Fixing How We Elect a President

2016-03-18-1458308928-1863519-White_House_Washingtonsmaller.jpg Cezary Piwowarski/Creative Commons

The other evening I received a Facebook message from a student who had been in my freshman social studies class in 1992: "Can I buy you dinner one of these days so you can explain this extremely complicated election process to me? I'm sorry if that means I wasn't an ideal student twenty-plus years ago when you tried to teach me this stuff the first time."

My mother, who has been voting since 1968, calls regularly to ask election-related questions. After a long conversation about politics yesterday afternoon, she summed up the conversation thusly: "This is a very confusing way to elect a president!"

My former student and my mother are hardly alone in feeling lost. Many (most?) Americans are hard pressed to explain the difference between a caucus and a primary; between an open and closed primary; between a winner-take-all and a proportional delegate split; between a delegate and a super delegate; between an open or contested or brokered convention; and between a popular and an electoral vote.

The process is labyrinthine and dreadfully confusing. But must it be? Can we simplify this great quadrennial civic exercise? Make it more straightforward and citizen-friendly? I believe it's possible to do so -- before 2020. Here are a few reforms worth considering:

  • Caucuses are puzzling and chaotic. They consume a lot of time. By design, they eliminate the private ballot. And the viability threshold expunges the voices of those who support minority candidates. I'm not sure even I -- a teacher of government -- would participate in the mayhem of a caucus night. If our dozen caucus states opted next time around for an open primary system, like most of our states already have, it would place all citizens and all states on equal footing.

  • Another area of complaint for many is the length of the primary season. (This year's runs from February 1 to June 14.) With hopefuls declaring their candidacies up to two years prior to an election, the American people are long subjected to politicians in campaign mode. Shortening the primary season (for debates and voting) to three months, say March through May, would eliminate citizen and candidate burn out, while providing sufficient time to complete the job of picking nominees. We are well accustomed to the concept of Super Tuesday, so why not replace the current haphazard scheduling of primaries and caucuses with five Super Tuesdays of ten states chosen alphabetically going to primary polls every other Tuesday over a ten-week period? (A fringe benefit would be eliminating the undue influence of Iowa and New Hampshire.)
  • It's also time to rethink the number of debates. Two dozen is excessive. Voter fatigue sets in early. Perhaps seven examinations of candidates' positions via debate would be sufficient. Three could be held prior to the start of the primary season, with an additional four scheduled between each Super Tuesday, crafting a succinct calendar that would simplify the process for everyone. Maybe something along these lines:
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    • Speaking of debates, is there anything we can do to tone down the raucous affairs they have become? Debates should provide in-depth opportunities for candidates to engage in thoughtful, fact- and data-driven conversations about the social, economic, and foreign policy challenges facing the nation. Too often they do not. At the very least, can we eliminate the WWF-style cheering and jeering of ginned up audiences?

  • The manner of awarding delegates is impossible to track. Under the current regime, some states award delegates as winner-take-all; some award them proportionally, as long as a candidate receives at least ten percent (or twenty percent) of the popular vote; some award a chunk to the overall state winner and the rest are awarded by congressional district. And then there are the Super Delegates that smell anti-democratic and smack of elitism. Can we replace this convoluted system with a popular vote contest? The candidate with the most votes after a three-month primary season would automatically be designated the democratically-elected nominee of his/her party and be named such by June 1. Nominating conventions would morph into celebratory gatherings for the winning candidate's supporters and as rallying places for all of that party's faithful to unite in preparation for the general election in November.
  • A perpetual source of consternation and aggravation for many Americans is the Electoral College. This particular vestige of the Founders' fear of too much democracy ("mob rule," Jefferson called it) has in four elections -- 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 -- turned the White House over to a president who did not win the most popular votes. The Electoral College weakens the franchise and discourages voters. Electing our president by national popular vote honors the principle of "one person, one vote" and is the wish of a super-majority of citizens.
  • Presently just over half of the voting age population casts a ballot for president. The complexity of the current system -- in which many, justifiably so, don't even understand how their vote works -- is partly to blame. A simpler system will bring more voters to the ballot box. The share of citizens participating in the process would also increase if voter registration was automatic at 18; absentee voting in every state was a breeze; early voting of at least a week prior to Election Day was universal; and Election Day itself was named a federal holiday.
  • The American presidency is the most powerful office in the world. The president has the authority to launch a nuclear strike. How we choose that person should be a careful, thoughtful, and forthright process. Right now, it is not -- just ask my former student, my mother, and millions of other citizens. Over the next four years we have an opportunity to do our country a great favor by making the 2020 race an exemplar of consistency, transparency, and democratic simplicity.

    Rodney Wilson teaches American political systems at a community college in Missouri.