Another Election Day is coming and we are again bombarded with meaningless commercials and endless predictions, making a normal person sick. On the other hand, we hear about voter participation level, big money influence, discrimination, and so on without any results. But there are common-sense ways to improve our democracy.
First let’s look at what is wrong with what we have. The Constitution calls for two senators and a number of representatives based on a state’s population to be elected in each state. The idea then was for them to defend their respective states’ and districts’ interests in the national government. Of course they all represented few people (thousands) at that time, making it possible to know what those people wanted. A lot has changed since then: Senators in most states represent millions, TV and Internet saturate our lives, making brainwashing an easy task, and the world became interconnected.
Many common interests
While states may have local interests, their common interests are actually much more important. North Dakota may have an interest in the fossil-fuel industry, California and Georgia need an immigrant workforce, and Florida wants more tourists, but at the end we are all in it together. Everyone needs electricity and gas but also wants clean water and air; everyone is interested in making sure that we have a sufficient labor force, but everyone also needs security and the rule of law; and, of course, we all want to have more vacations so we can become tourists and go to Florida.
This is even truer when it comes to the congressional districts. My congressional district includes all of western Minnesota, even though southwestern and northwestern areas are different; on the other hand, other districts may include areas that are more similar to my district than to other areas in those districts. But the districts are carved out to make them equal in population and determining those districts is always a very contentious process as parties fight for favorable demographics. Sure, the metropolitan area may want a better public-transit system or a new stadium while rural Minnesota is interested in ethanol subsidies but, at the end, the money for those things comes from everyone’s pockets and energy independence provides security to all people.
In real life, the major way members of Congress serve their states is trying to get more money from the federal government resulting in multiple pork projects and wasted resources — so ultimately everyone suffers even though, quite often, how much money a senator brings is the deciding factor in re-election. But at the end, every state representative going to Washington must consider (and even prioritize) the country’s interests over local ones because if the entire country is doing well, all states are better off.
Money in politics
Money influence on the election is a huge point of contention (oddly, Democrats think that money in politics helps Republicans more, conveniently forgetting about the unions, George Soros, and Hollywood elite). The Supreme Court decision equating spending money with free speech effectively allowed an unlimited amount of money to be spent during elections. As a result, we are inundated with commercials that don’t tell us anything of substance (which is understandable considering that there are only 30 seconds to say anything) but instead appeal to our senses, which are helpful in love but not in politics.
The logic of the court’s approach seems weird. It is illegal to offer money or favors in exchange for votes because everyone sees this as buying votes. But using $100,000 will actually influence more voters in the form of a commercial than as a direct handout. It is irrelevant in which way people are influenced so long as it is the money that buys their decisions whether in a form of cash or Kool-Aid TV commercial.
High voter participation doesn’t yield better democracy
Voter participation is another hot topic. Usually it is assumed that more voters means better democracy, but it’s not true. Many countries have better voter participation than the United States, and yet are not better off or freer (Greece, where voting is mandatory and voting participation rate is very high, is in trouble — and I am not even talking about the 99 percent participation rate in the Soviet Union, where voting wasn’t compulsory but people were encouraged to vote by the good beer and books sold only at polling stations).
But having more people who vote without knowledge may actually be bad for democracy. If the vote of a person who did the homework, researched the issues, and voted on the basis of what is best for him or her or, preferably, best for the country may be negated by someone who voted on the basis of a 30-second commercial or a candidate’s skin color, people may get disappointed in the system.
Yes, every citizen has the right to vote, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should vote. Democracy doesn’t need more voters; it needs more informed voters, and encouraging voting for the sake of higher voter participation is a bad policy that allows easier manipulation of electorate. Uninformed people cannot elect good leaders.
How to improve the system
So what can be done?
- First, money shall be taken out of politics by prohibiting all commercials, door knocking, polling, mass mailing, political signs, registration drives, etc. In fact, political campaigning shall become a thing of the past. Each viable candidate shall be given space on a government-funded website to explain the candidate’s views and suggestions; opposing candidates shall be given space to comment on others, and all facts shall be confirmed by independent analysis. Additionally, several debates sponsored by the government shall be conducted on specific topics. These measures will allow more independent and third-party candidates to have a chance, thus giving people more choices and a reason to vote.
- Second, people shall be left alone in their decisions whether and how to vote. Ideally, a polling machine should ask a few simple questions (e.g. who is our current president?) before allowing people to vote, but that may be too much for some people. Registration and voter ID requirements (which should be the same – what is required to prove citizenship for registration should be sufficient at the polling station) are the means to ensure that those who vote have at least some desire and knowledge to do it and the system cannot be rigged. Obviously, the constitutional right to vote applies only to American citizens, so requiring proof of citizenship for registration cannot be unconstitutional, even if it costs money.
- And finally, the way people are elected should be changed. Representatives shall rotate and run in a different district each time, thus ensuring that they keep entire state interests in their minds and do not just cater to the narrow and immediate concerns of a small group of people. This will do more for bipartisanship than all speeches and promises combined, because a representative elected in a rich suburban district may be running in an intercity or rural district next time. Of course, gerrymandering will disappear as well, and all races will always be competitive. For the Senate, the best way would be to force senators to run in a different state every time or, as an alternative, put them on a ballot in all states but with a weighted vote. This will make senators pay attention to the entire country’s interests more and, as an added benefit, will require people to pay more attention to the entire Senate’s actions rather than the actions of only their two senators.
The measures outlined above would guarantee high-quality candidates and increase the number of knowledgeable voters while providing confidence that their votes will truly count. And that is what makes a democracy better.
Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.
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