More Sham Elections
In Iraq shortly before the war, I had an icy conversation about
Iraqi elections with one of Saddam's goons. "What do you mean
by 'sham'?" he asked.
"Look, Saddam gets a lot of votes, but no one's running
against him," I protested. "If you only have one candidate
who can win, that's not a real election!"
Oops. I spoke too soon. The U.S. electoral system looks
increasingly dysfunctional, and those of us who used to mock the old
Soviet or Iraqi "elections" for lacking competition ought
to be blushing.
In Arkansas, 75 percent of state legislative races this year were
uncontested by either the Republicans or by the Democrats. The same
was true of 73 percent of the seats in Florida, 70 percent in South
Carolina, 62 percent in New Mexico.
And Congressional races were an embarrassment. Only seven
incumbents in the House of Representatives lost their seats this
month. Four of those were in Texas, where the Republican Legislature
gerrymandered Democrats out of their seats.
Granted, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races are often still
competitive. But, increasingly, to be elected to the House once is
to be elected for life. As David Broder of The Washington Post put
it, the House is becoming like the British House of Lords.
So what's the cure for our electoral diseases? Here are three
Have nonpartisan experts draw up boundaries for Congressional
districts after each census. Both Republicans and Democrats have
shamelessly drawn boundaries to serve their own needs, and that's
one reason Congressional races are so uncompetitive. Normally, state
legislatures do the redistricting, but Iowa and Arizona have handed
the responsibility over to independent commissions.
Eliminate the Electoral College, so that the president is chosen
by popular vote. This was seriously discussed as a constitutional
amendment after the 1968 election, when George Wallace's third-party
candidacy could have prevented Richard Nixon from receiving a
majority of the electoral vote. And in this election, if just 21,000
voters had changed their votes in Nevada, New Mexico and Iowa, the
electoral vote would have been tied and the choice of the president
would have gone to the House.
"We don't run elections well enough to have clear winners
that we all accept if it's really close," said Rob Richie,
executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "I
think if the winning side had been ahead by only 20,000 votes in
Ohio, the losing side wouldn't have accepted it."
It's time for America to develop the kind of full-fledged
popular-vote democracy that is enjoyed by, say, the good people of
Funnel campaign donations through a blind trust. The funkiest
idea in politics is to make donations anonymous even to the
recipient. Citizens would make contributions through a blind trust,
so that candidates wouldn't know to whom they were beholden.
If officials don't know who their major contributors are, they
can't invite them to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom or write
tax loopholes. A donor might boast about having made a contribution,
but special interests will realize they can save money by telling
politicians that they have donated when they haven't, and then
politicians will doubt these boasts.
Such a system of shielding names of donors exists in 10 states,
to some degree, for judicial candidates. A provocative book by Bruce
Ackerman and Ian Ayres, "Voting With Dollars," makes an
excellent case that the system be applied more broadly, but we need
some innovative state (Oregon, do you hear that?) to take the leap.
Chile is a nice role model. While the U.S. was finishing
campaigns that were another embarrassing roll in the hay for
politicians and lobbyists, Chile was holding its first elections
using a new law with a blind trust for campaign donations of more
than $500. Patricio Navia, a Chilean elections specialist at New
York University, says the system has loopholes but is a big
"It's a clever idea," he said. "It's a promising
way of separating special interests and politicians."
Our nation's founders were forthright and creative in
establishing our political system. Today we need to be just as
forthright in recognizing that the system is often dysfunctional -
and just as creative in fixing it. If we're willing to introduce
vigorous, competitive democracies in Iraq, why not do the same at