process in three ways: 1) shorten, simplify, and democratize the process of choosing presidential candidates; 2) let voters select vice presidential candidates; and 3) provide for direct election of the president and vice president by the people, that is, do away with the electoral college.
Shorten, Simplify, and Democratize the Process of Choosing Presidential Candidates
Congress needs to pass a law establishing a National Presidential Primary System. Under this proposed scheme, each state holds an open primary election for president in one of three rounds of presidential primaries. Each primary is held for nine days ending on the last Sundays in August (Round 1), September (Round 2), and October (Round 3), followed by the general election ending on the second Sunday in December.
- Three rounds of presidential primaries:
- The primary system should provide a reasonable opportunity for bootstrap, grassroots campaigns that start out as a small endeavor with only minimal financial and organizational requirements. For this reason, a single national primary day is probably not a good idea even though it seems to be the simplest and most straightforward.
- The primary system should also encourage every campaign to begin in disparate regions of the country, allowing a candidate to demonstrate appeal beyond a single geographic region. For this reason, the first primary election should be held in perhaps four states spread around the country, avoiding the states with the largest populations and most expensive media markets.
- The first two rounds provide an essential winnowing process, so that only the strongest candidates survive to subsequent contests. If the proposed system is adopted, it’s especially important that the first-round voters are thoroughly engaged, so that the country gains confidence in the overall scheme.
- As it happens, our existing system has evolved with four early primary/caucus states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina), who have demonstrated that they take their presidential politics seriously and perform their functions responsibly. One can argue this point, of course, and some might say that the task (and honor) of hosting the first round should be passed around. But at least for the first two cycles, we should depend on these four states to host the first round.
- The second round should expand to the national stage and involve primaries in ten more states. Again, this is more challenging than the first round but less expensive in staff and money than a nationwide primary would be. This task should fall to ten states that volunteer with a provision for rotating the responsibility if more than ten states wish to do it.
- The third round includes all other jurisdictions – the remaining states, the District of Columbia, and other territories permitted to participate.
- Length of campaigns for each round:
- One month for each round, give or take, should do the trick. If the campaigns are thus limited, voters can avoid watching the same ads, hearing the same talking points, and listening to the same stump speeches for 18 seemingly interminable months as at present. Candidates can rest and reflect a bit more. Voters can avoid boredom and exhaustion.
- Of course a shortened campaign season should be paired with a shortened fundraising season. One useful suggestion in this regard is to prohibit any fundraising by any presidential candidate or his/her campaign while Congress is in session. This rule would have to apply to all candidates, not just those currently serving in Congress. We’d all welcome relief from incessant fundraising appeals.
- Meanwhile, if we curtail the campaign season as suggested here, the candidates (most of whom are currently-serving elected officials) can continue doing their day jobs, that is, serving us, rather than pontificating on the stump and begging for money.
- Weekend voting:
- An 1845 federal law established election day as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This schedule accommodated farmers (that is, most of the voters in 1845). Those rural voters could attend religious services on Sunday, travel to the county seat on Monday, vote on Tuesday morning and return home, and then participate in market day (Wednesday). November was chosen, of course, to follow the fall harvest.
- This reasoning was great in 1845 but not so much today. For the convenience of most voters and workers and to encourage greater voter participation in elections, all our elections should take place or end on a weekend.
- Each election (primary or general) will consist of nine days of in-person voting, ending on the last Sunday of the election. (This schedule provides two full weekends of voting, when most Americans can get to the polls most conveniently. Including both Saturday and Sunday accommodates those who may not be able to vote for religious reasons on either the Saturday or the Sunday. Including nine days of voting spans a Monday through Friday work week, accommodating those who work on weekends.) Votes may also be cast by mail provided they are received by the last date of the election. A state, as in Oregon, may choose to conduct the entire election by mail, eliminating in-person voting altogether, so that election day is designated only as counting-of-the-ballots day. But the most important change is moving every election to a weekend, when most 21st century voters have the time to participate.
