Most Americans agree that our presidential elections last too long and are unnecessarily complicated, cumbersome, expensive, and unrepresentative. This essay discusses shortcomings in the present process.
The Presidential Election Season is Too Long.
- In the last several presidential election cycles, we have evolved into a perpetual presidential campaign season. No sooner do we complete a presidential election, than parties and candidates begin jockeying for position in anticipation of the next election, four years hence. Since many of the presidential candidates already hold elective office, this means that they are essentially removed from the task of governance (for which they supposedly were elected to their current positions) and instead become focused almost exclusively on the next presidential election.
- Right now, the period of active campaigning extends at least two years. In January 2015, fully 21 months before the 2016 general election, pundits and insiders and experts agreed that it was becoming almost too late for any additional candidates to get into the race. (Of course, the ultimate winner did not enter the fray until June, although lots of speculation about his potential candidacy surrounded him before he officially announced.)
- These interminable campaigns are endurance contests, exhausting for both the candidates and the public. They do not necessarily show which candidates might have the requisite qualifications, experience, character, temperament, and wisdom to serve as Chief Executive. Rather, they show which candidates can survive the grueling schedule while committing the fewest public gaffes.
- The public is frustrated and turned off both by the interminable campaigning and by the lack of attention to actually governing. We hear sound bites and talking points ad nauseam. Rarely do we hear serious proposals or debates about real issues. Rarer still do we hear that these presidential candidates have actually accomplished something in their current positions.
The Presidential Candidate Selection Process is Too Complicated
- In addition to going on way too long, the process involves procedures and schedules established by each state, with no rhyme or reason for each state’s choices (at least none discernible to the public) and certainly no overall plan.
- Some states have a primary, while others have a caucus. Why?
- In most states, the primary or caucus is held on the same day for all, while in other states the Republicans hold their primary or caucus on one day while the Democrats hold theirs on a different day. Why?
- Several states have both a primary and a caucus. Why?
- In some states, voters may choose which party’s primary/caucus to vote in on election day; in other states, voters must be a registered member of a particular party in order to vote in that party’s primary; and in a third group of states, Democrats vote in the Democratic primary, Republicans vote in the Republican primary, and independents can vote in either; and finally, at least in Nevada, Independents can vote in both the Republican and the Democratic primaries. Why?
- Some states award delegates to winning candidates proportionally while other states have a winner-take-all rule. Why?
- Caucuses are unrepresentative and basically unfair, contributing to the general perception that the whole process is rigged.
- After all the primaries and caucuses and state conventions, national party conventions can still thwart the will of the electorate.
Conclusion: presidential primaries should be simplified and standardized among all states. Perhaps if this were done, public apathy would abate, enthusiasm engendered, voter participation increased, and confidence in the results restored.
The Presidential Candidate Selection Process is Undemocratic
How many times have you heard voters and pundits decry the choices available to them? Citizens are unhappy and frustrated at the process, which results, in their view, in two major party candidates who often do not reflect the interests of the citizens these candidates purport to represent. Part of the problem here is that, during the primary season, candidates must appeal to the most radical, entrenched, vocal, diehard elements of their own political party – after all, that is usually the best way to win the party’s nomination. The public be damned. Candidates who appeal to the majority of the electorate, rather than the majority of their own party, rarely succeed. As a result, we often end up with two major party candidates who are disliked by most of the voters who will choose between them on the day of the general election.
This might not be the only time that we need to remember the caution given by the Founding Fathers, and especially by George Washington, against the formation of “factions”, that is, political parties. Factions divide us; factions make it difficult for us to agree on a common agenda, a common solution, or a common candidate.
We do have political parties, and they are powerful, entrenched, and resilient against every measure of reform. Any effort to do away with political parties is probably doomed to failure. The two-party system is entrenched in every state, hallowed by tradition, and protected by myriad laws. It has served us well in many cases. For example, political parties facilitate effective governance: The parties make it possible for Congress to pass laws by insisting on some degree of party discipline in voting for a legislative agenda.
Yet we need to find a way to allow citizens to select candidates for president without respect to party labels. It’s fine for citizens who agree on a common agenda to coalesce in order to elect candidates who agree with them – that is, it’s fine for citizens to unite as members of a political party. Nevertheless, citizens in a true democracy should be able to select presidential candidates who appeal to the nation writ large rather than to limit our choices to those who have won the allegiance of only their own political party.
Vice Presidential Candidates are Appointed
We leave the selection of vice president entirely in the hands of one person, the presidential candidate of each political party. How often have we witnessed this charade? The party’s candidate for president, facing the camera with serious demeanor, announces solemnly that his choice of vice president is not only his first important decision, but also that he takes this responsibility very seriously, and that he is choosing the one person most capable of fulfilling the duties of vice president and also, if necessary (gulp and sigh), president.
