I can’t put 2016 in the rearview mirror fast enough. There were some positive highlights to be sure, especially in October when Sir Paul McCartney christened the sparkling new Golden 1 Center in Downtown Sacramento and I published my first book. However, between my brain tumor, the untimely death of a number of beloved sports, music and acting icons, the profusion of terrorist attacks worldwide, the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, the Zika virus epidemic, the resurgence of xenophobia and racism, and this year’s Presidential Election, this was the worst year in my memory.
Will 2017 be any better? I certain hope so. On a personal level, as I recover from successful brain surgery, my weakened right side continues to regain mobility and strength; it just hasn’t caught up with my left side yet. But on the world stage, with the Manchurian candidate Donald Trump in office, all bets are off.
Along with millions of others, I’ve been thinking about what went wrong with this election. I am not content to blame the usual suspects: Hillary Clinton’s inept and sometimes tone-deaf campaign; a weak Democratic party leadership; a power-hungry Republican party all too eager to embrace radical know-nothing zealotry, bigotry and anti-democratic tactics when conditions warrant, Vladimir Putin’s manipulation of America’s presidential election and its compliant media, and FBI Director Comey’s irresponsible last-minute intervention in the election. As troubling as all of these developments were, I believe we need to take a harder, deeper look at the more entrenched, fundamental problems with our electoral politics.
What’s wrong with American electoral politics?
First and foremost, presidential elections are not democratic and focus on only a dozen or so “battleground” states, relegating most of the country to secondary status. No major presidential nominee has bothered to come to California in the last 20 years to do anything other than raise money. Why? Because the public does not directly elect the President. Even though nearly three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton, the popular majority is stuck with Donald Trump because of a Rube Goldberg contraption of a voting system created 240 years ago as a compromise with rural, slaveowner states who were worried about the more populous North banding together to elect a President over the South’s objection, and maybe even voting to take away their slaves.
Second, Citizens United, Buckley v. Valeo, and other Supreme Court decisions have struck down all attempts to place monetary limits on campaign contributions and spending, allowing large moneyed interests to effectively buy elections. Money should not equate to speech.
Third, the two-party, win-all system has often stifled the best candidates from stepping forward and has tended to squash compromise or moderate candidates. Under this binary system, Abraham Lincoln never would have been elected President. Instead, Lincoln was elected under a system in which the person with the most second place votes could and did win on subsequent ballots.
Fourth, although the nation’s voting systems and procedures vary wildly from state to state, they invariably produce low voter turnouts and election results that are at risk for computer hacking and corruption. Laws and customs such as imposing burdensome and unnecessary voter identification requirements, holding Election Day on a Tuesday when many poor and working-class people have a hard time getting to the polls, gerrymandering legislative districts for blatantly partisan purposes, and prohibiting convicts from voting, combine to suppress voter turnout in general, but have a disproportionate and discriminatory effect on Black and Hispanic voters, in particular. It is ironic that a criminal conviction does not preclude someone from running for president, yet it prohibits most felony convicts from exercising their sacred right to vote.
Fifth, too many politicians reject science, particularly on climate change. This failure is particularly apparent on the Republican side, but some Democrats also ignore science on other issues when it is convenient to do so.
Sixth, there is an increasing lack of civil and intelligent discourse of ideas, which has been exacerbated by the increasing appearance of “fake news” and the decreasing tendency of the mainstream media to do their job. The media do not fact check often or timely enough and frequently draw false equivalencies in the name of "balance".
So the question becomes what can be done to solve these problems and change the way elections are held and covered in America?
My answer is that we need to make 10 major changes. The first two require constitutional amendments, but the rest could be accomplished through a better educated citizenry and a more civil but rigorous public discourse.
1. We should dump the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote for President. While we’re at it, we should eliminate party caucuses and require direct primaries in all states, which should be uniform from state to state and run by region, rather than allowing Iowa and New Hampshire outsized influence. Some additional reforms worth pursuing include shortening the campaign season and reducing the number of superdelegates who are not pledged to the primary winners. Of these reforms, only the elimination of the Electoral College requires a Constitutional Amendment; the others just require common sense.
2. The U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Citizens United, Buckley v Valeo, and their judicial progeny, which have struck down legislation that sought to place monetary limits on campaign contributions and spending, allowing large moneyed interests to effectively buy elections. Money should not equate to speech. We should also shorten the election campaign season and ensure equal time for candidates who reach a minimum level of support. On the negative side, unless the Supreme Court changes its rulings, this may require a Constitutional Amendment. On the positive side, the direct popular vote, overturn of the Supreme Court decisions and shortened campaign season could probably be rolled into one Constitutional Amendment.
3. State by state, we should consider experimenting with different voting systems. For example, in California and some other states, as well as most City Council and other municipal elections, we now have open primaries that allow everyone to run for a particular office without respect to their party affiliation. This favors moderates over radicals in both parties, and reduces the rancorous partisanship so evident in Congress. Another idea used in Oakland, San Francisco and many other cities, is Instant Runoff Voting, which replaces the primary and general election cycle with a single vote in which people rank the candidates in order of preference (or just the top two). Ballots are initially counted for each elector's top choice only. If no one wins 50 percent on that count, then the last candidate is removed and the ballots recounted to see if anyone wins 50 percent, and so on until there are only two remaining, as needed. Abraham Lincoln was nominated for President at a Republican convention using a similar system when no one got 50 percent on the first two ballots. In France, England and other countries in Europe, when there is a runoff election between the top two candidates, it is held just weeks after the primary election, thereby shortening the election season and the opportunity for mischief.
4. Until cyber security catches up with Russian and other hackers, we need a national threshold to ensure every state meets certain minimum requirements of security and efficiency.
5. Election Day should either be on a Saturday or Sunday, or Election Tuesday should be a holiday. In addition, absentee and early voting should become the norm throughout the nation.
6. The federal Department of Justice needs to monitor and act swiftly to eliminate voter suppression programs wherever they rear their ugly head.
7. Except for certain heinous crimes, such as murder and rape, felons should still be allowed to vote.
8. People need to quit electing politicians who reject science, particularly on climate change. Hopefully that will happen with changes 1 through 7 above.
9. If campaign seasons were shorter and moneyed interests more tightly regulated, it is possible that we could regain a certain measure of civil and intelligent discourse of ideas. But California and other states have proven that citizen involvement in the drawing of legislative districts and more open primaries also help moderate the more extreme and anti-democratic elements on all sides.
10. It also would help if the media did their job by fact-checking campaigns early and often and quit drawing false equivalencies in the name of "balance". These kinds of things can't be regulated, but with enough public attention to them, the media may start to cooperate.
These 10 measures alone wouldn’t solve all of our nation’s problems, but they would certainly change our politics for the better.