- The Presidential Election Season Schedule: The 20th Amendment to the Constitution moved the presidential inauguration from March to January 20. If we want to shorten and streamline the entire presidential election season while retaining the current constitutionally-mandated inauguration day, then the presidential primaries must begin later in the election year. Further, to minimize the delay between the general election and the beginning of the newly-elected Government, the general election should be held much later in the calendar year. The following election season is proposed:
- Congress adjourns sine die, and the presidential election campaign season begins on July 4 of years evenly divisible by four. Four huge benefits to the public accrue from this proposal: 1) Congress can keep working until July 4 of every presidential election year. 2) Congress does not need to pretend to keep working during the fall campaign season, when every day spent in Washington takes the candidates away from the task they are really invested in – campaigning. By the way, candidates for the House and Senate can also begin campaigning after Congress adjourns. 3) The public only needs to tolerate repetitive campaign ads and stump speeches from July 4 until the general election, in contrast to the 18-month marathon we all must endure at present. 4) We can do away entirely with the lame-duck session of Congress, and we will have a much shorter period between the general election and the start of a new Congress and inauguration of a new president in January.
- The Round 1 presidential primaries end on the last Sunday in August (about seven weeks after the campaign season begins). The Round 1 primaries are held in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, unless Congress designates different states.
- The Round 2 presidential primaries end on the last Sunday in September (four or five weeks after Round 1). Round 2 primaries are held in the first 10 states offering to hold them, unless Congress designates another method for selecting those 10 states.
- The Round 3 presidential primary (the National Primary Election) ends on the last Sunday in October (four or five weeks after Round 2). Round 3 primaries are held in the remaining states and in all other jurisdictions authorized by Congress to participate in presidential primaries.
- The General Election ends on the second Sunday in December (six or seven weeks after Round 3).
- This schedule of primaries and general election can be adopted by an Act of Congress. The Constitution specifies only that the new Congress will convene on January 3, and the new president will take office on January 20. Therefore, modifying the schedule of primaries and the general election does not require a constitutional amendment.
- Primary election procedures:
- States and other jurisdictions authorized to hold primary elections conduct these elections as at present.
- Presidential primary candidates compete for “Nominating Votes”. The total Nominating Votes for president equals the number of seats in the House of Representatives plus the number of Nominating Votes from non-state jurisdictions.
- Each CD has the same number of Nominating Votes as it has seats in the House of Representatives. (Since 1965 we have had only single-seat Congressional Districts. However, multi-seat CD’s are possible.)
- Congress may authorize certain jurisdictions other than states to participate in presidential primaries (Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and other territories and possessions). All such jurisdictions taken together constitute the Non-State Primary District. For each 1 million inhabitants or portion thereof, this Non-State Primary District is awarded one Nominating Vote.
- To appear on any presidential primary ballot, a candidate must sign an affidavit authorizing the IRS to release the tax returns of the candidate and his/her spouse for the preceding five years, if that candidate should qualify for the general election. (Knowing this requirement and the public’s expectation of transparency, most presidential candidates are likely to release their tax returns early in the primary season, as most candidates have done in the past.)
- Any candidate who meets a state’s requirements to appear on the primary ballot for president will appear on the primary ballot in that state. In addition, any candidate who earns at least one Nominating Vote in a Round 1 or a Round 2 primary automatically qualifies to appear on the ballot in all subsequent primaries. There will be one primary ballot containing the names of all candidates regardless of party. The party affiliation (if any) of each candidate will be indicated on the ballot.
- State primary rules in most states will need to be modified so that only one primary is held (rather than a primary for each party and rather than caucuses and state-level party conventions).
- Votes will be tabulated and winners determined by Congressional District (CD) using RCV procedures for elections with a single winner. The winner in each CD receives the “Nominating Vote” for that CD. The winner of the Non-State Primary District receives the Nominating Votes from that district.
- General Election Ballot: At the conclusion of the presidential primaries, any candidate who has received at least 15% of the total Nominating Votes qualifies for the general election ballot in all states. If fewer than three candidates achieve the 15% threshold, then the three candidates with the most Nominating Votes qualify for the general election ballot in all states. Further, any candidate who has won any Nominating Vote in any state qualifies for the general election ballot in all CDs in that state. No other candidates will appear on the general election ballot for president in any state.