Yet we know from long experience that these statements are poppycock. More likely, the person chosen as the vice presidential candidate is one who may unify the party, help the party win one or more key states in the general election, provide geographic balance to the ticket, or shore up some perceived shortcomings in the presidential candidate.
Rarely is the vice presidential candidate the only or the best person to carry out the duties of that office: 1) serve as president of the Senate, 2) cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate when the votes are evenly divided, 3) count the ballots for president and vice president following the next presidential election, and 4) inquire daily at the White House as to the president’s health. It’s this last responsibility, of course, which should be our primary concern.
Presidents sometimes use their V.P.’s in other ways as well, such as performing ceremonial functions as an adjunct to or substitute for the president, joining the president’s cabinet, or serving as a presidential advisor.
The vice president occupies the second-highest position in our democracy and has a clear advantage when it comes to choosing a successor. Fourteen of our nation’s vice presidents later became president, either through the death or resignation of the president or by a subsequent election. Think about that: 14 of our 45 presidents to date (nearly a third) served earlier as vice president. So why should we leave the selection of vice president solely in the hands of one person?
One can make an argument for the current custom: After their election, the president and vice president should work together as a team, and for this reason the team captain should be able to choose his/her running mate. But that argument seems less persuasive than the argument that the voters should choose the vice presidential candidate, especially in light of the fact that V.P.’s so often later become presidents.
We should not pretend that the voters get to choose the vice president in the general election. Voters almost never make their selection for president based on who is running for VP. At best, that is a secondary consideration.
We do have some leeway here: the constitution is completely silent on the question of how we go about selecting candidates for vice president. Recall that in the original 1787 Constitution, the electors (members of what we now call the electoral college) were required to vote for two people. The person receiving the most votes would become the next president, and the person with the second-most votes would become the next vice president. With George Washington on the ballot in the first two presidential elections, this procedure was not a problem: Washington was the unanimous choice for president while a plethora of candidates split the vote for second place. After Washington’s tenure, political parties formed and began fielding a ticket consisting of a presidential candidate running alongside his vice presidential candidate. If electors chose the party’s ticket, the likely result would be a tie between the presidential and vice presidential candidates. Indeed, the likelihood of a tie was a major issue following the elections of 1796 and 1800.
The 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804, solved this problem, since it requires members of the electoral college to vote separately for one person for president and another person for vice president. Since 1804, every presidential election has been contested by political parties. Each party nominates a ticket consisting of a presidential and a vice presidential nominee, and voters in the general election are asked to choose among the tickets.
However, nothing in this scheme is mandated by the Constitution. If we choose to do so, could we not move away from presidential and vice presidential elections controlled by two major political parties? Since the selection of vice president is so momentous, shouldn’t we let voters determine the nominees? Democracy is all about choice and especially about who gets to make the choices. When we think about improving the way we choose our next president, we should also consider ways of democratizing the selection of vice president. Shouldn’t we insist on a primary election for vice president?
The Electoral College is Obsolete
The US Constitution established the electoral college system, which gives each state a number of presidential electors equal to the states’ representation in Congress – that is, the number of its Representatives in the House plus its two Senators. We currently have 538 electors (based on 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 100 Senators, plus 3 from the District of Columbia). The presidential candidate winning a majority of the electoral college vote (270) is declared the winner. The Constitution also provides that state legislatures have the power to determine how those electors will be selected, and the Supreme Court has adjudged that this power belongs exclusively to the state legislatures. The Constitution does not require participation by the people in any way: Although we have a public election for president in all 50 states and in Washington, DC, such an election is not constitutionally required. The legislature of Alaska or Maryland or (you name it state) could decide tomorrow that they will no longer hold a presidential election, but rather, that state’s presidential electors (members of the electoral college) will be chosen by lot, or randomly by zip code, or by a committee of the legislature, or by any other means the legislature so chooses. About the only restriction placed on state legislatures is that they cannot appoint a member of Congress or any other federal officer to serve as a presidential elector.
In 21st century America, it’s easy to criticize the Framers of the Constitution for creating the electoral college and for not considering a role for the citizenry at large. But remember again that the Framers, while fearful of too much power in the hands of an autocrat or for those already in power, were also fearful of too much power in the hands of a mob. Hence they created this indirect presidential selection method.
The Framers created the electoral college system for several reasons:
- Ensure the indirect selection of the president and vice president – that is, allow states to choose the electors but then allow those electors to choose whomever they want for president. Nothing in the Constitution suggests or requires that the electors will be pledged to support a particular candidate. In fact every four years we face the prospect of “faithless electors”, that is, members of the electoral college who threaten to vote or who actually vote for a different candidate than the one to whom they are nominally pledged. “Faithless electors” have never altered the outcome of an election; the notion of independent electors making the presidential selection has never worked in practice. [Note: If the system of indirect election of the president has never worked as intended, you might ask why, after two centuries, do we still have it? Why, indeed!]
