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Four lingering thoughts about U.S. elections

A few more thoughts about how our system differs from other democracies around the world. 

President Barack Obama taking part in early voting at a polling station in Chicago on October 20.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

This the tenth story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

We’re about ready to wrap up this series with a short final comment on Monday morning. Please let us know if you feel you have learned anything from the exercise. I know I have, but I supposed I have some strange interests.

For today, just four short snippets united only by the fact that they seem worth passing along and didn’t fit into any longer installments.

Snippet No. 1

The U.S. differs from pretty much all the other democracies in the world in how long the campaigns last. Most of the others have an official starting date a few weeks before Election Day. Even those other democracies that allow TV advertising generally confine them to those relatively few weeks.

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In the U.S. system there is no official starting time for the campaign season. Given the fact that the United States has primaries, which sometimes produce TV advertising (while hardly any other democracies have primaries), the campaign advertising/messaging season can stretch for many months in the United States but are much shorter in most other democracies.

I already devoted a full piece to “Do we have too much democracy?” But that was mostly about how much more often we vote and how loaded up U.S. ballots are with contests and issues compared to other democracies.

But the unlimited advertising season adds one more brick to that argument. Most other democracies concentrate the campaign into a relative few weeks before Election Day. In the United States, campaigns go on for many months, except in presidential years when candidates head to Iowa a year before Election Day.

Many of the democracy comparativists on whom I’ve relied in this series list the length of the U.S. campaigns as a possible explanation for the low voter-participation rate in the United States, on the theory that many voters are worn out and sick of politics by Election Day.

Snippet No. 2

Another similar observation is that the U.S. system creates a heightened problem of accountability in the minds of voters because our system doesn’t clearly put any party or even a coalition of parties in control of the government. This could be said for any of the non-parliamentary, presidential-type systems like ours, which are common in Latin America but less common around the world.

At least in the United States, it has become normal for power to be divided between the party of the president and the other party, which frequently controls at least one house of Congress, as at present. In such circumstances — especially in the current era of gridlock — even an attentive, open-minded voter is hard-pressed to know whom he or she should credit for whatever is going well or blame for whatever is going poorly.

Snippet No. 3

When I was writing early in the series about some of the many roadblocks that exist to voting in the United States, which account for at least some of the low-turnout issues that characterize U.S. politics, I left out one obvious part of the discussion. In general, the Democratic Party favors measures that would make voting easier and the Republican Party opposes many such measures. The most common current example is the movement in many Republican-controlled states to require voters to show a photo ID when checking in to vote, which is currently the subject of court challenges (some of them successful) that such a law would reduce participation by some races and classes who are less likely to have photo IDs.

The explanation for this partisan difference is obvious. Democrats and Republicans both know that Republicans tend to benefit, on balance, when barriers to voting are higher. I say it here just to get it off my chest and so I won’t have taken a dive on saying so. Democrats generally believe (and I don’t disagree) that this fact gives them the moral high road on the issue because making voting easier is more (small d) democratic than making it harder. But, in the spirit full inquiry, Democrats who feel that way should ask themselves whether they would favor making voting easier if such a measure results in disproportionately more votes for Republicans.

Snippet No. 4

Lastly, a little example of the bottomless complexity of the money behind and even moreso phoniness of political ads (which, I must remind you, are the main means of political “discourse” in an election year, at least in terms of discourse that reaches average voters who don’t attend political events or watch debates).

OK, here is an ad, running in Alaska on behalf of incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska:

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Megan Collie of Anchorage — who stars in the ad, who is pretty enough to be an actress, who reads her lines like a pro and who, I presume, is not really trying to make us believe that she is doing anything other than reciting, into a camera, lines written by professionals — makes a huge deal of the fact that she is not an actress, like the woman who appeared in an earlier ad attacking Begich. Of course if she really wants to demonstrate authenticity, she might have found time to mention that she is the communications director of the Alaska AFL-CIO, an organization that is supporting Begich.

But wait, it gets better: Collie speaks on behalf of Put Alaska First, a PAC that has spent more than $6 million on the campaign and which, according to its filings with the authorities, raised about 1 percent of its budget from Alaskans and the other 99 percent of its budget from donors who, despite not being Alaskans, favor putting Alaskans first.

And who are these non-Alaskan Alaska lovers? Well, kinda hard to say because almost all of the funds spent in the name of Put Alaska First was money that was passed through from another PAC called Senate Majority PAC (which we have no reason to believe draws heavily from Alaskan donors). According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which labors tirelessly to expose the many shenanigans of political money, Senate Majority PAC enjoys “close ties” to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which I assume is code for Harry Reid decides how to parcel out the funds, in the interest of electing as many Democratic candidates as possible, from Senate Majority PAC to other PACs supporting Democrats like Put Alaska First.

Nothing is unusual about any of the above. In fact, I took it all from a piece by the Center for Responsive Politics’ blog OpenSecrets.org. The piece noted that there are many PACs like Put Alaska First that have a state in the PAC’s name and spend their money in that state but half of the state-named PACs get most of their money from outside the state.