8 Ways to Fix America’s Messed-Up Presidential Elections

Image result for empty voting precinct

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 the 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.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


7 thoughts on “8 Ways to Fix America’s Messed-Up Presidential Elections

  1. Some good thoughts, here. – and some counter-thoughts.

    “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, ….”

    Excellent point. Let’s raise the voting age to 35. That’s not entirely tongue-in-cheek. I had strong opinions when I was 19, many of which were based on naivete and misinformation. I should not have been making political decisions. We definitely want a prez with some years under their belt, be it a boy’s belt or a girl’s, so I am opposed to lowering that particular bar.

    ” If you cannot pass a simple test about the U.S. and its political system, you should not be allowed to run. ”

    Oh, HELL yeah. Neither Trump nor Bush II have any idea how the government is supposed to work. Contrast that to Obama who did know how it was supposed to work. (He just didn’t care.) And while we’re at it – economics, sociology, physics, math, chemistry, political science, psychology, philosophy and comparative religion.

    I’d be all for a religious test as well – just not of the sort the framers had in mind. I’m thinking questions like, “If you see a contradiction between the Laws of Man and The Law of God – which will you follow as president?” (For future discussion: should superstitious people be allowed office in the first place? By definition, they are making decisions based on something other than objective reality.)

    Not sure I like Ted’s suggestions on primaries, though. I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat. It’s altogether possible that I want to vote for one from column A and one from column B. Forcing me to choose one party undemocratically limits my choices. Not that CA has it right, either, but there’s Gotta Be A Better Way.

    The biggest mess of our primary system, though, is the way every state votes on a different day. What purpose does that serve? It just messes up an already messed-up system. Campaign, debate, vote. Done in One Day! On to November…

    • To CrazyH:

      Obumma new EXACTLY “how government is supposed to work.”

      That is, get a LOT more money to those whose most likely health care issue is the risk of choking on the piles of money they already have … delivered by previous presidents who were elected solely because they were deemed ready, willing and able to “serve” this elite constituency.

    • Funny, I was thinking the exact opposite. It feels right that people should be able to have a say proportional to how much a policy affects them. Conversely, It feels wrong that e.g. Brexit is going to have a much bigger cumulative impact on the lives of young people (who needless to say largely voted remain, while old people overwhelmingly voted leave).

      Why not hold a referendum on the green new deal with each vote multiplied by the distance to the mean life expectancy – i.e. a vote of a 16 year old would be multiplied by a factor of ~70 to account for the much longer timespan their lives are going to be weighted down by the current efforts to ensure environmental suicide?

      The one thing I do like about your idea is that increased voting age would have to be accompanied with a prohibition on army “service” for anyone below the age of 35 as well, fair is fair. After all, Old enough to fight, old enough to vote was the slogan they used to lower the voting age from 21 to 18…

      That would take away their cannon fodder, at least before they can outsource this to killer robots.

      • > each vote multiplied by the distance to the mean life expectancy

        I Li-i-i-ike it.*

        I’ve often advocated that laws should only be voted upon by those who are affected thereby. e.g. Gay marriage only affects gay people, so only gay people should be allowed to vote on the subject.

        Moreover, people should only be allowed to vote on subjects they understand. Doesn’t matter whether you agree, but you should to be capable of judging a matter on its merits before making it into law. Global warming comes to mind.

        However, we must file this discussion under “If I Were King” … ‘cuz there’s no way in hell I’ll give the government control over who gets to vote. (that would be filed under “the cure is worse than the disease”)

        *”every equation loses half your readers” – Benjamin Franklin

  2. Excellent, Ted.

    But WHO, exactly, will be implementing this program?

    Certainly not the law making/enforcing/interpreting branches of government who’s prior, and ongoing, “activities” have driven us to the point of desperately needing every one of your 8 points.

  3. One thing. I would remove all electronic aspects of voting. No Scantron sheets, no touchscreens. Voting should remain ritualized, presented as something from waybackthen. Why? It really is important to vote, but a computerization of it makes it just one more thing to squeeze into a day, like ordering a McDonald’s meal or googling trivia questions. Paper ballots, counted by hand, precinct after precinct.

  4. I was just re-reading this excellent column, when this caught my eye:

    “If a close family member by blood or marriage served as president or vice president, you should not run.”



    We don’t want dynasties, ‘tiz true – but Baby Bush is the only successful contender in modern times, and the only previous was John Adams and his son John. (The Presidents Roosevelt were 5th cousins) For all we know, Barron Trump will turn out to have the absolute best qualifications for the job in 2041. Should we deprive ourselves of the greatest president ever just ‘cuz his dad was the worst?

    The real problem here is the American fascination with celebrities, that’s a large part of what got Trump elected: he’s famous! He must be good! Bush was likewise elected on name recognition. Hillary failed but she worked it to the max. (She’s a strong, independent woman, right? Why didn’t she run as “Hillary Rodham”? Huh?) Fix the celebrity thing and the dynasty thing becomes moot.

    I propose a twist on Ted’s proposal: “If your brother is the governor of a big friggin’ swing state, you are absolutely not allowed to run.” Or perhaps “If any close family member is currently serving in a federal capacity…”

    “No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.” – John Adams