- Balance large states versus small states, and give an outsized influence to small states. This is why the number of electors in the electoral college assigned to each state equals the total number of Senators and Representatives for that state. Had the Framers not been persuaded by the fear of the small states being engulfed by the large states, then the electoral college might very well have been designed with only the number of seats in the House assigned to each state, rather than the total of the Senators and the Representatives. Including the number of Senators (two per state) gives an advantage to states with smaller populations. Yet large versus small states has never been an election issue. so perhaps we could safely dispense with the inherent advantage to those states with small populations.
- Encourage the selection of candidates who have a wide geographic following. The electoral college system makes it difficult for a candidate wildly popular in one state or region of the country to be elected president, if that candidate has little or no support elsewhere. (Note that this design has not always worked perfectly: We elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860 with support from only the Northern states.)
Of these three reasons for the electoral college, only the argument for wide appeal across all regions of the country seems to have relevance today.
The Constitution also provides a procedure for choosing the president when no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes. In that case, the House of Representatives chooses the president, but every state gets only one vote. Just about all Americans agree that letting the House pick the President would be a disaster for our democracy, making it exceedingly difficult for the ultimate winner to govern, especially if the House chose a candidate without a plurality of either the electoral vote or the popular vote.
At present, in every state except two (Nebraska and Maine), the candidate receiving the most popular votes in that state is awarded all the electoral votes in that state. In most states, the election in any given year has not been expected to be closely contested. Therefore, since all the electoral votes go to the winner in that state, most states are ignored throughout the presidential general election campaign. For example, in the general election campaign in 2016, what candidate bothered to campaign in Massachusetts (which Hillary Clinton won 61% to 34%) or Kansas (which Donald Trump won 57% to 36%)? Answer: no one. The voters in all but a handful of states were completely ignored.
In presidential elections, the electoral college combined with the winner-take-all system makes most of the states and most of the country’s voters irrelevant. Less populous states have an outsized influence on the outcome, since every state gets exactly two electors for their two Senators, regardless of the population of the state. For many recent presidential elections, only the so-called “swing states” matter. Many analyses of presidential campaigns have been published, showing that the 8 or 9 swing states receive all or nearly all of the campaign visits by the presidential candidates themselves during the last two months of the campaign, meaning that the other 41 states are ignored. This focus continues post-election: In their first year in office, the new president visits these same swing states most often.
The ultimate results of presidential elections sometimes appear perverse: In five of our presidential elections, the candidate who won the popular vote failed to win the Presidency.
After the 2016 election, a Pennsylvania political activist opined that the current electoral college system is just fine, observing that both major party candidates paid attention to Scranton and Harrisburg in the waning days of the campaign, and that they would not have done so if we had a system where the winner is the one receiving the most popular votes. The observation about the candidates paying attention to Scranton and Harrisburg is true, but the logic is backwards: How about the citizens of Los Angeles, who received no visits or attention from either party in the run-up to the election? Don’t those citizens also merit some attention?
The motivation to change the electoral college system is to make every vote count and to encourage candidates to attend to the concerns of voters in every state. National polls indicate that 70% of American voters would prefer a system in which the candidate for president receiving the most popular votes would be the winner of the election. But the best system might also encourage candidates to appeal to voters across the entire country rather than to voters in only one region.
By the way, I feel obliged to respond here to critics who have suggested that the winners of the 2000 and the 2016 presidential elections are somehow illegitimate because they did not win the popular vote. This is nonsense. George W Bush and Donald Trump won their elections based on the rules of the game at the time the game was played. Any criticism about their legitimacy is like claiming that the losing football team should be awarded the victory because they gained more yards than their opponent. I would say, if we do not like the rules of the game, then we must change the rules, but this only affects future contests. Who can say what might have happened if the rules had been different in 2000 or in 2016? Maybe the winners – Bush and Trump – would have employed different strategies, maybe they would have campaigned in California, and maybe they would have won the popular vote too. Let us be clear: The challenge is to fix the rules going forward, not to re-litigate the elections of the past.
An Interesting Historical Aside: The Election of 1788
Only 10 of the 13 original states submitted electoral votes in the first presidential election. Rhode Island and North Carolina could not participate because they had not yet ratified the Constitution. Only six states held a popular election to choose electors. Five states opted to let the state legislature choose electors, but New York’s legislature became deadlocked and so it cast no electoral votes. George Washington was unanimously elected president with 69 electoral votes. Everyone knew that Washington would win, but after that all bets were off. John Adams, with 34 electoral votes, came in second and became our first vice president.
The Framers expected most elections to end up in the House of Representatives. That actually happened after the elections of 1800 and 1824, but we have avoided any subsequent occurrences. (We did have a huge electoral mess in 1876, but that was for other reasons.) Today most Americans believe that the people should select the Chief Executive. Therefore, we would consider the notion of throwing the presidential election into the House as a constitutional crisis.
Source: United States Presidential Election, 1788–89. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1788-89 [accessed on June 6, 2017.]