We need to replace the presidential primary system
Note: This article recycles many aspects of recent articles, but I have made significant changes like the addition of a triple-backup-20 percent threshold rule and this article puts more emphasis on the flaws of the current presidential primary system.
The 2016 primary elections were a painful experience for a lot of Americans. The toxicity from both of these primaries helped fuel a general election that was an even more painful experience. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had historically low approval ratings compared to past candidates running for President, so a depressing number of Americans felt they were choosing “the lesser of two evils” and a lot Americans decided to not vote out of frustration.
There is a strong possibility that the 2020 primary elections and the general election in November of 2020 could be worse. The election could be extremely chaotic if somebody like Jeff Flake, John Kasich, or Mitt Romney challenges President Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination. If the challenger beats President Trump, then Trump might run as an independent. The other possibility is that nobody challenges Trump in the primary, but a conservative runs as a 3rd party candidate like Evan McMullin did in 2016. Within the Democratic Party there is a lot of tension between moderates and left-leaning progressives over issues like Medicare-for-all. If a more progressive candidate wins the primary, there are increased odds that somebody like Michael Bloomberg will run as a center-left independent. On the flip side of this scenario: if a more moderate Democrat wins there are increased odds that somebody from the progressive wing of the party may run as an independent candidate or the progressive wing will mobilize behind one of 3rd parties that usually qualify for ballot access like Jill Stein of the Green Party.
These potential scenarios mean that in the near future we could have an election like the 1912 Presidential Election when Theodore Roosevelt was so frustrated with fellow Republican William Howard Taft that he formed the Progressive Party (commonly called the Bull Moose Party). This decision split the Republican vote and allowed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson to win a landslide 81.7% of the Electoral College votes while only receiving 41.8% of the popular vote.
In addition, the increased odds that a 3rd party candidate will win Electoral College votes means we might have to dust off the 12th Amendment that is invoked when no candidate wins the 270 vote majority on Election Day. This means that the House and Senate would choose the next President and the Vice-President. With the rise of information bubbles and social media, a 12th Amendment election could cause a dangerous escalation of the current partisan tribalism.
The 1912 Presidential election is a vivid example of the weaknesses of our first-past-the-past voting system (FPTP). In FPTP elections, it’s possible for a candidate to win by substantially less than a majority if votes are split up across three or more candidates. So, smaller parties have a tendency to merge into two coalition parties to make it easier to win elections. This tendency for the formation of two parties is especially strong in democracies where the chief executive is directly elected and has a lot of power like President of the United States. (In political science journals this tendency is called Duverger’s Law.) By voting for the smaller parties, voters can make it easier for a candidate they really don’t like to win. This frustrating outcome is also known as the spoiler effect.
If we carefully study how other advanced democracies successfully avoid these frustrations and study the original goals of the American Constitution, we can replace the flawed presidential primary system with a far better alternative. This plan carefully restructures the small state protections of Congress, uses a state-based proportional representation system with a triple-backup-20% threshold to avoid an excessive number of parties, and switches this country to the parliamentary system like almost every other advanced democracy in the world. Parties may still have primary elections to choose the leader of each party and potential President, but the demand for these elections will immediately decrease. Because voters would now have the ability to vote for multiple parties, the people who want to shift the ideology of an party no longer need primary elections to achieve their goals.
A major benefit to adopting a parliamentary system is that this change addresses growing bipartisan concerns that the post-World War 2 executive branch has gained too much power from the legislative branch. The constant gridlock between the executive and legislative branches is causing many Americans to lose faith in democracy. This loss of faith is troubling because the presidential system is far more vulnerable to the rise of dictatorships as pointed out by the well-respected Yale political scientist Juan Linz who observed in a 1990 article called the “Perils of Presidentialism” that “aside from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government.” There are a lot of reasons why the American presidential system has lasted longer than other presidential systems, but there’s always the grim possibility that American democracy will face far greater challenges than the Great Depression or World War 2. We should do some “future-proofing” now to give future generations a better Constitution to help them maintain democratic values during challenges we can’t even imagine.
This plan is such a big change that it’s impossible to know which of the two parties will benefit. The inability to determine who will benefit was a deliberate choice because neutrality is essential in order to convince three-quarters of the state legislatures to ratify this amendment.
