If I Had a Magic Wand….

Yesterday, I wrote that America’s governing systems no longer work properly. I believe the original, basic premises of our approach to self-government remain sound, but our “delivery systems,” the mechanics of representative democracy, have become corrupted.

With effort, those can be changed. One of the great benefits of America’s constitutional system is its flexibility. Despite persistent cries of alarm from so-called “textual originalists,” our legal system has continued to work because it has been remarkably adaptable to “new facts on the ground.”

It is undeniable, however, that our 200+ year old ship of state has taken on some barnacles.

Compromises intended to keep slave states happy (the Electoral College, for example) are poorly adapted to modern notions of democratic fairness; early allocations of  federalist jurisdiction are increasingly ill-suited to a mobile, connected population. Etc.

Assuming (as I do) that Trump’s election presages a period of turmoil and civic unrest during which many laws and institutions will be challenged and found to be unworkable, or understood to be hopelessly outmoded, what changes should we try to effect once the fever breaks?

Here are a few I think have merit:

We should establish a national, nonpartisan commission to administer elections under uniform standards. Many countries have such agencies. It would maintain voter rolls (we have no idea what turnout actually is, because there is a lag time during which states don’t know when a voter moves, or dies, and there are great disparities between states in record-keeping, purges, etc.), establish uniform times for polls to be open, prevent voter suppression efforts, and generally insure a fair and equal election process.

We should get rid of the Electoral College,  gerrymandering and Citizens United.

At the local level, we should sharply limit the positions that are elected. There is no reason to elect coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees and the like. Some of these positions may no longer be needed; those that are should be appointed by Mayors or County executives. Similarly, Governors should appoint Attorneys General and Superintendents of Public Instruction. Making a chief executive responsible for these administrative positions would improve accountability and decrease political infighting.

There are a number of steps we might take to increase vote turnout and make election results more closely reflect the popular will. We can make election day a holiday, and/or vastly increase voting by mail.  (America is highly unlikely to make voting mandatory, as it is in Australia, but we might consider a “none of the above” option.)

In addition to such mechanical “fixes,” we need a population that is at least minimally civically-literate. The emphasis upon STEM education is all well and good, but it should not be allowed to crowd out the humanities and especially civics education. “We the People” or an equivalent high-quality civics curriculum should be required for high school graduation.

And I want to put in a plug for a “New GI Bill”: Upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon satisfactory completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college or other post-secondary training. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

When people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity for post-secondary education—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

Those are my beginning agenda items. I’m confident that there are numerous other ideas for reconstituting and revitalizing America’s politics and our commitment to the goal of e pluribus unum.

We’re in the middle of a very painful lesson in what isn’t working; let’s start considering what would.


  1. Sheila, those are all excellent ideas. I can just imagine the pushback from the elite who have the goal to keep the masses uneducated though. Educated people might figure out what is going on and revolt.

    Would you consider passing along these ideas to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? They just might be able to get these ideas out to the masses.

    Typed on my phone, so I apologize ahead of time if there are any spelling errors.

  2. Bravo!!!!!! Your great and very sensible ideas would kick start a recovery on many levels and such changes would go a long way in putting this Nation back on the right track and help keep it there. There could be a very bright light at the end of the tunnel and it wouldn’t be an oncoming train.

    Thank you Sheila!!!

  3. Sheila; your second recommendation should be our primary objective to place the others within easier realm of possibility to accomplish.

    What I learned regarding who of the Electoral College will be allowed to cast their final, legal vote on December 19th is appalling. The term ” Rigged” doesn’t begin to describe the preset outcome of all presidential elections. It also makes obsolete the possibility of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. With apologies to President Abraham Lincoln; that seems to have now perished from the earth.

  4. “If” seems to be the operable word for the blog today.

    IF the elected members of Congress and the Senate decide to put the country ahead of their careers.

    IF the Supreme Court puts the Constitution and the Bill of Rights ahead of ideology.

    IF state officials put fairness ahead of control.

    IF church leaders put seperation of church and state ahead of dogma.

    IF the people put the survival of freedom ahead of comfort.

    I try to have hope, but it is very, very difficult.

  5. “We should get rid of the Electoral College, gerrymandering and Citizens United.”

    If we only accomplished these three things, we would be well on the way to fixing what’s broken.

  6. Very good ideas. My fear is that, much as military service appears to be a way to begin climbing out of poverty, a year of enrollment in civic service and 2 years of free college could never be lucrative enough for the truly poor to gain any real advantages from their service. Poor as we are, my children have more civic knowledge than most folks from the GOP now serving in Congress. Years spent in service or “free” college have only served to put us deeper in debt as both volunteer work and education are much more expensive for people who can’t afford food and shelter. I cannot foresee our government providing a living wage during 3 gap years between being a wage slave and being a wage slave with more fiscal responsibilities.

  7. It would be wonderful if a requirement for high school graduation would be that students must pass the same civics exam that immigrants must pass to become a citizen of this great country. I am a life-long educator and Democrat and am horrified that the teaching of the workings of our government have been pushed out to make room for issues considered more pertinent.

