Published: Question of the Day (August 11, 2015)
The United States election system may not be fatally flawed, but in many ways it’s on life support.
Here are five reasons why that is the case:
1. We make it harder for people to vote.
For one thing, as Eric Black explained in an article for MinnPost, most democratic nations don’t require citizens to register to vote — it happens automatically. “In general, the governments know the names, ages and addresses of most of its citizens and — except in the United States — provide the appropriate polling place with a list of those qualified to vote,” Black writes. By requiring citizens to register, the American government adds an extra step to voting that increases the likelihood busy eligible citizens won’t bother to turn out on Election Day. In addition, Voter ID laws and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act (which required states with a history of discrimination in voting to obtain federal preclearance before changing their voting laws) has even further reduced voter turnout. In the 2014 midterm elections, the first to be held since the Supreme Court ruling, only 41.9 percent of eligible citizens turned out to vote, the lowest number since the Census started collecting voting activity in 1978. The decline was strongest among racial minorities and individuals with low incomes.
2. It is ridiculously expensive to campaign for a higher office in this country.
During the 2012 presidential election, the Obama and Romney campaigns each spent more than $1 billion each ($1.123 billion and $1.019 billion, respectively); during the 2014 midterm elections two years later, roughly $3.67 billion was spent in congressional races throughout the country. What’s more, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice determined that the influence of big money was increased by the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which ruled that campaign contributions by nonprofit corporations (later extended to for-profit corporations and labor unions) were protected by the First Amendment. Among its findings: Spending by Super PACs and other outside groups doubled between the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, PACs have spent more money in competitive races than the candidates themselves or the political parties, and more than $600 million of the more than $1 billion contributed to super PACs came from 195 individuals and their spouses — more than 60 percent of the total.
3. We gerrymander our legislative districts.
This practice is practically as old as America itself. Named after Vice President Elbridge Gerry, Gerrymandering is a process in which congressional districts are redrawn by the party in power to give it an unfair advantage in future elections. For instance, although President Obama’s reelection in 2012 helped Democratic congressional candidates win 1.4 million votes more than their Republican opponents, Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 census and midterm elections allowed them to maintain a 33-seat advantage in the House of Representatives. Even worse, there is a movement afoot to extend gerrymandering to presidential elections through various plans to only give the winner of a state’s popular vote two electoral college votes, with the rest being divided up by congressional district. This system is already in place in Maine and Nebraska. And speaking of the Electoral College…
4. The Electoral College diminishes the value of the popular vote.
When you vote in a presidential election, you aren’t actually selecting a presidential candidate, but rather for a slate of electors in the Electoral College. There are many disadvantages to the Electoral College system, including the possibility that it will elect a candidate who didn’t win the most popular votes (which has already happened four times, most recently in the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush), disproportionately increasing the importance of “swing states” (i.e., states with large allocations of electoral votes that could vote either Democrat or Republican), and allowing presidential candidates to ignore states that are either solidly for one particular party or too small to be politically valuable. Finally…
5. Our two-party system has encouraged divisiveness and gridlock.
According to a Pew Research Center study conducted last year, Americans are more divided by ideological lines — and those ideologies correspond more closely to their partisan affiliation — than at any other time in the last two decades. “The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%, and ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past,” the study reported. “As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” This goes a long way toward explaining the constant gridlock between the two parties — although most Americans would prefer bipartisanship, the ideological extremes within the Democratic and Republican organizations have disproportionate power in the nominating process and wind up forcing elected officials to eschew compromise.