Both parties will have to completely rethink their campaign strategies in the absence of Electoral College battleground states and voters will think about politics in a different way when they more than two choices.
To any high-ranking members of the two major parties reading this article: yes, this plan could reduce the power of your party, but please keep reading to learn about the triple-backup-20% threshold system before passing judgement. Most importantly, you will no longer have to worry that a presidential primary will be won by an outsider who ushers in sudden and unwelcome shifts in ideology that harm down-ticket races.
There are immediate benefits that will occur long before this Constitutional amendment is ratified. Supporting this plan will allow primary candidates to stand out among the crowded field of candidates in the early elections in Iowa and New Hampshire. In addition, voters will admire candidates willing to give up power so that we can have a better democracy. Candidates could write some fantastic speeches that talk about how George Washington established a solid foundation for American democracy by giving up power twice in his life. They could talk about what King George III said when he was told that Washington had voluntarily given up control of the Continental Army and was planning on returning to private life on his plantation: “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!” They could also appeal to fans of the musical Hamilton and mention the great song “One Last Time” which is about Washington’s decision to voluntarily give up power after two terms when he could been have re-elected every 4 years until his death.
Even with the stabilizing effects of the triple-backup-20% threshold, I fully expect a lot of criticism about such a huge change. However, let’s keep in mind the deep frustration that many Americans have with our current system. Plus, government dysfunction has lead to multiple government shutdowns in past 30 years and dysfunction led to a stunning event that occurred in 2011: our country’s credit rating was downgraded.
Finally, let’s remember that the Framers had no idea how powerful political parties would become and how parties would become a powerful part of the system of check and balances.
With all that said, here’s the plan that restructures the small state protections of the Senate so we can have a stable parliamentary system:
One of biggest change is that Congress will appoint the President and a Vice-President after an election every 4 years or after a snap election. Political parties may form formal coalitions with each other or the parties will form “confidence and supply” agreements. This means a party will vote to appoint a President and promise to support that President during constructive no confidence challenges, but some or all members of the party will vote against individual bills proposed by the majority coalition from time to time.
Extending the length of House terms to 4 years after a normal election or after a snap election will be viewed as controversial but 2 years just isn’t enough time to put together high quality legislation for an increasingly complicated global economy while doing the necessary fundraising for future elections. Keep in mind that our economy, military, and healthcare system are far more complex than they were in 1787 when the 2 year term length was decided.
Many of the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branch will be replaced by the German system of constructive no confidence. This system creates more stability compared to other parliamentary countries because it forces the opposition to do the hard work of assembling a new majority coalition behind a replacement candidate before they can impeach the current President. This new balance of powers will create a government that is more responsive to the most important element of the check and balance system: the voters.
One of the major goals of the Senate is to protect the states with lower populations. This plan proposes that we increase the size of the House to 700 seats and significantly reduce the power of the Senate while moving over the small state protections of the Senate to the House. This will be accomplished by guaranteeing each state and Washington DC residents 8 House seats before the remaining seats of the now larger House are divided up by population after each 10 year census. Given that the 39.5 million people of California have the same Senate power as the 579,315 people of Wyoming during negotiations for legislation, this is a fair trade of power. Giving 8 seats to Washington DC is vital because in this new system they lose their 3 Electoral College votes and because DC now has a higher population than Vermont and Wyoming, it’s only fair that they get voting power in the legislative branch.
This guarantee of 8 seats will give each state enough seats for a state-wide party-list proportional representation election. On election day, a voter just chooses their favorite party and that party’s list of people that could potentially serve in the House.
In order to get 38 states to ratify this plan, it’s vital to address the critics of proportional representation who understandably fear the legislative chaos that has occurred in Italy, Greece, and Israel. To address these concerns, this plan proposes a 20% nationwide threshold that allows each party to list three backup parties. If a party doesn’t reach a 20% threshold of votes nationwide, then those votes can be transferred to one of the three backup parties that has met the threshold. The three backup choices will have to be submitted before the ballots are printed so the choices are visible on the ballot.
This system prevents the potential problems with too many small parties, while still giving small parties the ability to develop for future elections and save voters from wasting their voters. Plus, it will help promote the building of coalition relationships vital for crafting high quality legislation.
