Making Federal Elections Truly Democratic

It is painfully clear that our electoral system for federal positions is totally dysfunctional.  It was rigged from the very first to prevent one-person-one-vote democracy.  It is also administered differently on state and even voting district level, even though the elected officials will be representing not just the district, or state that elected them (or the entire country in the case of the President).

The first thing we need to do is to recognize that the office of the Presidency is a NATIONAL office, and that the President has sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, which makes the President responsible for everybody in society, not just his or her ideological base, or those who actually voted for him or her.

In the case of the Senate and House, it is a bit more complicated, where each Congressperson has two, often diametrically opposed, responsibilities.  On one side, they as a body are responsible for creating legislation for the entire country.  On the flip side of that coin, however, each is elected to represent the welfare of a single state’s or district’s constituents, even when their district’s and the nation’s needs may differ.  Since their far more significant responsibility as members of the national legislature is to the entire society’s welfare, they, too, should be viewed as ‘national’ elected officials.

So, what’s dysfunctional with our current system, and what are some ideas for changing it for the better?

  • Any office that has anything to do with making or executing national policy should be subject to a common national standard of election rules.  The hours, types of machines, recount policies, eligibility, should not be in the hands of state politicians, but should be standardized for every polling place in the nation.
  • This standardization should be defined and overseen by a totally non-partisan federal organization with strong enforcement powers – say, a group organized along the line of The League of Women Voters.
  • All districts must use a voting system that prevents fraud and provides a guaranteed audit trail.  This is not beyond current technology and is done in other countries, where most, if not all, of our voting machines would be illegal.  Whatever the common machine is, whether it is a 40-year-old pull-lever machine, a paper ballot run through corruptible counting and totalizing machines, or a touch-screen system, the machine should, in addition to its normal tallying methodology, print out a paper ‘receipt’ for each voter.  The actual choices will be printed on this receipt and each voter would be expected to check it for accuracy before putting it into a slot in a sealed box, to be used as a secure recount audit trail.  Whenever a race is closer than a predetermined margin, the paper receipts will provide an accurate count.  Also, they can be used when there is any hanky-panky suspected about the official counts.  In addition, as a form of quality control, after each election, a certain percentage of machines selected at random will have their audit trails compared to their official counts, so that, even when there is no obvious sign of rigging or too-close-to-call results, there is an independent statistical check on the entire system.
  • Once a person is legally registered to vote, as long as that person continues to keep the registration current, no ID will be required.  Until recently, with the desperate nation-wide GOP voter-suppression efforts, when I walked into my polling place, the clerk would have my name and signature already listed in the list of registered voters.  I would just need to sign again and would be free to go over to a booth and cast my ballot.  Once legally registered, there is no reason to create ANY impediments to casting a vote.  Take the case of Pennsylvania’s new draconian voter ID law, supposedly intended to prevent voting fraud through impersonation.  Despite a massive effort by the Governor’s staff and state officials, they were unable to find a single case of fraud by impersonation in the entire history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
  • It should be a federal felony to implement any scheme intended to interfere with each citizen’s right to cast a vote, whether it is done through partisan political laws, or under-the-radar trickery like the cases where state Republican committees or operatives sent out mailings to voters in primarily Democratic and minority districts (as was common in the past several national elections) saying things like “due to the expected record high voter turnout in this election, the board of elections has decided that, to ease the crowding, all Republicans would vote on Tuesday and all Democrats would vote on Wednesday,” or official-looking notices that gave the deadline date for filing absentee ballots that was, in fact, two days after the election, or notices mailed out throughout Detroit in 2000, that clearly implied that any ‘criminal’ offense, even as minor as a traffic ticket, disqualified the voter and anybody with so much as a parking ticket on his or her record would be arrested on the spot if they tried to vote.  If the scheme can be demonstrated to have an intended or even unintended result of disenfranchising specific groups, based on race, likely political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other factor, the punishment upon conviction should be severe.
  • The question of poll station hours and irregular rules on early voting, can be solved with a very simple scheme.  During elections involving the entire country, all polling places would open at exactly midnight Greenwich Mean Time (UTC – Universal Coordinated Time), which would be 7:00 PM in the Eastern zone, and 4:00 PM in the Pacific zone.  The polls would close simultaneously exactly 24 hours later, at midnight UTC the next day (with the proviso that anybody still in line at closing time will be allowed to cast their ballot).  This has the twin advantages of giving every single voter a full 24-hour window to find time to vote, and eliminate the staggered poll closings that currently result in Eastern results being announced hours before the Western portion of the country’s polls have closed – often influencing ultimate turnout in states with later closing times.  This way, nobody will know how any other state has voted until ALL polls are closed.  Every vote will be seen to be of equal importance.
  • The current Electoral College system assures that peoples’ votes are not equal, and must be either modified or scrapped.  Each state has a given number of electoral votes calculated by the number of Representatives the state has (which is at least a relative measure of population) and an additional two votes for each state’s two Senators.  This extra two votes per state introduces dramatic imbalances into the number of people that are represented by each electoral vote.  For example, in the 2010 census, Wyoming had a total population of 568,300 citizens.  It had the minimum one Representative, for one electoral vote, and the standard two Senators for an additional two electoral votes – making up a total of 3 electoral votes, or one vote per  189,433 citizens in the 2012 and 2016 elections.  Rhode Island had a population of 1,055,247, so it had twice as many Representatives (2) plus two more votes for Senators, for a total of 4 electoral votes.  So, Rhode Island, with double the population of Wyoming, has only one third more electoral votes, not twice as many.  In RI, each electoral vote represents 263,812 citizens.  California had a population of 37,341,986, which gives them 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators), or one electoral vote to represent 678,945 citizens. A single Wyoming citizen’s vote is worth four times as much as a single Californians.
