This upcoming Tuesday (Nov 6th, 2012) Americans get to vote on who will be the president of the United States for the next 4 years. I think many people all over the political spectrum see problems with the election process in this country. So let me throw my hat in the ring and provide some of the problems (and possible solutions) that I see. These have to do with the election of a president and not with the issues based on which we make that section…
Low Voter Turnout
Problem: In 2008, and stretching back through all of the 20th century, only about 50% of Americans who are eligible to vote actually vote. That puts us in 114th place in the world, right next to Mexico. Reasons for the low turnout include negative campaigning, distrust of government, low interest in politics, lack of belief in the efficacy of voting.
Solution: Making voting compulsory (required by law). Many countries do this, including Mexico who is next to us in 115th place, but what determines success is the degree to which this law is enforced. I believe that requiring that everyone votes will force the subject of politics into the minds of the apathetic to a degree where it will start popping up in bar conversations and “at the dinner table” much as it does in many European nations. I think that the problem is not so much that the turnout is low, but that the number of informed voters is low. If we don’t have a sense of civic duty, then perhaps we need to be forced to develop it. PS: Of course, being required to vote doesn’t mean you have to choose a candidate. It’s important that “none of the above” is an option for the people who are opposed to everyone running, and “not informed enough” is an option for the eternally undecided voter.
The Electoral College
Problem: First, a quick video on how the damn thing works:
48 of 50 states are winner-take-all, meaning that a candidate gets 100% of the votes from that state if they get the plurality (more than any other candidate). The result is that no candidate goes to California, New York, Texas or any other state that is solidly in the Democratic or Republican corners. In fact, there are only 9 swing states, or really just one: Ohio. That means the election process is not about fighting for the vote of every American but more focused on the vote of someone who lives in Ohio or Florida. The main problem is not that the majority of states are left out from the attention of the candidates, but that the absurdity of this fact causes many people to grow cynical and give up on politics all-together.
Solution: Abolish the electoral college. Of course, this solution is very difficult to make a reality, because the smaller states will never vote “yes” on it. The only hope is that Obama wins the election via the electoral college and loses the popular vote, much like George W Bush did in 2000. I think we can count on the Republicans to be far more outraged at such a result than the Democrats were (for better or for worse) in 2000. Perhaps that outrage can lead to actual reform, over the opposition of the smaller states.
Financing of Campaigns
Problem: I think can present the problem most clearly by giving a simple example. In 2012, two men (the Koch brothers) are projected to spend $300 million on Super PAC organizations running ads in support of Romney or in opposition of Obama. That’s more than the WHOLE budget ($260 million) of the McCain campaign in 2008. We are talking about the 1% of the 1% of the population having the majority of the financial power behind defining the issues that drive the campaign. Obama got the short end of the stick this cycle, being outspent in Super PACS ($330 million to $110 million so far), but it could go the other way next time around.
Solution: While this is an absurdly unjust element of the 2012 electoral process, I’m comforted by the fact that everyone hates this reality, including Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, and yes, both Clint Eastwood and Big Bird. So, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will eventually overturn the Citizens United ruling that allowed this kind of unlimited spending in the first place. The broader problem of campaign financing in general has to be addressed as well. Lawrence Lessig, for example, proposes a public financing system where every tax-paying citizen gets a $50 refund that has to be spent in support of a candidate of the person’s choosing. If there is one thing worth paying for, it’s democracy.