The United States is often celebrated as the world’s leading example of representative government. However, we as a nation barely inspire half of our voters to show up for a national election—leaving U.S. voter participation among the lowest in the developed world.
Americans don’t vote for a variety of reasons; however, one of the most common reasons is the growing frustration with our obtuse electoral process. From the arbitrary scheduling of primaries to the antiquated use of the Electoral College, the cumbersome nature of the American electoral system is discouraging more and more voters.
Comprehensive legislation isn’t necessary to radically reform our electoral process. Reasonable reforms continue to emerge, and are being offered by grassroots organizations who want to improve how we elect our leaders.
Reforming the Electoral College and Empowering Popular Vote
Following the 2000 Presidential election, the Electoral College was heavily scrutinized. The Electoral College negated the popular vote, which favored Al Gore, and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush. This was the third time in history that a president was elected without a plurality of the popular vote. (The others elected Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888.)
Critics claim that overriding the popular vote is undemocratic, and creates a technicality that negates the “one person, one vote” principle. Critics also highlight the fact that “swing states” receive the bulk of the attention from candidates, while less competitive states get ignored.
Furthermore, opposition voters in traditionally less competitive states—for example, California Republicans or Texas Democrats—are often disenfranchised by the “winner-takes-all” scenario created by the Electoral College. Research indicates that voters are more likely to turn out when races are more competitive.
Despite popular perception, amending the Constitution isn’t necessary to reform the Electoral College. Article II of the Constitution grants states the authority to determine the distribution of their electoral votes. For example, two states—Maine and Nebraska—offer an alternative model for other states to emulate.
Rather than winner takes all, each congressional district in these two states awards an electoral vote and the winner of the state’s popular vote receives an extra two votes. Meanwhile, the rest of the country simply follows the “winner-takes-all” model.
Another suggested reform is the National Popular Vote Interstate Contract (NPVIC). The NPVIC is a grassroots effort to encourage state governments to award all of their elector votes to whomever wins the national popular election—thus, negating the ability of the Electoral College to override the popular vote.
As of the date of this article publication, 11 states—Vermont, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, District of Colombia, Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and New York—have all agreed to the terms of the NPVIC. These states comprise 165 of the 270 majority electoral votes needed to elect the President of the United States.
Ranked Choice Voting and the “Spoiler Effect”
Another contentious issue manifested from the 2000 election: the role of the spoiler. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received a great deal of criticism for splitting votes that might have been directed toward Al Gore, based on both candidates’ relative appeal to left-of-center voters.
Though the criticism directed toward Nader is debatable, the concern that casting a vote for independent or third-party candidates would sabotage an election is something on the minds of voters.
Organizations like FairVote and the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting are leading the charge to reform our voting process, including reducing the impact of the spoiler effect. One recommended reform for alleviating this concern while still supporting an independent candidate is the use of a ranked choice voting system. (Some advocates also refer to this as an “instant runoff” system.)To better explain this proposal, it helps to consider a hypothetical situation. Let’s assume there are three candidates running for office. Candidate A is a mainstream candidate who you generally agree with on most issues. Candidate B is a lesser known candidate who you agree with more on the issues than Candidate A. Candidate C stands for everything you are against in politics, and you would hate to see him get elected.
In a traditional election, you might be more inclined to vote for Candidate A. Though you might be more ideologically aligned with Candidate B, you can’t shake the concern that his limited notoriety will hurt his chances of getting elected. Also, you are worried that support for Candidates A and B will be split, helping Candidate C get elected.
A ranked choice system allows voters the opportunity to rank their preferences for multiple candidates. You could hypothetically vote Candidate B as your first choice, and Candidate A as your runner up. After the first round of votes are counted, if no candidate receives the clear majority (as opposed to the traditional plurality winner in the current system), the bottom ranked candidate gets eliminated. If Candidate B receives less votes than the other candidates, then your vote would default to your second choice: Candidate A.
Ranked choice voting is beneficial for producing a winning candidate who better reflects the majority of voters’ ideological preferences. Also, the winner achieves a true majority victory.
This proposal could help third parties grow as well. Polls continue to demonstrate an interest in more than two parties for elections, but election results barely represent this interest. Ranked choice voting may help broaden the support that third parties need to gain traction in local, state, and national elections by removing the stigma of the spoiler effect.
Rescheduling Election Day
Why do we vote on a Tuesday? If you asked our elected leaders this question, you might actually stump them.
Voting in a premodern American election meant a day’s ride for many voters via horse and buggy. Traveling on the Sabbath was discouraged, and most market days took place on Wednesday for our predominately agrarian economy. As a result, the burden of the travel day fell upon Monday, followed by a quick casting of the ballot Tuesday morning, and the ensuing round trip back to the farm for the rest of the day.
Congress codified this logic in 1845 by designating the first Tuesday of November every other year as Election Day. And very little has changed about this practice ever since.
That is, until now.
A bipartisan group named Why Tuesday? began a campaign to address this antiquated practice. Armed with a mission to “raise awareness about America’s low voter turnout and the broken state of our voting system,” Why Tuesday? helped draft the Weekend Voting Act, a piece of legislation that would turn our age-old practice of voting on Tuesdays to a multi-day affair on the following weekend.
With the traditional Monday through Friday work week in mind, this change could potentially improve voter turnout.
Moving voting to the weekend is one option on the table for discussion. Other reforms include making Election Day a designated federal holiday (Bernie Sanders suggests the name “Democracy Day”) or scheduling elections to take place on an already existing holiday (some have suggested Veterans Day or Columbus Day).
When you think about it, the American system of primaries and caucuses is a state-by-state mess. Each state differs in their practice. Some are open to independent voters; others require party affiliation. Each state has their specially designated day, allowing for the disproportionate influence of those states who are scheduled first.
Furthermore, the entire process is long and drawn out.
Joh Nichols of The Nation pokes fun at our ongoing debate regarding church-state separation when campaign signs have to share space with Nativity scenes in December—11 months out from Election Day.
Growing proof shows that the arbitrary nature of the primary process discourages participation. A report by American University found that turnouts for primaries have fallen from 30 percent in 1962 to 17 percent in 2010.
So what can be done about this deeply-imbedded and drawn out electoral spectacle that occurs every four years?
One such suggestion includes the “Rotating Regional Plan.” Under this proposal, the country would be divided into four distinct regions whose order of primary elections switches each cycle. Also, the order can be determined by a lottery system, so that candidates wouldn’t be able to frontload their campaigns.
Other models developed by Fix the Primaries include “backloading” the schedule. Also known as the “American Plan,” contests in this model are scheduled in less populated states first, and work up to the larger ones last. The idea is that smaller states require less resources for campaigning, providing more opportunities for lesser known candidates to gain merit during an election.
There are other variations of the concept, also known as the “Delaware Plan.”
The topic of electoral reform is not limited to these four issues. There is a myriad of passionate individuals and groups working on ways to improve how we facilitate the election of those who seek office in the United States. With new reforms, voters might be more inclined to participate in the civic process—something that we all can agree is a vital component to any thriving representative government.