Americans Are Frustrated With the U.S. Election System
As we watch the major political parties continue to implode, two things seem true.
The first is that unhappiness with all politicians is on the increase, as The New York Times sought to document interviews across states and parties. The second is that there is disarray even among the would-be independent candidates trying to swim upstream against the pull of the two major parties.
Whatever else we can draw from the constant drama in Washington and state conflicts, there is a discernible sensation that governing — or failing at it — is growing more distant from daily life, and that people talk about politics as if it does not affect their access to health care or the price of eggs.
Some of that feeling is as true as ever because there are limits to public policy in a market-driven economy. But parts are the result of self-imposed blindness in wanting to get much more information than presented in headlines or passing social media repetitions that are light on data and heavy on opinion.
Between the spin that partisan politicians put on daily happenings and the frequency of “bad” news, people living in the most privileged country on earth are finding it necessary to cry victimhood and the need to blame and isolate from migrants, pharmaceutical companies, those professing different identities than theirs or the government itself.
In that context, there is a curious draw to political extremes or to the third-party candidates who claim independence of any Washington fray to be free to chart a new way. Depending on point of view, these seemingly simple-sounding solutions — whether closing the border, invading Mexico, rejecting COVID vaccine mandates or demanding a retake on all social, racial, educational and cultural realities — have some instant appeal until anyone thinks them through to see the internal conflicts.
More Independent Voices
In the last weeks, rebellious academic Cornel West shunned even the Green Party label to run as an independent voice for president, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the candidate best known for anti-vaccine campaigns, broke from Democrats to re-launch as an independent, and the likes of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, have hinted at leading a No Labels effort as an alternative to gridlock in Washington.
Republicans and Democrats look at them as helpers — so long as they look to suck votes from opponents. Fox News was giving Kennedy airtime while he was challenging Biden, but now recognizes that as an independent, he could affect Trump’s totals.
Meanwhile in Washington, the two major parties increasingly act with separate sections favoring more centrist ideas and vocal extreme wings. In the aftermath of the ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who was not right-wing enough for eight of his party members, we’re facing the prospect of continued strife toward choosing a new Republican leader despite a party conference vote backing Rep. Steve Scalise, since too many House Republicans are seeking to be yet more recalcitrant than McCarthy in dealing with either the Joe Biden administration or Senate Republicans. The irony of seeking a leader who can keep a discordant party conference together is that they are looking at candidates who act toward the opposite goal.
The party factions are acting as if they are parliamentary parties that we see in Europe or Israel, where temporary decisions are made by coalitions that constantly fall apart.
And for his own part, there is Donald Trump, who mostly seems to represent Donald Trump, and not an ideological point of view, except as a beacon for darkness and autocratic, king-like decision-making. Apparently, the strong voice aspect of just settling things without much thought, data or fact-finding appeals to a healthy-sized minority of voters.
The point here, however, is that over our country’s history, these third-party or independent political movements don’t win presidential elections. In part, there are the usual problems of organizing nationally, raising enough independent money, and selling the actual candidate but there is a more basic problem at hand in the reliance on the Electoral College.
Role of Electoral College
The Electoral College is a process, of course, not an entity, but because it was enshrined in the Constitution, we essentially have 50 elections in 50 states rather than a single national election. As you remember from civics classes, when we fill in a ballot for a presidential candidate, we are voting for a slate of electors from each state for each name.
The Founding Fathers to whom we continue to bow the legal knee created a compromise way to vote for president. They did not trust you and me to select a good candidate, and insisted that only some better beings, as electors, could do so. Maybe that meant rich, white, property owners. It’s not clear.
In all states but Maine and Nebraska, those 538 electors are committed to casting a vote reflecting the majority of state ballots. Those are counted and certified by Congress — the action disrupted on Jan. 6, 2021 — to choose the president and vice president. In the two states differing, it is by congressional district.
What all this means is that we continue to elect presidents who have won with a minority of public votes, but who meet the 270 electoral vote mark. It is a continuation of the deepening unfairness of an Electoral College system that favors rural states over urban states. In political terms, it is easier for Republicans to get to a competitive position for president than Democrats — as does any dispute in the election that goes to the House for resolution by a one-vote-per-state rule.
Since the formation of the two-party system in the 19th century, no outside candidate has ever won the presidency — or even come close. In the past 100 years, only three third-party candidates have even carried a single state in the Electoral College: favorite son Robert La Follette won Wisconsin in 1924, former South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond carried four southern states as a segregationist “Dixiecrat” in 1948 and former Alabama Gov. George Wallace won five southern states on a similar platform in 1968. Though candidates like Ross Perot in 1992 won substantial popular totals, by not winning states, independent candidates — if they can even get on all 50 ballots — get no electoral votes.
Instead, independents get rated for their spoiler effect. With 2.7% of the national vote in 2000, Ralph Nader affected the electoral count that gave us the Bush-Gore hanging chad issue in Florida. In 2016, Green Party Jill Stein only received a little over 1 percent, but her share of the vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin may have allowed an electoral victory for Trump.
Every time it is polled, people say they want to change the system, and it’s been tried 700 times, I was surprised to learn. But getting it by partisan efforts in Congress and winning approval in three-quarters of the states for a Constitutional amendment is a no-go.
We’re stuck in a system that seems bound to resist change.