    • So, one solution that keeps the electoral college is to recalibrate electoral votes according to direct population (number of Representatives is a somewhat crude measure of this) and drop the extra votes assigned because of Senators.  With this method, still retaining electors, but bringing the state electoral counts in line with population, we should also eliminate the winner-take-all system of assigning votes, and assign votes proportionally according to each candidate’s vote percentage.    This will also have the advantage of allowing some electors to be assigned to smaller party candidates (more on this later).
    • Another solution is to do away entirely with the electoral college and make the Presidency decided totally on popular vote, with a majority of 50% + 1 needed.  In cases of three or more parties, where nobody gets a majority, the top two candidates would have a national run-off two weeks after the original election, under all of the same rules.
  • There is not a lot of room for improving the fairness of votes for Senators.  One thing that comes to mind is that each state provide for putting any candidate who can gather a requisite number of petition signatures on the ballot, rather than using party primaries, and then an open vote, with a two-person runoff if nobody gets 50% + 1.
  • There are two ways that I like for evening out the election of Representatives.  One way is to have districts redrawn by a computer algorithm according solely to census population figures each 10 years.  The software to accomplish this would be ‘open-source,’ and available publicly for any and all university computer science scholars and other independent experts to examine to assure that the software is not tainted or biased, and that it is as fair and accurate as it can be.
  • My preferred way to assign Representatives would do away with the idea of districts entirely.  Given that House members are under the most severe pressures of deciding between legislating for their own district’s interests and those of the entire country, the idea of districts seems a rather toxic one that we would be better off without.   As for Senators, anybody who wants to run for a seat in the House of Representatives would be free to be put on the slate by turning in a petition with a specific number of valid voter signatures (the actual amount to be decided according to the state’s total population).  Then, on election day, ALL candidates who qualified would be on the ballot and the number of House seats each state is assigned would be awarded to the top vote-getters in order.  That way we can weaken the total winner-take-all hold of the two-party system  at least in the House.  Right now, if a third party – say a vegetarian or green or libertarian party, is able to poll a steady 15% across districts in one or even all states, that party would still be shut out of ANY representation in Congress.  With this, however, smaller parties could win a proportional number of seats in the House based on the percentage of votes their candidates got in various states. This would help break up the two-party lock and also go a long way towards insuring that no single party gains powerful control of the entire House.
  • Now, we come to the most toxic aspect of the current system, and that is Money, Money, Money.  Right now, we no longer have a system where everybody’s vote counts equally and our elected officials speak for the constituencies who elect them.  They have to raise so much cash even to run for office, let alone remain in office, that they are perpetual fundraising/electioneering mode, and never really in governing mode.  If one person gives a Representative millions in campaign funding and another can only afford a hundred dollars – or even no money, just a vote – then whose needs and desires are going to get the most attention by the politician once in office?   The only solution to this is several quite radical changes.
    • I propose that all campaigns by candidates who have qualified for the ballot for President, Senator, or Representative be totally publicly funded.
    • All political campaigners should be granted equal time in all relevant media to explain what they perceive as problems in the current system and to elaborate on their ideas to overcome them.
    • Given 21st Century communications options, there is no longer any need for politicians to spend months holding staged town halls, traveling around kissing babies, raising funds, and eating local food specialties for photo ops.  We don’t need to waste either the time or money on what are basically meaningless staged side-shows.  This should be true for all aspiring candidates in petition drives as well as all candidates on the ballots.
    • There should be NO partisan political ads, whether paid for by the candidates, the parties, or third-party issue-oriented groups, whether real or front-groups be allowed for the 180 days leading up to each national election.  If any person or group attempts to run an ad, particularly a negative one, they should be required to reveal who paid for the ad and the media space, and, if the ad is judged to be a violation of the ban on partisan ads, punishments will be specified and the wronged candidate(s) should be given adequate forums to address the charges.
    • Today, so-called public figures are deprived of the legal protections of laws covering libel, slander, and truth in advertising.  I propose that we no longer exempt politicians from their legal rights under these laws (or any other public figure, for that matter).  If you make a defamatory claim against another person or party and can’t back it up with sufficient evidence as determined by a judge and jury, you should be subject to criminal or civil penalties just as if you were defaming your neighbor’s reputation.  The only defense of a defamatory statement is proving it true.
    • The election cycle itself should be limited to four months (the actual time can be debated, but it should be short from start to finish), from the first submission of petitions to the actual election day vote.
    • The non-partisan elections committee, either directly, or through some other mechanism such as the internet, should identify what the people list as what they believe to be the most pressing issues. Each candidate will be required to offer his or her opinion on and solutions for each of the issues, both in their media appearances, and on each candidate’s political website.
    • NO ad hominem abusive attacks attempting to deride, ridicule, or mock other candidates will be permitted, whether they come from political sources, media, call-in shows, or self-proclaimed pundits.  Anybody who does indulge in ad hominem attacks should be liable to be sued in a court of law for slander or libel, and should be required to “put up or shut up” or suffer a fine appropriate to the damage done, and/or jail time.  I favor jail time because, given the money of billionaires we are trying to eliminate from politics, fines, even very high ones, might be treated as just the price of doing dirty politics.  If some political slime-master (such as, say, Rush Limbaugh) realizes that he will face jail time, and not just have his fines paid off by the Koch brothers or a dozen other multi-billionaires, you will see a quick diminution to sleazy operators.  The same should be true of any web site that goes beyond arguing on merit and resorts to character assassination.
    • Remember, we are not selling toothpaste or patent medicines here (which would be under and subject to serious truth-in-advertising laws), but deciding who will act as the representatives of the Peoples’ Sovereignty.  If we can accept banning cigarette and liquor advertising, surely we can clean up politics.

 

Still under construction…check back periodically for more.

 

 

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