Election Reform


Voting is our primary instrument for civic engagement. For the Federalist Papers it is the only one our founders approved without qualification. Today, too few people vote, particularly in municipal elections, the place that actually matters most to everyday life. National and state elections demand so much money for campaigns that winners tend to be those who can raise the most money, not those with the best ideas. Campaigns have thus become devoid of thought, reduced in many case to splattering mud on the competition in fifteen second soundbites or 140 words on Twitter.

There is no short-term solution to these problems. But the long-term solution is moving all elections and campaigning to the Internet. This is unlikely to happen from within the system itself. If must be pressed in from outside. We propose here a series of steps that will push our country in that direction, first at local levels, and when successful at local levels, gradually migrating to state and national levels. First actions direct themselves to voting. But the foundations will be built on Internet programs for information distribution, candidate platforms, campaign debates, and in the end voting on the Internet.

While this will take organization, patience, and persistence, this type of campaign is entirely within the knowledge and experience base of most of us. It may also be the most important in the long run. We are not likely to solve our problems with health care, education, or homelessness with what we know now. But voting is there for the asking. So we ask.

Need for Reform

We hardly need to argue for election reform. But we should lay out the reasons, in the hopes of isolating causes from effects; we have to reshape the causes, not attack the effects.

The symptoms are these.

(1) Not enough people vote, particularly at elections in the off years of presidential elections, elections that are only local, and elections for special districts or issues. Turnout in municipal-only elections (in odd years) is less than 15% across the country.

(2) Issues are seldom really discussed at national elections and many state-level elections. They are conducted on the basis of party affiliation, personality, and slinging mud at the opponents.

(3) Elections are largely conducted on television and social media, which outlets discourage or prevent any thoughtful presentation of issues that take more than 15 seconds, leading to the general pattern of negative campaigns.

(4) The costs of television advertising, getting out the vote, and legal matters have made campaigns very expensive, even some city-wide campaigns. Raising money has become the principal job of any candidate for state or federal office, and often helps city offices for large cities.

(5) Popular knowledge of issues and the way our government works is very low. This problem is exacerbated by the drift of media to one side or the other of the ideological spectrum. Fox News has become an oxymoron, a self-cancelling term. The New York Times, still wedded to telling the truth, nevertheless has blue in its blood, telling the truths that serve the left much more than truths that serve the right. (We must say, in defense of the Times, that the right has become increasingly irrelevant, increasingly conflicted within, and now so tied to obvious lies that admitting the value of individualism, limited government, state’s rights, family values, personal responsibility, virtue, and the powers of the free market would not be a convincing balancing act. The distance between these traditional core Republican values and what our last Republican President promised, what he actually did as President, and what the country actually needs is so vast and tortured that we find it difficult to even write them out. Indeed, his own speeches since leaving office and the media treatment of him have nothing to do with public policy or Republican ideology. In our view the most independent domestic news source remains NPR, the best international news source the BBC.)

(6) This last problem has led those interested in politics to restrict their news and information resources to the ones aligning with their own political dispositions, reinforcing them, and thereby restricting any constructive or creative thinking. This had led to polarization among those who are politically active (perhaps 20% of the country) and confusion for the balance, which confusion tends to stifle interest and growth.

(7) States have become quite predictable relative to national elections. The coastal states in the west and those above Virginia in the east are blue, the deep south is red, the small, agricultural states are red, and the midwest is largely red. Taken as a whole, the country tilts blue, but our Constitution has given much too much power to individual states, creating preferential power to the small states. This has led federal elections to concentrate on a few swing states and ignore the others.

Some causes:

Chart, bubble chart

Description automatically generated

(1) Our problems have become increasingly complex, hard to understand, and hence hard to solve. This has led to an increasing distance between what is necessary to understand our problems and the capacities of our common media platforms to supply it. Internet media, particularly Wikipedia and YouTube, have narrowed the information gap in many cases, but the complexities of problems with health care, education, substance abuse, immigration, race relations, the wage gap, homelessness, poverty, affordable housing, mental health, supply chains, virus management, global warming, and cyberterrorism to name a few have raced past what these facilities can provide. They have also raced past what our elected leaders can understand, or try to understand.

(2) The administrative state lies outside the ambit of our elected leaders for the most part now, making them seem less and less relevant. Republicans promise to cut expenses and then spend more money when in office because they have to. Democrats promise to spend more money to solve problems, do so, but problems may ease but do not get solved.

