Time for a Change

There are lots of suggestions for changing the way we Americans conduct elections.

We debate nonpartisan commissions to replace partisan redistricting (gerrymandering), making election day a holiday, changing to a vote-by-mail system (Oregon votes by mail and the turnout in Oregon last Tuesday was over 69%), eliminating the Electoral College, and efforts to get big money out of politics, starting with a Constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United. All of these, and many other suggested changes, have their merits.

Here’s another suggestion, one that I heartily endorse.

In a New York Times op-ed written before the midterms, a Duke University professor and one of his students make the case for eliminating the midterms entirely, and extending Congressional terms to four years from the current two. They begin by pointing out that barely 40 percent of the electorate will bother to vote, “even though candidates, advocacy groups and shadowy “super PACs” will have spent more than $1 billion to air more than two million ads to influence the election.”

There are few offices, at any level of government, with two-year terms. Here in Durham, we elect members of the school board and the county sheriff to terms that are double that length. Moreover, Twitter, ubiquitous video cameras, 24-hour cable news and a host of other technologies provide a level of hyper-accountability the framers could not possibly have imagined. In the modern age, we do not need an election every two years to communicate voters’ desires to their elected officials.

Agreed. The op-ed authors make several other arguments, all persuasive, and the piece is worth reading in its entirety. But the bottom line is that the people who win these off-year elections will immediately begin fundraising for the next election cycle. No time to breathe, let alone time to consider issues of actual governance. Just dialing for dollars, and not-so-incidentally trying not to do anything that will piss off big money donors.

Many of the reforms being debated should be implemented. This is one of them.


  1. Of course the problem with 4-year terms is that means it will be that much longer before voters can dump a disliked Representative.

  2. Even Jon Stewart joked (last night) that there was one day in March for Congress to get things done and your article makes a good case for that too.

  3. How much time and money is spent campaigning every two years for the two-year terms? That time and money could be better spent by them doing what they were elected to do. As long as redistricting/gerrymandering is working for those in control, it will remain in effect. Is a “district” a district or is it not? Residents are not allowed to “redistrict” their property lines, nor are they allowed to decide which (whose) district their property is located in. We are at the mercy of the whims of politicians and who has the most money to buy redistricted/gerrymandered areas of Marion County. Well; “dogs bark but the caravan moves on” as the saying goes; the years of moaning and groaning by many has been ignored and will continue to be so. I for one will continue barking:) I will also continue marching to the beat of that different accordian!

  4. Harry Reasoner of ABC News suggested (back in 1970s) that with the advent of technology, we should draft our representatives for two years or four years. When your number is selected by the computer, you go and perform your public service for a term, then you’re finished and someone else is drafted. It raises lots of questions, but it would be a solution to the money n politics issue. Maybe it would work….

  5. I disagree. Interest in elections at all is dropping, as evidenced by the trend of fewer and fewer voters each election. Plus, giving politicians two more years to fund raise would not help ease the massive amounts of money poured into campaigns.

    Real change would involve public financing of elections, making election a holiday, possibly during better weather months, non-partisan districting, term limits, same day voter registration, a “None of the above” line on the ballot, much easier ballot access, among others.

    It would be the best thing for democracy here in Indiana to have the citizen initiative and recall as well.

  6. Citizen initiatives can be dangerous. The various propositions that have passed in California have caused problems like the huge budget deficit and required spending cuts that affected everything from university funding to, well, everything else. On the other hand, citizen initiatives can have positive effects as well, such as the recent votes to increase the minimum wage in certain states.

    The real problem, of course, is campaign financing. If I recall correctly, Prof. Lawrence Lessig from Harvard wrote that our U.S. Senators and Representatives spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time fundraising just to stay in office.

    The idea of drafting representatives is interesting, but it has a potentially fatal flaw: when you do something like that (or impose term limits), you can create a Congress where there is no institutional memory or deep knowledge base about how things work and get done. The expertise would be maintained by permanent staffers, who would then effectively be an unelected government.

    There was another idea advanced by a couple of former U.S. Attorneys General to create a single six-year term for the president. If a president doesn’t have to worry about re-election (or the normal second-term bungles and scandals), the argument goes, the president can spend more time worrying about what’s best for the country rather than the political ramifications of any decision or agenda item. I’m not sure the reality would be as rosy as that, but it’s another idea worth discussing.

