In 2016 there were 17 major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, so many they had to have two sets of debates—and the guy who won was the first of all. Seven pundit-viable candidates have declared for 2020 on the Democratic side, more probably on the way, yet many Democrats say they’re not excited by any of them.
There must be a better way.
Presidential campaigns could be improved—streamlined, made more relevant to more voters and their worries, and likelier to result in better outcomes—and it wouldn’t require revolutionary change, just common-sense reforms.
In a representative democracy the goal ought not to be engagement for its own sake. You want voters to vote because they’re vested in the outcome; you want candidates who, after they’re elected, work hard to fix the biggest problems. The ideal politician is responsive and accountable to the citizenry. Otherwise people look at politics and think “what a load of crap, it makes no difference to me.”
First, take a step back: get rid of jungle primaries and open primaries. Both of these newfangled experiments were marketed as ways to increase voter turnout and encourage moderation. They don’t.
In a jungle or open-participation primary like in California the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a second final round. Trouble is, both might be from the same party, disenfranchising the other party’s voters during the general election. If one party’s candidates split the vote, the minority party can win. Either scenario depresses voter interest and participation. In an open primary voters can cross party lines to vote in the other party’s primary. Studies show that open primaries do not result in victories by more moderate candidates (assuming that’s desirable); Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign shows what happens when a party whose electorate has moved way left is asked to turn out for a centrist.
Either we have parties and party identification or we don’t. Jungle and open primaries are mere mush.
Second, amend Article II of the Constitution. The requirement that only “natural born” citizens over age 35 may run for president ought to be abolished. If you’re mature enough to decide who gets to hold an office, you can hold it. The “natural born” requirement effectively turns naturalized Americans like Arnold Schwarzenegger into second-class citizens and opens the door to stupid discussions like whether John McCain, born in the former Panama Canal Zone, and Ted Cruz (born in Canada) qualifies. France, Germany, Great Britain and Israel are some of the countries that allow naturalized citizens to become head of state.
Opening the presidency to talented young politicians like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (age 29) would reduce the (accurate) perception that top-tier U.S. politics is a hetero white male game.
Third, give presidential debates back to the League of Women Voters. The LWV passed the sponsorship torch to the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1988 because the two parties wanted to control “the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.” Then-League president Nancy Neuman complained at the time: “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.”
Neuman was prescient: since 1988 the debates have become soft-ball pabulum. Controlled by the two parties, the Commission excludes third-party candidates from participating. In 2012 the Commission even had Green Party presidential candidate tied to a chair for eight hours for the crime of trying to participate in democracy. The LWV wasn’t perfect but it was independent.
Fourth, level the campaign financing playing field. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision that enshrined pay-to-play can be abolished with the passage of a bill limiting or controlling outside donations. As with food, France does it better: whereas top individual donors to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave more than $20 million each, the cap is €7,500 in France. There are two rounds in French presidential elections. Spending is severely restricted. “To help even out the playing field a little between bigger and smaller parties, campaign expenses can’t legally go over a certain threshold, €16.8 million for the first round, and €22.5 million for the second round,” according to The Local. That’s tiny compared to the $2.6 billion spent by Clinton and Trump in 2016.
U.S.-style political TV ads are banned in France. No matter how small their party, each candidate gets a small number of official statements on the air. In the second-round general election, the airtime of each candidate is exactly equal.
Like France, we can and should limit campaign spending to give new and outside voices an equal chance at getting their opinions out to voters.
Fifth, make voting simultaneous and easier. The major flaw with early voting is, what if big campaign news—one of the candidates talking about “grabbing their pussy,” say—breaks after you voted in October? It’s not like you can take your vote back. Make Election Day a national holiday (as it is in most developed countries) and let people vote on their computers or smartphones. 89% of Americans use the Internet; two out of three do their banking online. How great would it be if candidates’ policy positions and detailed explanations of ballot initiatives could be linked directly via an election app?
Sixth, and most likely to be controversial, is my list of American citizens who should not be permitted to run for president.
If you’re an incumbent officeholder, you should not run. Finish your term first, complete your commitment to the voters of your state or district.
If you cannot pass a simple test about the U.S. and its political system, you should not be allowed to run. We’ve had too many idiot presidents already. What is the Second Amendment? What is the capital of Puerto Rico? Which branch of government may declare war? How many members are there in Congress? Ten questions, you must correctly answer seven.
If you own investments in a business, stock or other investments, or hold office in a company, you should not present yourself as a candidate for the presidency. Conflicts of interest should not be permitted; divest and stick your cash in a 0.3% annual interest savings account. Serve the people, not yourself.
If a close family member by blood or marriage served as president or vice president, you should not run. Your spouse served? Your sibling? Your parent? Find another job. America is a big country and not a hereditary monarchy; give someone from another family a chance.
Seventh: abolish the Electoral College.
Eighth: make it easier for third parties to run by loosening ballot-access rules. Reduce the number of signatures required to get on the ballot. Get rid of laws requiring that you get certain percent of the vote. More choices means more options means greater likelihood that you agree with someone who’s on the ballot.