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Too Many Elections!
Is it not possible that the problems we face with our government relate to the people who elected them: the voters? There are many people of course who do not vote. A lot of the individuals who do vote, however, are not well informed about the candidates, the issues and where the candidates stand on the issues. These people have not bothered to follow the election properly. They, therefore, make an uninformed decision sometimes based on a trivial matter. Some of these voters could have done more to learn about the candidates and the issues. They were too lazy
That is not true, however, of all voters who fail to follow an election properly. Many people only have so much time on their hands. If they work full time and are raising children it may become impossible to follow every election. It is also not true that these people are overwhelmed in news reports: online, on television, in the newsprint, etc. They also may not be caught up in constant candidate advertisements either. To the contrary, many local elections do not receive much media attention at all.
Much of the problem is that there are too many elections. Local news media sources do not have the time or the resources to cover every election race in depth. Similarly, individuals do not have the time to research every little election, if the media outlets provided this information. There are too many elections in the United States, and they are often held at the same time. The average voter, therefore, cannot draw adequate attention to each race.
On the same day as a presidential election, for instance, you usually have numerous other local races. All 435 members of the United States House of Representatives are up for reelection on the same day that people vote for the president. So every voter is helping to elect not only the president but a member of the House of Representatives. On top of that, a third of the United States Senate is up for reelection on this day. Remembering that we have twice as many Senators as we have states, means that most states will elect a Senator at the same time we elect a president. So that means voters in a majority of states have to follow their U.S. House race, their U.S. Senate race and then the presidential race.
Then you have races for people serving in the state and local government on top of that. Are you feeling overwhelmed? The number of races at the state and local level can be mindboggling. Most states do not elect their governor at the same time they elect the president, but a number of them do. Vermont, New Hampshire, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia and Utah are some examples. Even if there is no governor’s race on the day of a presidential election, a voter is still likely to face races for their state legislature. Apart from Nebraska, all states have their own House of Representatives and Senate. Most states elect their state Senators for a four year term and a few states do the same for their state House members. If legislators who serve a four year term are not elected at the same time as the presidential election, which is a big assumption to make, voters may be spared from having to consider two state legislative races while voting for president. Yet, they are likely to have at least one race for the state legislature to consider.
The state may have other state wide races besides the governor and the U.S. Senate too. Most states elect their Attorney General, Treasurer and Secretary of State, for instance. They may also have state wide elected offices for positions such as State Auditor or State Controller. Then a majority of states elect their judges. Some of the statewide races for being a judge may occur at the same time as the presidential election. (Do not forget that West Virginia elects justices to its Supreme Court on the day they elect the president.) There may be state wide initiatives and referendums too. So a voter has the potential to be pretty overwhelmed.
On the same fine day that we elect our president, there are likely to be other local races below the state level. You may have mayor’s races or races for city council. Then there may be races for district attorney. (Growing up in Illinois I remember a race for District Attorney occurring at the same time as the presidential election.) Counties may elect people for different offices, such as Commissioner or Treasurer. (Allen County-that included Fort Wayne, Indiana-elected a county Coroner. One person elected to this position was not actually a coroner either. He was a dentist. That shows how competent some people elected to these positions are.) You cannot forget races for school board either. It is endless.
Now the federal government and many states have come up with a slight remedy by having elections at different times. Yet, voters may still be overwhelmed. As I said earlier, most states will have their gubernatorial elections in November of every even year that is not a leap year, midterm elections in other words. Even then voters are still bombarded by different races. The entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for reelection then, and another third of the U.S. Senate. (Having only a third of the Senate elected at one time is the federal government’s way of ensuring that voters are not overwhelmed.) So voters will have to follow the governor’s race, a U.S. House race and probably a U.S. Senate race. Additionally, there are usually a bunch of the other state wide races that occur during midterm elections: Attorney General, Secretary of State, etc. Then you can expect at least a state House or a state Senate race, if not both.
After that you can expect a bunch of other races at the local level, as I explained earlier: country commissioners, judges, district attorneys, school boards etc. Some towns and cities may even put in their mayoral and/or city council races in at the same time. Then there may be ballot initiatives and referendums at the state or local level.