(3) Raising money as the first requirement for running for public office restricts the range of suitable candidates on criteria that has nothing to do with effective governance. Moreover, the time required to raise money and please those who give it have sapped those in elective office. Among the damages of this phenomenon is the gutting of relationships among elected leaders. Before television because the medium of choice for elections, senators and representatives in Washington stayed there on the weekends, partied together, did things together, creating a culture of friendship that crossed the aisle. That has been lost. Mutual animosities have replaced mutual respect. Among the more obvious and disturbing consequences of this detachment is block voting on the floor, all Democrats voting one way, all Republican voting the other. It has also led to the election of individuals who are notoriously ignorant of the issues, spend all their public time in some kind of self-made sandbox, slinging vituperations and fantasies to get media time, which the media unfortunately provides. Our last Republican President is the poster child for this phenomenon, but it goes back a few decades. We know these elected officials far better than those who actually take the time to think.

(4) Our schools never taught its students enough about our political system. We submit that this web site is far beyond what most students ever got in school. But this problem is now much worse. Our elite colleges offer a cafeteria concept of courses for civics understanding. Some high schools force students to work their way through Federalist 10 as if it explains our government; Federalist 10 says nothing about our government. Wonder ye not that more than half those surveyed by Pew could not name the three branches of government.

What Will Not Work

A close-up of pills

Description automatically generated with low confidence

1. It is commonplace now to blame our election troubles on money, with the easy answer coming down to limiting campaign expenses. We claim that the dependence on money is an effect, not a cause, and the arbitrary imposition of financial limits on campaigns would not help much and would likely be worked around for national office anyway. How could the state stop independent agencies from promoting a particular candidate or proposition with as much money as they wish and still hold up the First Amendment? The Supreme Court ruling in 2010 Citizens United v Federal Election Commission that removed limitations on corporate campaign contributions has the smell of a conservative Court (it reversed two previous rulings of less conservative Courts, although they were not liberal courts), but it conforms with a long-standing Court treatment of private corporations as persons, dating back to landmark 1819 Dartmouth College v Woodward which granted Dartmouth, a private university, rights under the contract clause of the Constitution. Treating corporations as persons has led to corporations having more rights and being subject to more responsibility, say, for things like fair employment practices.

2. We are also not convinced that education at the level suggested by NAEP solves any real problems with elections. (It would solve a lot of other problems.) The first job is to get many more people to vote, particularly minorities and the poor who vote in much smaller proportions then college educated white people. Knowing how our government works (particularly as it is portrayed on this web site) may be a disincentive. Knowing more about the issues would be far more important. If candidates felt they had a discriminating audience that grasped issues and the real alternatives before them, they would be forced to actually address them, maybe even summon some convincing and well-defended new ideas, just for the startling effect such would have if not the substance.

3. It is also likely that government regulations demanding voting would be vigorously opposed by Republicans and suspected by Democrats as an unwarranted conversion of a right into an obligation that few would want universalized, that is, applied to other subjects. Yes, we oblige people to go to school for a period of time, to have a driver’s license if they drive, pay taxes if they are owed, obey building codes when constructing a new house. But we have fallen way short of such obligations relative to, for example, obesity, going to the dentist or primary care physician, attending college, joining the military, reading particular books, wearing particular clothes, saying prayers or the Pledge of Allegiance in school, or stopping smoking. If we have the right to vote we have the right not to vote.

What are Useful Targets

A group of people standing outside

Description automatically generated with low confidence

1. As just noted, the essential first target is getting more people to vote, regardless of party or preference. It is the case that almost any successful effort along these lines in red states would increase Democrat more than Republican voting, but even deep red states have no power to prevent campaigns that increase voter registration and voting even as they work to make it more difficult for minorities to vote on grounds that they disproportionally vote for Democrats.

2. The next logical target is to get candidates to say useful things. This will be difficult. Until the manner of elections either obliges or forces much longer presentations than television and social media permit, the benefits of actually addressing key issues with new ideas will be limited by the limitations of venues. Even candidates who try to say things (say, Elizabeth Warren) find themselves limited to a few paragraphs on a web site, far too little space to treat a tough subject seriously, and we have nothing but tough subjects now.

3. The next logical target is real candidate debates after they have produced some ideas with depth and penetration (they do not have to be new, but they do have to be explained and defended).

4. So far we have avoided suggesting anything that requires actions by our governments. This is in keeping with our view that governments of our type must be forced to change by citizen demands, which in this case requires prior changes among citizens. However, we not only vote on people, we often vote on laws at state and local levels. For such votes knowing more will generally be better than knowing less.

