By James A. Kidney
Among many lessons of this miserable 2016 presidential race, at least one is inescapable: Our current system of nominating candidates based on what is essentially a two-party duopoly has failed.
We have two major party candidates, each of whom a majority of the voting public dislikes, whether they vote for the candidate or not. Other than the elections of President Obama, it is difficult to find a quadrennial campaign since at least 1992 in which one of the two candidates was barely tolerated by the electorate. Often, it has been both.
Around the edge is the Libertarian Party, but history shows conclusively that third parties have not been
other than mischievous, pulling votes from one party or the other, sometimes, as in 2000, with a direct impact on results, but usually to no effect whatsoever.
Who awarded the Democratic and Republican Parties this plum assignment of choosing our candidates? Well, no one, really. Several Founding Fathers warned against the notion of political parties as both divisive and obstacles to selection of the best candidates. But they failed to establish any alternate mechanism to nomination, providing only the frustrating Electoral College in the Constitution and, by later amendment, relying on the House to break a tie vote.
This duopoly has behaved irresponsibly, in both different and similar ways.
- Allowing for the growth of a rigid party elite which has narrowed candidate choices and angered the rank-and-file.
- Permitting small, unrepresentative states to take the lead in primaries, thus giving some candidates a head start or an early defeat before the rest of the voters have even begun vetting their choices.
- Actively working to minimize voter participation wherever possible, such as by selecting caucuses over primaries and, especially the Democrats, when there is a primary, allocating delegates inconsistent with voting percentages. Republicans limit the franchise through legislation, imposing burdens on voting by claiming mythical fears of voter fraud.
- Again, the Democrats, limit accountable authority by creating a large category of “super delegates” who are not bound to any popular vote in any primary or caucus. These are party regulars who are “rewarded” by having the power to play a decisive role in selecting who you can vote for.
- Whether super delegates or the party elite, both parties and their congressional enablers are beholden to the super rich, who pay for conventions so that those whom they have funded during election years can party away while writing platforms that are meaningless and nominating candidates most people don’t want.
- The results of this duopoly demonstrate its remove from both the people and imagination: George W. Bush, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain, George Romney, Hillary Clinton. Of these, only Kerry and McCain can claim distinguished records on their own. The others more or less inherited or married into their notoriety. The Republicans and Democrats are like a collection of old timers at the Odd Fellows Club. They want predictability in succession and are fearful of the interloper. “Billy was a great lodge president in 2000. His son must be great, too. Let’s elect him.”
Superficially, Trump appears to be an exception to the idea that the parties are closed institutions. But he actually proves only that even the yahoos can only be fooled for so long before they revolt. As has been observed ad nauseum during this campaign, the GOP has been feeding the Great Unwashed junk food about tax cuts for the wealthy, trade agreements and how the corporatocracy must be catered to for so long that large numbers of the rank-and-file are killing themselves with opioids or committing suicide. It has dawned on the survivors that they are, at best, steerage on the Republican Titanic, for whom no lifeboats have been provided. People who are panicked do not make wise decisions. Thus, Trump.
Can this disastrous situation change? It won’t happen. Those who are in a position to effect change profit from the current system. It would take a constitutional amendment to change the system, an impossible task given who is in charge. But let’s pretend it is possible. What might change look like?
The Constitution provides almost plenary authority to Congress over elections for the House and Senate. Article 1, Section 4 provides that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations except as to the places of choosing senators.” (Emphasis supplied).
But no such authority is granted for election of the President. Rather, Article II, Section 1, provides for appointment of electors by state legislatures who vote for president and vice president. The 12th Amendment provides for breaking a tie by the House.
The Constitution provides no mechanism for nominating candidates for any office. The power of the state legislatures to select electors would seem to bar a federal role in the nominating process.
So, let’s amend the Constitution to provide a national primary for nominating candidates outside the party system. An amendment could permit something such as this:
Create a federal system for nominations with four separate primary dates, each with about one quarter of the electoral college votes up for grabs. The primaries would be about three weeks apart, enabling voters to assess the results of the earlier primaries when voting in the later ones. The top two vote getters (or three, if you wish) would become the nominees in a run-off in November.
One could get on the ballot by obtaining a significant number of signatures, such as 200,000, for each primary. The top five vote-getters in the first primary would automatically qualify for the second primary, plus whoever obtained 200,000 signatures for the second primary. The top five finishers in the second primary automatically qualify for the third, plus whoever obtained 250,000 signatures. The same for the fourth.
At least for now, state party systems would continue to nominate candidates for Congress.
Here is one way in which a four-day national primary could function. One could quibble over this proposal, arguing for better balance by region or state populations, but each primary day would have a mix of large and small states and regions. There would be no dictate by small and unrepresentative states such as New Hampshire and Iowa as to who takes the lead or takes an early header.
This neither pie-in-the-sky nor a true democracy ideal. Any candidate would have to have at least some significant following and resources to collect 250,000 signatures for the first primary date. He or she would then have to either be among the top five finishers or collect another quarter million signatures for the next primary. But this would still be more democratic than obtaining signatures in each state separately. Advertising and other costs would still be required for serious candidates. In fact, ads would become more important because it would make sense to begin national advertising early, given the wide range of states voting in each primary.
So the system is not one in which you or the guy you like down the street could just become president. Nor should it be. People of substance would be those who qualified. Political parties could help with gathering signatures and funding advertising (limits on advertising and funding is a separate issue from that discussed here). But they would not control the rules and they could not load the dice against equally popular and viable candidates.
Here is the language for a possible 28th Amendment:
The Electoral College system is hereby abolished.
Effective upon the presidential election following adoption of this Amendment, candidates for President in nationwide final voting shall be those two [or three] candidates who receive the largest total votes in four national primaries, which shall be scheduled by Congress at least one year in advance of the first national primary date to reflect a fair mix of state populations and regions in each national primary. These national primaries shall take place at least two weeks apart in the months of April through June before the national presidential election day, which shall be held no earlier than October 1 and no later than November 31.
The assignment of states to the four national primary dates shall be reviewed by the Supreme Court for fair distribution of states based on populations and regions. This review shall be completed at least nine months before the date of the first scheduled national primary.
Any person otherwise meeting the qualifications for President shall be placed on a primary ballot if that person presents a petition signed by at least 250,000 persons residing within the states participating in that primary. In addition, those candidates receiving the five highest vote totals in a previous national primary shall automatically be qualified to be listed as a candidate in the immediately following national primary.
Each nominee shall identify a vice presidential candidate to run for election with the nominee for president at least three months before the presidential election date.
Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”