Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2002 / 1 Teves, 5763
Curing our democracy of afflictions
The winners of the midterm elections have yet to be sworn in, and the losers
have yet to clear out their offices. Yet the news media already are filled
with stories about the presidential race in 2004. There even has been
speculation about a hypothetical 2008 contest between Sen. Hillary Clinton
(D-NY), and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice.
The primary purpose of elections is to hold public officials to account. If
they have performed well in office, they should be re-elected. If they have
performed poorly, they should be turned out. But the news media tends to
treat the formulation and execution of public policy as mere posturing for
the next election campaign. This diminishes democracy, and is a danger to it.
Our democracy is the healthiest in the world, but it suffers from some severe
afflictions. Election campaigns are endless, enormously expensive, and not
particularly edifying. What I learned from the myriad political commercials
I had to endure this fall is that every candidate for public office in
Pennsylvania loves children and old people, and plans to increase spending on
both, while cutting taxes and being "fiscally responsible." There apparently
wasn't enough room in the 30 and 60 second spots to explain how all this
could be done, or to provide voters with other information they might think
pertinent, like, say, party affiliation.
One lesson we learned from the late substitutions of Frank Lautenberg for
Robert Torricelli and of Walter Mondale for Paul Wellstone as U.S. senate
candidates in New Jersey and Minnesota, respectively, is that long campaigns
are necessary only to fatten the bank accounts of political consultants.
Most of us can pick up on what we need to know about the candidates and their
positions on the issues in considerably less than the nine months campaigns
The midterm elections didn't actually end until December 7, when Louisiana
held a runoff election for U.S. Senate, and for several lesser offices.
Media commentators treat the Louisiana system as a curious anomaly, but the
other 49 states would profit from adopting it.
Democracy is thought to be synonymous with majority rule, but the only state
where this is always true is Louisiana. Louisiana also is the state that
provides the greatest opportunity for all points of view to be heard in an
election campaign. Just about anyone, regardless of party affiliation or
absence of it, can run in the general election. If any candidate gets a
majority, he or she is declared elected. If no one gets 50 percent of the
vote, there is a runoff between the top two finishers. This guarantees that
the officeholder will be chosen by a majority of voters, even if the winner
is the second or third choice of some.
Suppose all 50 states adopted the Louisiana system. Minor parties like the
Greens and the Libertarians would have a better opportunity to present their
views to the public. Voters would be more likely to vote their consciences
in the general election, because they would know there is a high likelihood
there would be a second opportunity to vote for the lesser of evils.
Centrists would be more influential, since a plurality no longer would
suffice for election.
Suppose we coupled a Louisiana system with shorter election campaigns.
Suppose there were no campaigning before Labor Day, and the general election
day was moved to the third Saturday in October. I'm not one who agonizes
much about low voter turnout. I think democracy is strengthened, not
weakened, when the ill-informed and poorly motivated stay home. But if we
held elections on Saturdays, it would be easier for people who wished to vote
In those races in which no one won a majority, there would be a runoff on,
say, the second Saturday in November. As in Louisiana now, there is no need
for a lengthy runoff campaign, because voters would be pretty familiar with
the candidates and the issues on which they were campaigning from the general
Shorter campaigns. Greater popular voice. Majority rule. I suppose it is
too much to hope for.
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© 2002, Jack Kelly