How to Get There

1. The essential end game for election reform is holding all elections over the Internet, even voting. It is probable that elections over the Internet will materialize naturally as forms of identification and verification become secure enough to warrant on-line voting. However, without a push this will take a decade or more and be obstructed by Republicans (who will be harmed by increases in the number of voters, particularly young voters if current assessments hold over time). So, we will restrict our suggestions here to all the processes required before voting that may be, and should be, performed on the Internet. To the extent we can move the mechanics of voter registration, voter turn-out, information, campaign statements, and debates to the Internet is the extent to which money is removed from election culture and new habits of voter participation will form, for the better.

2. Any movement in the direction suggested here must be started in local elections, preferably in local-only elections. The starting place should be a local committee that can devote time to the task. We are hopeful that a companion site will be developed soon that will assist the formation of such committees, guide their work, share ideas that emerge from other efforts, record work, and migrate to on-line tools for precinct list management, voter tracking, election day tracking, candidate positions, proposition positions, and candidate exchange through on-line debates. While committees may be more naturally formed around parties, we urge that committees be party neutral. One good reason for party neutrality is the possibility of either forming a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation or working within an existing 501(c)(3). A second reason is to encourage exchanges between or among candidates from both parties on one platform. As we find with diversity generally, contending opinions expressed in the open with responses will force more responsible and responsive positions and often lead to something new, something neither party thought of before, particularly if carefully moderated. It would be interesting to have a qualitied Republican (there are some) and a qualified Democrat (there are some) work over ideas for homelessness, or health care (or aspects of health care, the whole thing too big to grasp), or managing the now certain effects of global warming without arguing about causes, or Title IX applied to things other than athletics.

3. The next five suggestions scale up in terms of commitment and complexity. The first is getting people registered to vote. Surprisingly, experience suggests that this is easier for a group free of party attachment than ones promoting a party. You are not asking people to vote for a candidate or an ideology; you are just asking them to vote. Almost all cities and towns now have records of those registered now and those living there. Go for the gaps.

4. Then get people who are registered to actually vote. Again, this is easier if not asking them to vote for a particular party. This takes organization, but is a common process with many already experienced at it. However, it helps to have good records that indicate those with handicaps, who need transportation, who are willing to be called on election day (the most common form of getting out the vote), and where people should vote. In states with early voting, this process should be started as soon as the voting period begins. In states with mail-in ballots, you should not only encourage it, but offer any assistance in how to fill out and mail in the ballots.

5. The step up is to work in a campaign, you as an individual; the campaign will already be organized. Now you must leave your claim for independence. Political campaigns will teach you many things, not all of them positive. One is the grasp of issues the candidate possesses which is far in excess of what he or she can say in public, most particularly his or her reservations about their views on certain subjects. Most politicians know what they do not know and its consequences.

6. Next, and this will be the key move, organize with a group a web site in your city or town that will post candidate arguments and debates for an upcoming local election (could be with state and national offices as well). Solicit participation by candidates likely to lose, but have something to say. Provide a template for their proposals that encourages innovations but reflects an understanding of the issues, which understanding may be reflected in tutorials offered by the candidates. Curate these responses to insure the most effective arguments and the least amount of demeaning the opposition, including those of the same party. Organize an on-line debate, inviting all candidates, either using Zoom or written commentary. Promote the site as much as possible. If you are within a 501(c)(3), you may have financial resources at your disposal. As you do this things will surface to make the site more valuable, such as information resources on critical issues, reports from experts or think tanks, the relative laws, the nature of the problems, and any recent actions by the local legislative assembly, such as a Board of Supervisors. Repeat. The point, or hope, is that candidates with real chances will find the venue a necessary part of electoral procedures and think their way through to their own proposals. Selling this to a sympathetic mayor would be helpful.

Note that most local elections involve issues that people not only understand to some degree, but will consider part of their own conditions of living. A serious rethink of park subsidies and maintenance or dog regulations will attract far more people than farm subsidies or corporate finance regulations. Here is the place to start, close to home. If we can build habits around local elections that favor real knowledge and candidates with real understanding of our problems and innovative answers to their remediation, it will be all but irresistible that pressures in similar directions will be applied to state and federal elections.

7. By the time you have managed this there will likely be a national organization devoted to election reform among other types of civic engagement that will accumulate these individual initiatives and roll them into a national effort that will start to encompass federal elections.

Stories Around the Unwritten Constitution