Many cities and towns do have their elections at a different time from the presidential and midterm elections, which helps. Boston, New York and numerous other cities have their mayoral elections the year after the presidential election. Chicago has its mayoral election the spring following the midterm elections. Los Angeles has its mayoral race the spring after every presidential election. Cambridge Massachusetts has its city council elections in the fall of every odd year.
Despite balancing out the races a little bit, there is the potential for voters to become overwhelmed. Let us look at how some other countries have their elections.
Canada had its last federal election on May 2, 2011. On that day the people voted in only one race: the race to determine who would represent them in the Canadian House of Commons. Whichever party formed a House of Commons majority would have its leader in the House of Commons become Prime Minister. The Conservative Party won a majority, and so its leader Stephen Harper became Prime Minister. So essentially, when individuals vote in a Canadian federal election they think about which party they want to run the country, which may reflect the party’s leader. The Conservatives won because many people liked Stephen Harper. Most people, therefore, only think about who they want to run Canada when they vote. A few people may consider the individual who would represent them in the House of Commons. If they wanted the Conservatives to run the country but liked the Liberal Party candidate in their constituency, for instance, they would have to have a serious think about how they would vote. Only in such a circumstance, would such voters in a de facto sense have to think about two different races.
The races for Premier of the different Canadian provinces are not held on the same day as the Canadian federal election. Voters in Canada are, therefore, not nearly as overwhelmed.
Britain has a very similar system. Its general election to determine who becomes Prime Minister is held on a day separate from any mayoral, city council or county elections. Just as in Canada, voters elect a representative in the British House of Commons. Whichever party has the most seats in the House of Commons has its leader become Prime Minister.
How do we need to change the system in America? We need to have fewer elections for starters. Since the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th Century, America has become obsessed with maximizing the power of the voters: more initiatives and referendums, and having more public offices elected. There is nothing wrong with giving the people a strong say, and creating more accountability. Unfortunately, it is too ideal to say that the people can competently elect individuals to all these offices and make sound laws on top of that. Electing a dentist as a coroner is a case in point.
Stop electing judges and district attorneys. The judicial branch needs to be free from conflict of interest when trying to administer justice and interpret the law. This branch of government is already subjected to accountability. We need traditional means of appointing and then confirming judges, the way the president appoints judges with confirmation from the U.S. Senate.
Then there are many offices at the state and local level that do not need to be elected. The governor of a state can appoint the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, along with some other statewide offices. At the local level, mayors can appoint people to the school boards. Maybe elect one person to run county affairs. They can appoint people such as the county Sheriff.
Many people will wonder about how government officials will be held accountable if they are not elected. There are ways of ensuring accountability without these people being elected. The people that we do elect can appoint individuals to these formerly elected offices. If our remaining elected officials do not ensure their accountability then we can vote out these elected officials and replace them with people who will ensure that school boards, for instance, do their jobs.
After reducing the number of elected offices, we should ensure that elections are held at different times. Mayoral and city council elections should not occur on the same day as the gubernatorial and state legislative races. Similarly, the race for president-along with the races for the U.S. House and Senate- should not occur at the same time as either the mayoral and city council races or the gubernatorial and state legislative races. That way, voters can adequately follow each race. There may be a few races on the same day, but there would not be nearly as many. The benefits of electing a more competent and effective government would out way the costs of having elections on different dates.
How do you ensure that elections are conducted at different times? If state and local governments do not agree to have different election days, we can always pass a constitutional amendment. It would be hard and time consuming but well worth it.
It may sound ant-democratic to say that we should take away the people’s power to elect certain offices. I, however, contend that it is not democracy if we end up electing leaders to offices when we know nothing about them. Their decisions once in office do not necessarily reflect the will of the people, and unless they do something truly outrageous we will not know how little they represent the voters’ interests. Every time I vote I see the names of people who I do not know on the ballot for a particular race. Suppose the ballot said “Candidate A” and “Candidate B,” rather than the people’s names. After the election you found out Candidate A had won, even though you knew nothing about them. Would you call that democracy?
Malcolmson, Patrick and Richard Myers, The Canadian Regime: An Introduction to Parliamentary Government in Canada, 4th ed. (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press,2009.)
Rhodes, Roderick and Arthur William. Everyday Life in British Government. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.)
Shea, Daniel M. and John Kenneth White. New Party Politics: From Jefferson and Hamilton to the Information Age, 2nd ed. (Toronto, ON: Thomson Learning Inc., 2004.)