Let Voters Select Vice Presidential Candidates
The United States should adopt a nationwide primary election for vice president, which will take place as part of the National Primary Election, ending on the last Sunday in October.
Any candidate who meets a state’s requirements to appear on the primary ballot for vice president will appear on the primary ballot in that state.
Anyone who was a candidate for president in Rounds 1 and/or 2, who won at least one Nominating Vote, and who then withdrew from the presidential contest, automatically qualifies as a candidate for vice president in all jurisdictions unless that candidate officially withdraws from consideration.
At the conclusion of the primary election for vice president, any candidate who has received at least 15% of the total Nominating Votes qualifies for the general election ballot for vice president in all states. If fewer than three candidates achieve the 15% threshold, then the three candidates with the most Nominating Votes qualify for the general election ballot in all states. Further, any candidate who has won at least one Nominating Vote in any state qualifies for the general election ballot in all CDs in that state. No other candidates will appear on the general election ballot for vice president in any state.
Alternative Solution to the Vice-Presidential Selection Challenge
Some have argued that the presidential candidate should be able to choose his running mate, because after the election, this pair is more likely to function as a team if they are united throughout the campaign.
Here are my responses to that argument:
- As to the vice president’s role as a member of the president’s team, the president can appoint as many advisors as he likes and does not need a vice president for that role. In fact, through most of our history, the president has largely ignored his vice president. For example, FDR chose Missouri Senator Harry Truman as his new vice-presidential candidate in 1944 without knowing him at all, and when Roosevelt died in April 1945, Roosevelt and Truman had met each other no more than eight times, usually with a group of legislators. When Truman became president, he had not yet been briefed on the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb).
- We also have the inarguable truth that many modern vice-presidential candidates were far from the cream of the crop: Truman selected the quite elderly Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley in 1948 (ever hear of him?); Nixon chose the inexperienced and rather sketchy Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew in 1960, who resigned in disgrace the year before Nixon himself did the same; George H.W. Bush selected the intellectual lightweight and disinterested Indiana Senator Dan Quayle in 1988; and, in the most unqualified selection of all, Senator John McCain in 2008 picked first-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Certainly the voters could find better candidates.
What are the duties of the vice president? Essentially, there are two duties: 1) succeed the president if that position becomes vacant and 2) preside over the Senate. We could solve the issue most directly through a constitutional amendment to
- eliminate the position of vice president;
- hold a direct national election for the presiding officer of the Senate (whom we might call “chancellor”). Like the presidency, this position could have a four-year term of office; but to keep it distinct from the presidential election, the chancellor election could be held at the time of the general election in non-presidential election years, that is, even-numbered years not evenly divisible by 4. In this way, the chancellor could very well develop a national following and gain meaningful experience in preparation for a run for the presidency two years later;
- make the chancellor first in the line of succession to the presidency; and
- give the chancellor meaningful responsibilities. The chancellor should take over the responsibility for making all judicial appointments. The chancellor should also truly preside over the Senate, controlling the agenda and the debate, and appointing the other Senate officers, such as the chancellor pro-tempore and the committee chairs.
Reassigning the responsibility for judicial appointments to someone other than the president could be part of the constitutional effort to regain balance among the three branches of government and strip away some of the inordinate power of the presidency. Although we have three distinct branches of government, there are points at which one branch is intimately involved in another branch. While the president obviously should make all executive branch appointments, the appointment of judges is a point at which he is involved in the judiciary. It might make more sense to let the chancellor of the Senate perform that function. And if we made that change, then one of the major issues in the national election for chancellor would be the candidates’ potential selections for the federal judiciary.
