Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The US Elections: Nelson's Notions

Some time ago, Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat from Florida, proposed some wide-sweeping changes to the way US presidents are elected.

On June 6th, he filed his proposals with Congress, where they are certain to die a slow and unnoticed death.

One of the problems with the bill is that it's just too ambitious. Nelson wants, for example, to scrap the Electoral College. Now there may well be quite sound arguments for doing just that, but the fact of the matter is, it just ain't going to happen. The College is part of the US Constitution and it's been chugging along gamely for over 200 years. It's doing quite well, thank you very much. There's just no way Congress will set it out to pasture, let alone that the required 75% of all states would give their ratification. After all, the Electoral College system works to the benefit of small states, which are in the majority.

One wonders, though, what would happen if Nelson had been a bit more humble and had limited his reform package to the primary election process. On that score, surely, his ideas make some sense.

Those ideas amount to the introduction of a regional primary season, running from March through June (the exact months aren't important, but the total duration is). The US would be divided into 6 regions, and each of these regions would get their turn to vote (with, I'm assuming, all the states of a given region voting on the same day). Next time round, the same thing applies, but the sequence of the voting revolves. That way, in the larger scheme of things, no region would have preference over the others.

I must admit I like this idea. Its advantages are obvious:
  • the duration of the primary season is shortened to three months or so, diminishing the chance that voters start changing their minds during the process and the candidate that ends up being the voters' choice loses because of a bad start;
  • the unseemly jostling of states to set their primary dates as early as possible is eliminated. This is important, because the state's interests in early voting are by no means congruent with a party's interests in adhering to a fair and balanced election process;
  • the system allows for focused campaigning by candidates, but widens the scope of the issues which they will have to focus on. It will simply become less feasible to atempt to pander to the voters of one state, only to turn around and attempt to pander to the voters in the next with a potentially different message.

This system would render the repeat of the 2008 Florida and Michgan debacle impossible, which in itself is a huge advantage. However, it does nothing to address the concerns that the Democratic primary seasons have revealed when it come to other shortcomings of the election process. More specifically, it does not address the problems concerning the significance (or lack thereof) of the popular vote or the doubts surrounding the role of the so-called superdelegates.

Because of this, I would imagine a few further changes might be in order:

  • Abolish the caucuses; mandate a primary-only system. I happen to like the idea of caucuses, but I don't really think you can have both caucuses and primaries and not get into a very real muddle when it comes to determining if the winner actually deserved to win. In 2008, Clinton's claim to having won the popular vote was probably false and should, strictly speaking, have been irrelevant, but it's clear that's not the way things work in the real world. So I think future bickering about such things really needs to be avoided;
  • Make pledged delegates stick to their pledges. That is: make it mandatory for pledged delegates to vote according to the outcome of their respective primaries. The current "good conscious" rule - which, in theory at least, allows for a pledged delegate to ignore the voters' wishes and vote for a different candidate during a party's convention - is frankly ridiculous;
  • Abolish the category of "add-on" superdelegates and limit the supers to representatives, senators, governors, and (former) presidents and House Speakers;
  • Limit the power of the supers to a block vote, and allow them to weigh in only if a candidate does not get a majority of the pledged delegate votes. Mandate that, in such an event, all the super-votes will be cast for a single candidate, to be determined on the basis of simple majority of supers.

These changes obviously strengthen the power of the voters in determining the candidate and should greatly diminish the rather murky political manoeuvering that goes on amongst the party insiders. After all, who on earth are all these supers? The so-called unpledged PLEO's - the Party Leaders and Elected Officials - well, we know a bit about them, by and large. But the others, the so-called add-ons? They're selected by the state parties, but on what grounds?

As for the block-vote rule: I would hope that this reflects the reason for having the supers in the first place. I believe they should only be of consequence if the electorate can't decide and I feel it's fair to force them to reach a consensus amongst themselves in the interests of their party.

Now, what would have happenen if this system had been in place during this year's primary? The answer is: who knows? The effects of the regional primary notion is anyone's guess. At most, one might assume that the system slightly favours the candidate who's the strongest as the race commences, since he or she might be expected to do well in the first region to vote, making it harder for opponents to catch up. However, that's just a guess; it would, of course, also depend on which region gets the first say.

Abolishing the caucuses would seem to have been in Cinton's favour, but again, that's speculation. Obama could still well have won the caucus states if they'd had held primaries, even though his victories may not have been as convincing.

One thing I am fairly sure about, though, is that the whole process would have been quite a bit more orderly and less confusing than it was now. I also feel that the potential for divisiveness - so surprisingly but resoundingly realised during this particular Democratic nomination - would probably not have existed.

So, while I don't think we're about to see an overhaul of the nomination process on anything like the scale described above, I do really hope some people give the matter the thought it surely deserves.

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