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Fixing America’s Elections: An Outsider’s Perspective - Garwulf's Corner: The LiveJournal
The musings of Robert B. Marks - author, editor, publisher, and researcher

Robert B. Marks
Date: 2016-08-31 10:29
Subject: Fixing America’s Elections: An Outsider’s Perspective
Security: Public
Location:In my chair
Tags:american politics, democracy, elections
Back when I was in my first year of university, I took a political science course as one of my electives.  The content was split between two terms: the United States, and Africa.  I came out of the course amazed that the United States could govern itself at all – it was a system designed around preventing abuses of government power at all costs.  Any of the three branches of government – the Executive (the President), the Legislative (Congress and the Senate), and the Judicial (the higher courts) – could strike down the work of any of the others.  So if, for example, somebody manages to strong-man their way into the Presidency and corrupt one of the other branches, the third could serve as effective damage control.

This provides a lot of checks and balances, but it also (quite deliberately) makes the U.S. Government difficult to manage.  The idea was that the difficulty in getting anything done would force people to compromise, which in theory leads to a more just system built upon consensus.  As an unintended consequence, however, this also means that should any single branch of government become obstructionist, it could hold back the other two, and bring the business of governance to a screeching halt.

Flash forward to today, and the United States seems to be something of a mess right now when it comes to their most recent election.  Depending on where you stand, you could be looking at it as anything from a general breakdown in sanity to the impending doom of the Republican party to a desperate battle against socialist liberals.  Either way, as the election is being reported right now, the American system is looking badly broken.

In a lot of ways, this has come about because of over two centuries of people trying to find workarounds to get things done and otherwise game the system for their own ends.  Suggestions on how to fix it are not in small supply – even my little brother has thrown his own into the ring.  But all too many of them are dealing with the symptoms of the problem, while leaving the underlying issues untreated.  The American political system as it stands is fixable.  What follows are my suggestions, as a Canadian and an outsider, as to what might work.

1. Repeal Citizen’s United.

This is easily one of the more obvious things.  One of the problems in the current American system is the overwhelming influence held by corporate backers and wealthy interest groups.  A limit on campaign financing would help reduce this.

2. Put the burden of fundraising on the party or the politician’s staff, not the politician.

One of the more eye-opening John Oliver segments covered political fundraising, where serving congressmen have to spend an inordinate amount of time in call centres raising money from backers – to the point that this activity comes at the cost of being able attend committee meetings, aka the actual business of governance.  A side-effect of this is that people tend to prioritize what they spend most of their time doing.  If a congressman or senator spends most of their time in office trying to raise funds, this will – quite possibly unconsciously – give those who contribute even greater influence, which skews decisions towards what they want, rather than what the politician’s district as a whole, wants.

3. Limit who can create and air political advertisements to the campaign itself.

Back when I worked in social housing, there were firm limits on what I could talk about to the press.  The reason was simple: since I worked in a social housing provider, anything I said about social housing or related issues could be mistaken for official policy, even if it was only my opinion.  This is called controlling the message, and it is important.  One of the problems with the current political system, where people can create ads for political campaigns without being a part of these campaigns, is that the campaign in question ends up with little or no control over the message.  In a worst case scenario, it can also result in increased polarization and a politician being held and judged by promises and declarations that they never made.

4. Have an independent, non-partisan organization redraw all of the districts to remove gerrymandering.

Sad to say, gerrymandering – the manipulation of the borders of an electoral district to skew the result in a party’s favour by ensuring most of the population are its voters – remains alive and well in American politics.  This skews things both ways, however.  While it is true that in a gerrymandered district any other party is at a disadvantage, it also means that if that district moves towards the extreme right or left, the politicians must follow or be supplanted, regardless of if this does not represent the electorate as a whole in that area.  If the gerrymandered districts were redrawn, this would place both parties on an even footing in every district, and force them both back into a race for the middle.

5. Make the presidential candidate race more open and accountable.

This is another revelation from John Oliver – the actual process of selecting a presidential candidate can be extremely byzantine on both sides, with a number of bizarre rules extending far beyond “one person, one vote.”  The easier it is to understand how candidates are selected on a basic, fundamental level, the more faith moderates will have in the process, the more they will participate, and the less influence radical elements or demagogues will have.


These suggestions are the beginning of a possible solution.  But, the problem is a serious one.  Congressional approval remains below 20%, and the voter turnout in 2014 was only 36.4%.  These numbers speak for themselves – most of the American population has lost faith in the system, and those who do care enough to try to act through it are often on the extreme end of the spectrum.

To fix this requires measures that will help restore faith in the political process as a whole.  Get rid of gerrymandering and the byzantine rules for candidate selection, and the public can have faith that their vote will make a difference.  Limit who can advertise, and the message won’t get diluted or subverted by third parties.  Limit how much can be spent, and the election won’t feel bought and sold before the first vote is cast.  Regain the trust of the voters, and the moderates will return – and so much of the mess that exists right now will be cleaned up in the process.
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