Provide for Direct Election of the President and Vice President
In 1823 the former President James Madison returned to his earlier view in favor of universal suffrage and against the electoral college as it had evolved. By that time, almost all states had adopted the winner-take-all practice still used by 48 of the 50 states today: the winner of the statewide popular vote receives all of that state’s electoral votes. Madison also opposed the provision that gives the election to the House of Representatives with one vote per state when no candidate has a majority of the electoral votes. Madison proposed a constitutional amendment (which obviously never passed) (see sidebar).
|Sidebar: James Madison’s Constitutional Amendment
Proposed in 1823. Never passed. Key elements:
a) Voters in presidential election districts in each state choose presidential electors, with no more than two electors per district.
b) Each elector chooses two persons for president, a 1st choice and a 2nd choice.
c) If one person receives a majority of the 1st choice votes, then that person becomes president.
d) If no one receives a majority of 1st choice votes, then the 2nd choice votes are added, and if one person receives a majority, he becomes president. (This idea is quite similar to an instant runoff system or Ranked Choice Voting for elections with a single winner.)
e) If still no one has a majority, then Congress in a joint session of both chambers selects the president from the two names with the most 1st plus 2nd choice votes.
When we consider improvements to the manner of choosing the president, James Madison’s proposed constitutional amendment might be a good place to start.
As Madison’s proposal demonstrates, Americans have long debated the elimination of the electoral college. Here are three alternatives for fixing the electoral college along with the pros and cons of each.
Each alternative still works within the framework of the electoral college as provided in the Constitution. We currently have 538 electoral votes, made up of 435 electoral votes equal to the number of seats in the House of Representatives, 100 electoral votes equal to the number of seats in the Senate, and 3 electoral votes for Washington, DC. (The 3 votes for DC are based on the electoral votes that DC would have if it were a state – one seat in the House and 2 in the Senate.) If one candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes (270), that candidate is elected president. If no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives determines the winner, and each state delegation has one vote.
Because the Constitution specifically empowers states to choose their electors however they see fit, any scheme that garners 270 electoral votes will work. As an extreme example, we could adopt simple random selection: People who want to be president throw their names into a hat, and one name is randomly drawn as the winner. If states with 270 electoral votes agree to give all their electoral votes to that randomly-selected candidate, then that person becomes president.
The following three alternatives are feasible.
Alternative 1: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC)
NPVIC could bring about the direct election of the president by popular vote without needing to amend the Constitution. Under this initiative, identical laws have been introduced in 47 states, which provide that that state will cast all its electoral votes for the candidate who wins the national popular vote. These state laws only become effective when states having at least 270 electoral votes in aggregate have adopted NPVIC.
Pros and cons of Alternative 1
The pros of the NPVIC proposal are easy to see. Every vote counts equally. This feature eliminates the preference given to voters in less-populous states. NPVIC also eliminates the state-by-state winner-take-all system, which currently causes most states and most voters to be ignored. As a result, the notion of “swing states” would disappear. It would no longer matter whether a candidate “won” a particular state or not. 70% of American believe that the candidate with the most votes should become president. NPVIC gives us that result without amending the Constitution.
The Con of this proposal is that the need for candidates to appeal to every geographic region of the nation would be reduced. (Of course, one can argue rather persuasively that the current system also does not require candidates to appeal across many regions since the entire presidential election campaign focuses only on eight or nine “swing” states.) Another Con is that, by not amending the Constitution, NPVIC could be undone by states that change their mind and drop out or fail to follow the compact. Hence, the failure to amend the Constitution is a two-edged sword: what a state legislature can do, that state legislature can undo a week later.
Can NPVIC succeed?
As of this writing, 10 states plus Washington, DC have passed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. These states control 165 electoral votes, 61% of the number needed to reach 270. However, the states that have adopted NPVIC (MD, NJ, IL, HI, WA, MA, VT, CA, RI, NY, and DC) are primarily the more progressive states; gaining the requisite 105 additional electoral votes will be difficult. NPVIC may well be the current effort closest to a successful conclusion, but success is still very far away. Some folks prefer to retain the current electoral college with its built-in protections for less populous states and its requirement that a successful candidate demonstrate support across all regions of the country.