In the unlikely event that only one party reaches the threshold, then the party with the second highest vote percentage will be eligible for a proportional amount of seats based on their original votes and any backup votes they receive. In the even more unlikely event that none of the parties reach the 20% threshold, then the two parties with the most initial votes and backup votes will be eligible for a proportional amount of seats.
While it would be possible for allow voters to personally choose their three backup parties, it would require more complicated system to track preferences of the ballots that voted for a party that didn’t meet the 20% threshold. This would require more complex counting equipment that is harder to audit and more vulnerable to security breaches. Plus, more complex voting systems make it easier for dangerous and unethical politicians to use social media to whip up accusations of rigged elections. Because the backup choices will be visible on the ballot, there will be complete transparency in tracking the preference flows of the backup choices. Anybody with a piece of paper and a calculator could figure out the final results with the backup choices included.
After you factor in the 20% nationwide threshold and the triple-backup vote system, there are a few different ways to determine the distribution of seats to each party that meets the 20% nationwide threshold. I will spare you the details of that math for this introduction article, but basically if a party wins 25% of the state-wide votes for above-threshold parties they will get roughly 25% of the seats in that state. In Wyoming, this means that a 25% result of the statewide vote means a party would win 2 of the 8 seats.
Because snap elections should also be for 4 year terms to create stability for our economic system and foreign policy, we will have to replace the constitutional language about November elections. The amendment will state that a newly elected Congress will be sworn in 60 to 70 days after an election. There will also need to be language and timing rules about calling for a snap election if a new Congress is unable to form a coalition to choose the next President. For example, the language of the amendment will state that if Congress is unable to appoint a new President within 30 to 40 days, a snap election will be held 60 to 70 days later. (Note: the 10 day windows for these rules allow for flexibility to deal with holidays, weekends, natural disasters, and other types of emergencies.)
Also, the ability to call for a snap election would be a valuable tool to resolve contested elections. Personally, I’m deeply worried how this country would handle a situation like the 2000 election now that we live in a society with social media and sharply divided information bubbles. Snap elections would have been a far more effective solution in 2000 compared to the Supreme Court having to risk their reputation.
Worth noting that this system of state-wide proportional vote with at least 8 seats per state is a 100% solution to the gerrymandering debate. There are a lot of reasons to be worried that the tensions between the two major parties will only get worse, so attempts to have neutral commissions to draw district maps will be undermined and both parties may escalate their gerrymandering tactics whenever they get a chance after the Census every 10 years. As I’ve said earlier, we should try to “future-proof” the Constitution now to help future generations maintain democratic values during challenging times.
George Washington once explained to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was designed to be the saucer plate that cools the hot tea of the House. While this plan significantly reduces the power of the Senate in return for giving 8 House seats to every state no matter how small their population, the Senate will be still be saucer for the hot tea. The Senators will be able block the appointment of the President, veto legislation, treaties, and block judicial nominees with a two-thirds margin. In addition, this plan would leave intact the rule that the Senate must give a two-thirds approval on any Constitutional amendment passed by a two-thirds majority in the House. The Senate would also keep their subpoena powers to provide valuable oversight of the government and maintain the Senate’s history of vital investigations. This plan proposes that each seat is up for election every other election and that we convert the three classes of Senate into two classes. This means that each state would always have a Senate election for one of their two seats during each normal 4 year election or a snap election. This is also means if that they are no snap elections, Senate terms will be 8 years long instead of 6 years. These Senate elections would be first-past-the-post, so coalition partners would work together unify behind a single candidate.
As long we are putting together a very long amendment that will alter many parts of Article 1 and Article 2 of the Constitution we should take the opportunity to include some additional updates to this vital document:
#1: There should be an amendment that solidifies the importance of the judicial system in our democracy. To avoid future controversy over court-packing, we should add language to the Constitution that firmly sets the number of judges for the Supreme Court and also sets rules about how to adjust the size of the various lower level federal courts in response to changing population figures. There also needs to be language about funding the courts as well to protect the legal system in the future. Given the rising population of this country and increasing legal workload, we should also consider slowly raising the number of Supreme Court judges over a 10 to 20 year period to avoid partisan advantage. While I’m firmly against set term lengths for judges, I’m open to the idea of mandatory retirement at the age of 75 with a guaranteed pension. Plus, a nice symbolic gesture would be to formalize the crucial Marbury v. Madison case with language in the Constitution.