  8. Several years ago a respected ex-judge or senator proposed five constitutional amendments, that covered the topics you mentioned as well as clarifying the second amendment. I wish I could remember who this was or where I read it. They would be worth revisiting.

    The Chinese and Russians must be happy to see us in decline, all the while touting our system of government as the model for all to emulate.

  9. We voted by mail 3 weeks before election day. It was easy and we spoke to the staff in AZ about it. It was great but too bad, we didn’t have a candidate that won the majority of our votes, oh wait.

    My friend from the UK said that she saw a program on the BBC that interviewed Americans that were not voting for Clinton. The general consensus was that they were sick of the Bushes and the Clintons and were voting for Trump. ugh. They were just sick of the word Clinton. An emotional vote. Not inspiring at all for the Dems at all. Why can’t we choose someone like Obama that gets people to the polls? My Dutch friends who have family in PA were just sick over the Trump victory. How could we? I really can’t get over this feeling of doom from this election.

  10. I agree on all your points and suggestions. But, while they would help some, they will not cure the problem.
    I’ve been commenting in support of a parliamentary system ever since I began to hone my thoughts both here and on FB.
    Here are a few specifics:
    Change the Senate to something akin to the House of Lords. Weaken it, and extend the terms to 12 years, making half of it up for re-election every 6 years. Forbid it from stopping legislation.
    Change the House to no set length of terms, but make it operate like the House of Commons — and continue in office as long as it can, and when it falls, have an election.
    Give the Speaker the power to lead the government through the leadership of his/her party.
    Give the President a term of 6 years, and limit his powers quite a bit, but not as much as the Monarch is limited.
    The advantage of this? The President is the head of state, and does the entertaining, looking after ambassadorial appoints, and all other non-partisan things.
    This would not necessarily require getting rid of the Constitution, but a small number of amendments would be required.
    The biggest help? When the voters went to the polls, they would know which party they would be voting for to run the government. (Now, nobody really does. In less that 3 weeks after the election, we’re hearing of people who voted for Trump who are scared to death they will lose their health care funding!)
    Our current system is just too awkward, big, and unclear. It never has worked as well as we think, and imho, it’s time to move on to a system of self-government that is more simple, clearer and easier to understand, and that can be gotten rid of with one election.
    Here’s to the Mother Country!! You’ve had right all along!

  11. “Assuming (as I do) that Trump’s election presages a period of turmoil and civic unrest during which many laws and institutions will be challenged and found to be unworkable, or understood to be hopelessly outmoded, what changes should we try to effect once the fever breaks?”

    I copied and pasted the above paragraph from today’s blog thinking it might fit with some comments which came to mind this morning; looking for an escape by rereading a favorite book, I opted for “Ghosts of Mississippi” by Maryanne Vollers. For those who may not know the history behind the book; it is the arrest and conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963, thirty years later. In the front of the book is a quote from Theodore Parker a reforming minister of the Unitarian Church and well known abolitionist of his day.

    “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    Rev. Parker died in 1860; prior to the Civil War, could he possibly have imagined this country today and that the “arc of the moral universe” has not yet found justice. The November 8th election results have moved us further from justice and any hope of a “moral universe” in the next four years. I did a little research and found an article regarding an NPR report in 2010 regardin the new rug in the Oval Office which has this quote woven into it. Will Trump – or Pence – notice or understand these words? Are they even aware that the rug has more meaning than being decor covering part of the floor?

    The words were quoted by President Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in their speeches; words I doubt the incoming administration are aware of. Those “changes” referred to by Sheila will need to begin NOW; there is that old Charles Manson quote again about “coming to the NOW’ which to him meant, awareness. Sheila keeps us aware; the blogs since November 9th have been strong and the responses numerous. Are we only reading, thinking and typing our comments or have we any inkling of how to start taking action? I tried by repeatedly posting the web site to access the members of the Electoral College, one main source of our problems, was I the only one to send E-mails. They may have been futile attempts but they were attempts asking for action and change.

  12. Should I ever be diagnosed with terminal cancer, knowing me, I would continue to plan for the world after my departure. It seems that’s what many humans do.

    So should we now if for absolutely no other reason than keeping hope alive.

  13. I agree with Sheila’s big three recommendations and most of her others, but, for instance, am fearful of replacement of township trustees into the executive maw where, among other things, their former duties can be ignored or budgeted out of the process. They are charged as of present to help the poor, and this is one barnacle I propose to retain unless it can be conclusively shown that it will be saved under executive power at satisfactory funding. The idea of consolidation has its limits and each area proposed to be treated to one big pot should be looked at very carefully and honestly and with specific reference to the services rendered by such now thought to be obsolete office or agency. It will be hard to wind a cohesive form of government around every venue from neighborhood to national and provide for their success and maintenance, but I suppose we have to start somewhere, so let’s go with Sheila’s menu and see how far it gets amongst threats and whining of politicians and locals.

  14. While it is easy to attack the Electoral College – especially when the winner of the popular vote loses the election, I have come to see some benefits that weren’t apparent to me before.