Alternative 2: Voting by Congressional District, as in Maine and Nebraska
In Maine and Nebraska, the winner of the presidential election in each congressional district (CD) is awarded one electoral vote (representing the electoral votes allocated to that state based on its seats in the House), and the winner statewide is awarded two electoral votes (representing the electoral votes allocated to that state based on it seats in the Senate).
Pros and cons of Alternative 2
This system is much fairer than the winner-take-all approach followed in the other 48 states although it does not eliminate the built-in preference for states with small populations. Another Pro is that it does not require a constitutional amendment; but a Con is that it would not be really effective unless it were implemented in all 50 states, a tough nut to crack. Probably the biggest Con is that it gives no credit at all to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, which makes Alternative 2 much less popular among reformers than NPVIC.
Can Alternative 2 succeed?
Maine and Nebraska adopted this system for reasons unique to the internal politics of those states. Its chances of wider adoption in its present form are slim. Most states perceive only a loss of power and influence by dividing their electoral votes among multiple candidates.
Alternative 2 might have greater appeal if its implementation followed the NPVIC model. Specifically, states would agree to cast all their electoral votes for the candidate who wins according to this system, but implementation would only take place after states with at least 270 electoral votes adopted it.
Alternative 3: Local-State-National (LSN) Voting – A Hybrid Solution
This system represents a hybrid, giving weight to each vote at the local, state, and national levels. Basically, each vote contributes to the preferred candidate winning within a congressional district (CD), within a state, and across the whole nation. Like the NPVIC, this solution can be implemented as soon as states with at least 270 electoral votes adopt it.
Here is how LSN Voting works:
Under the LSN voting scheme, the number of LSN votes equals the number of electoral votes (538). LSN votes are tabulated as follows:
- One LSN vote is awarded to the winner of each CD. This is the “Local” component of LSN voting. This accounts for 436 LSN votes.
- One LSN vote is awarded to the winner of each state. This is the “State” component of LSN voting. This accounts for 51 LSN votes.
- One LSN vote is awarded to the winner of the national popular vote for each state in the Union. This is the “National” component of LSN voting. This accounts for 51 LSN votes.
- If one candidate has at least 270 LSN votes, that candidate is the winner. If no candidate has at least 270 LSN votes, then the winner of the national popular vote is the winner of the election.
The Local-State-National Interstate Compact (LSNIC): States adopting the LSN voting scheme agree to cast all their electoral votes for the candidate who wins the election according to the LSN voting scheme. These state laws only become effective when states with 270 electoral votes have adopted it.
Pros and cons of Alternative 3
LSN Voting accomplishes all the major objectives of reform:
- Values every voter in every congressional district, every state, and the nation as a whole;
- Retains a role for the states, while also recognizing both a smaller (local CD) and larger (national) component of each voter’s choice;
- Requires the winning candidate to have broad appeal at all three levels (local, state, and national) and across all regions of the country;
- Bypasses the electoral college, removing any possibility that “faithless electors” could alter the outcome of the contest; and
- Eliminates the possibility that the presidential election will ever be thrown into the House of Representatives.
Can the LSN solution succeed?
In terms of effectiveness and possibility of adoption, this compromise proposal might satisfy sufficiently those who want every vote to count and want the winner of the popular vote to win the election. It might also satisfy those who want the winner to have broad appeal across the nation and want the states to still matter.
The major parties will likely rail against this proposal (since it reduces their clout), and they are very likely to resuscitate the old debate during the 1787 Constitutional Convention about large states overpowering small states. But as pointed out earlier, that is a bogus argument: A strong difference of opinion between large and small states has never been a decisive factor in any US presidential election. We have had differences between regions, between parties, between personalities, and between ideologies; but we have never had differences because all the large states gathered in one corner and all the small states gathered in the opposite corner – it just never happened.
This author endorses the LSN Solution. Adoption of LSN through the LSN Interstate Compact would be a huge step forward for our democracy. Adoption of LSN through a constitutional amendment would be even better.
 http://www.fairvote.org/why-james-madison-wanted-to-change-the-way-we-vote-for-president. [Accessed on June 16, 2017.]