#2: We should add language that requires fill-in-the-bubble optical scan ballots for every federal and state election. These types of ballots only require tables and pens, so that reduces the chances of long lines on election day because of broken voting machines. Plus, they use very simple, non-internet-connected optical-scan counting machines, so votes can be accurately and quickly counted with less risk of hacking compared to electronic voting systems. Adding this Constitutional language would prevent situations like the infamous hanging chads from punch-card ballots of the 2000 Florida election.
Before I wrap this article up, there some quick notes I want to add:
#1: Conservatives will be initially be very skeptical of this plan because the idea of parliamentary system reminds them of the left-leaning European democracies they complain about, but conservatives should remember that Margaret Thatcher rose to power via the parliamentary system. So, this isn’t a covert plan to turn America into a socialist European parliament. Like I said, this plan was deliberately designed so that it would be impossible for either party to know who benefits more from this plan.
#2: Because the dial for political rhetoric in this country is currently set at 11, I feel compelled to deny oxygen to the critics who will use the incredibly disingenuous claim that proportional representation was a major reason for the nightmare that was 1930s and 1940s Germany. In an alternate universe where the Weimar Republic had the constructive no confidence system, higher threshold rules, and didn’t have the flawed emergency decree rules there is a very tiny possibility that WW2 could have been prevented. However, even with first-past-the-post voting I doubt history would have been different because of the grim economy from the First World War and the Great Depression, the widespread political violence between supporters of rival parties, and the harsh truth: the use of mass media full of xenophobic propaganda was very effective on a lot of German citizens eager to find a scapegoat for their woes. In other words, “the fault my dear Brutus lies not in our electoral systems, but in ourselves.” It’s worth pointing that modern Germany returned to using a variation of proportional representation called mixed member proportional and this time around they created a 5% threshold that is nationwide along with the constructive no confidence system. With a population of 82 million, Germany is a lot larger than other countries using proportional representation but has been very stable. For example, through healthy democratic negotiation, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been able to maintain a governing coalition for 13 years now despite the many challenges facing the European Union like the bailout of Greece. For those curious, here’s a party distribution diagram for the current German parliament known as the Bundestag.
#3: I should point out why I’m writing this article after many years of being a fan of the instant runoff voting variation of ranked choice voting. While I definitely prefer the two variations of ranked choice voting (RCV) over the current first-past-the-post system, I’m very aware of the weaknesses of instant runoff voting that Maine recently adopted and the multi-member district single transferable vote system that the group FairVote is proposing. The triple-backup-20% threshold proportional plan solves the spoiler effect without the sometimes frustrating results that can occur with the various forms of RCV. For example, the Vermont city of Burlington repealed their instant runoff voting system after confusing and frustrating results in an 2009 election for mayor. In addition, the 2013 Australian Senate election showed how single transferable voting can also lead to very frustrating and controversial results. Finally, I’m very concerned about the need for more complicated computers to count either of the two ranked choice voting system because more complicated systems are harder to audit and are more vulnerable to security breaches. Plus, more complex voting systems and more complex counting equipment make it easier for dangerous and unethical politicians to use social media to whip up accusations of rigged elections if they under perform on election day.
For a conclusion I will just say I wish I could have made this article shorter, but it’s a complex plan. So, thanks for reading. There is a lot more to say on this subject, but this article is already long enough. Stay tuned as this major amendment will definitely require a sequel to the Federalist Papers. Future articles will be about some of the details for this bold plan like setting up rules for the constructive no confidence process, snap elections, update the rules for succession in case of the sudden death of the President, the math used to determine how many seats each party has won, and a fair way to convert the three classes of Senators into two classes. We will also need some language that allows the governing coalition and the opposition coalition to appoint a committee of chancellors to help oversee the negotiations required to determine who will be the next President after each election. For example, the figurehead monarch of Denmark designates one of the party leaders as Royal Investigator for the post-election negotiations. There will also need to be some language in the amendment to provide guidance for politicians in power during the transition to the parliamentary system. For example, the last President to be elected via the Electoral College and their cabinet officials may need to stay in office longer than the typical resignation date on January 20th.
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