    1. Te electoral college forces a presidential candidate to pay more attention to the rural states than they would otherwise. In other words, it forces a nationwide candidate to run a nationwide campaign.

    2. In cases like the 2000 election the electoral college focused attention on one state (the election goes the way Florida goes) rather than a fully nationwide recount. Would we really want ot live through 50 Floridas?

    3. The electoral college minimizes the growth of additional political parties and the splintering of the political process. Like a candidate of a major party, a candidate of a third, fourth, or fifth party must carry a state to be counted.

    These seem to be beneficial side effects of the system. The extent to which they out weigh the negative effects is something that can, and should, be debated calmly, not in the heat of what some see as an overturned election.

  15. Sam; regarding #2, of course Bush’s brother Jeb being governor of Florida when he was elected through that state “recount” was irrelevant.

  16. I wholeheartedly agree with these reforms. My question is HOW to get the reforms done, particularly given our post-election “leaders”. Would you share your thoughts on how to make these changes?

  17. I think your ideas have merit but let’s not forget, people are more willing to engage in these sorts of efforts if they make a living wage and are not worried about how they will pay the rent, put food on the table, or pay for medical costs. Maslow was correct when he developed his hierarchy of needs and placed physiological needs at the base followed thereafter by safety and more intellectual pursuits. I don’t think these are either/or propositions as well. We need to be doing all of them.

  18. The jobs thing has been under control but I think that the upcoming dose of “trickle-down” will have the same impact as the last one did – massive unemployment.

  19. “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”
    — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

    “There is an important link between civic knowledge and civic engagement. Our system thrives if Americans understand how our government and its branches work. In fact, our public schools were founded to teach young people to understand these structures, and to cultivate informed citizens. Yet students are growing up in an uncivic-minded era. Civic education has nearly disappeared from the school curriculum. More than ever, youth are not voting and are becoming disillusioned with the political process. This is why, after serving 25 years on the bench of the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009: to restore civic education in our nation’s schools.” source: iCivics, Inc

    There are existing resources available for laying foundations for civic engagement, free resources for us, whether we’re lawyers, educators, policy-makers, social activists, or common garden variety concerned citizens. Justice O’Connor provided one interactive format for engaging learners of any age in the democratic process, and best of all for K-12 educators, each activity is aligned with the individual State Academic Standards by using a drop-down menu of states.

    Real life civics is a participatory activity and is best learned in an interactive format. Play around this website and see what you think. https://www.icivics.org/

  20. Democrats need to take a page out of the playbook from the movie Lincoln and drive a hard bargain. Democrats could get rid of the Electoral College if they joined up with some Republicans to threaten splitting some states up to give them more power in the Senate. That would only necessitate a majority vote in Congress last time I checked. For example, Texas trended blue despite what is occurring in the rest of the nation. Senator John Cornyn would be more secure in his seat if Texas was split into heavily GOP and heavily Dem states.

  21. I heartily agree that eliminating the Electoral College, Citizens United, and gerrymandering would make immense differences for the better. Eliminating gerrymandering should make many more districts competitive and elected candidates more responsive to the public will. So would elimination of the Electoral College. And getting big, unaccountable money out of politics would be immensely preferable to the corrupting influences of the Citizens’ United decision.

    The need for more emphasis on civics and humanities and less in my estimation on STEM subjects is also badly needed.

    Some streamlining of government is desireable. You are right that there is no need to elect a coroner, but I draw the line at appointing the state superintendent of public instruction. Every State Supt. in my lifetime has worked to accommodate the Governor – including Governors in opposing political parties. Unfortunately Governors do not always work to accommodate State Superintendents who have – with one notable exception – always been supporters first of public education. Because K-12 education takes 52% of the state budget, Governors are VERY tempted to rob that budget line item for others. Elected State Superintendents have their own electoral mandate to stand up to those efforts to undermine the funds for civics instruction and all the rest of education. If the State Supt. were appointed by the Governor, particularly in this age of privatization, the one person with electoral and policy freedom to challenge the Governor would be gone – replaced instead by a gubernatorial appointee who could be fired at will.

    The voters decided in 2012 they wanted to replace the Governor’s hand-picked State Superintendent candidate – Tony Bennett – with someone who would put their students and local public schools first; who wasn’t under the Governor’s thumb; and whose priority over all others in state government was public education. Glenda Ritz won more votes than the winning gubernatorial candidate, but that’s not unusual. State Superintendent candidates often do so.

    At a time when voters are registering more and more despair over their elected officials, I would hate to take a position off the ballot that they LIKE voting for.

  22. With regard to gerrymandering, I can see how mathematical models could be developed to minimize gerrymandering and make districts geographically compact or, by changing the mathematical expression being maximized or minimized, to give a party an advantage over the other party. Do you have any blog posts about the process of redistricting and gerrymandering? If not, could you write one? I would like to know whether mathematical models are used. By the way, I know how to construct such models, but am not sure that the data to drive the model are publicly available in a usable format (this is seriously big data).

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