  7. I fear the law of unintended consequences here. Lets be careful. Senators already have a longer term and they must raise $15,000 PER DAY to remain competitive. (Figure from Charlie Rose PBS show last night) Their primary job is raising money to stay in office. That seems a good argument for public financing of elections.

  8. I think we should give consideration to how some other countries do elections. Government financed, no other money allowed and limit to 6 weeks before election for campaigning, emphasis should be on governing rather than elections.

  9. I think that the core issue is not voter turnout, but campaign financing. And campaign financing is merely a code word for lobbying. After exposure to all of the blather associated with this election cycle I can confidently say that exactly none of it resulted in me being a better informed voter. It’s all commercials without the benefit of any substance between them.

    I believe that a huge improvement would be campaigns limited to financing limits with the funding provided by the government that the office is part of. And all campaigning be limited to face to face debates. And the number of debates specified by the office. Quite a few for, say, President, and fewer for the Senate. Perhaps three for mayoral candidates.

    What are the chances of this idea being adopted by our democracy? Zero. The funding needed to “sell” the idea to voters would be prohibitive under the system that it would be designed to improve.


  10. Public financing remains an attractive option, but wouldn’t those who see campaign donations as “speech” say the prohibition you suggest is unconstitutional? My response is that even true speech can be regulated, e.g., yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. If we can put such limits on speech, why not put boundaries around “speech” designed to take control of a representative from those whom he or she should really represent. I am suggesting we prohibit donations directly or indirectly (as through a shell or front local “branch”) to any candidate by an individual or organization not domiciled in the district the candidate seeks to represent. This would directly reduce the hours spent calling all over the country for money and the influence of big money on voting decisions. Let’s give elections back to the voters. A side effect of local focus might also be increased voter turnout.

  11. If everyone runs in presidential election years, them the top of the ticket will cast a long and often decisive shadow over the fate of every other office. However, if it’s not presidential election year, more people will stay home. Trade-offs.

    Perhaps we should assess an extra tax on those who do not vote – kind of a non-voting penalty to spur everyone’s civic responsibility to vote. But that might provoke more voter suppression efforts. Trade-offs.

    Members of Congress could serve 4 years with half of them running in the off year to provide a means by which the public can weigh in on Congress each 2 years. The down-side is what we’ve seen this year – fewer voters will vote in off years.

    Many fewer voters vote in Primary elections, but that doesn’t cause us to want to eliminate them. Trade-ONS?

  12. And just why would our august reps, Buschon and Rokita, want to change a system that so royally benefits them and the cause of ignorance and crazy ideology? Its working just fine for them.

  13. The notion of Election Day as a holiday is based on the assumption that people aren’t able to get to the polls (or do any other alternatives like absentee voting) because they’re working. There is just no statistical support for that. What will likely happen though if you make Election Day a holiday is that people will take the Monday before it off and leave town on a four day holiday and miss voting completely. Making Election Day a holiday would likely result in less voting.

    What we should push for is vote centers to make voting on Election Day more convenient by being able to go anywhere in the county to vote. The old precinct based system is antiquated and is too labor intensive.

  14. I agree that mail-in-ballots and a penalty for not voting might work! No holidays to excuse those that don’t care and a penalty for non-compliance…that might work!

  15. Voting is a right and a privilege; it is not a requirement and shouldn’t be. Fining people for not voting reminded me of the story my German neighbor in Florida told me about voting for Hitler. She had finally gotten permission to leave Germany to come to America to marry her fiance; also a German who had relocated and had a job here. The day before she was to leave, the Nazi’s came to her home and escorted her to the voting place to vote for Hitler – who was the only one running. Otherwise she would not have been allowed to leave the country. These demands are worse than the apathy that spawned the ideas.

  16. “Making Election Day a holiday would likely result in less voting.”

    “What will likely happen though if you make Election Day a holiday is that people will take the Monday before it off and leave town on a four day holiday and miss voting completely.”

    Seriously Paul, where do you come up with this s@&t? The oracle at delphi???

  17. I found the quote that has been niggling at my mind for days, an explanation for what happened on Tuesday and continues to happen within the GOP. A quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

    “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morror thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts every thing you say to-day….”

    We so-called Liberals, left-wing; otherwise known as the Democratic party, are aware that times are changing and changing rapidly. We are willing to learn from these changes and strong enough to enact change to better this world for all, not the few. The Republicans are concerning themselves with their “shadows on the wall” and they have us in a holding pattern we must work together to escape or we are doomed. Another old quote, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Also, follow the money!

Comments are closed.