Why Now Is the Time to Reform How We Elect the President
American presidential election campaigns are absurd. Absurdly expensive. Absurdly long. Absurdly structured. And absurdly narrow in the range of ideas and options offered to a nation with an absurdly low level of voter participation. If ever there was a time to rethink how this country chooses its chief executive, this is it. And we don’t mean that in some rhetorical sense. We mean that this is the time, right now—two years before the first caucuses and primaries, thirty-three months before the November 2016 election names the forty-fifth president—to get serious about the process. That’s why The Nation is launching what we call “Project 45,” an initiative that refuses to accept the assumption that the 2016 campaign has to be dictated by insiders. We will identify and promote the reforms (and reformers) that offer the promise of a more open, inclusive and democratic process.
Why worry about 2016 now, when there are so many other pressing issues? Because the power brokers who profit from our system’s many imperfections are busy locking down the next election.
The Republican National Committee voted in January to compress and control the schedule of caucuses and primaries that will choose the party’s 2016 nominee; this is one part of a broad strategy to limit debate and undermine the ability of grassroots candidates to build momentum. The party also hopes to move its convention from late summer to as early as June. RNC chair Reince Priebus says he’s implementing “reforms to put Republican voters, not the liberal media, in the driver’s seat,” but that’s just the party line for public consumption. The GOP establishment’s real goal is to strengthen the hand of big money, and to make it easier for an acceptable candidate to prevail in the primaries, secure the nomination and maximize post-convention fundraising. And don’t think Democratic Party insiders won’t feel pressure to mirror that top-down strategy, especially if they sense that their nominating process might evolve into anything other than what former Montana governor—and potential candidate—Brian Schweitzer warns could be a “coronation” of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In its January 27 cover story, Time asked, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” The magazine’s conclusion was that “her unseen candidacy dominates the political galaxy.”
So it’s settled, right? Let’s hope not. First of all, Clinton has yet to toss her smartphone into the ring. Those who “know” that she will might want to check with former President Mario Cuomo. Besides, even the most ardent “Ready for Hillary” campaigners should recognize that her party, her country and even her candidacy are ill served if she has no real competition. If 2016 is the year Republican bosses will control and amplify their party’s message as never before, and Democrats prepare for a Clinton coronation, then fresh ideas will be marginalized. That increases the likelihood that the campaign will be a money-drenched exercise in broadcast and digital character assassination that discourages participation and frustrates change. Faced with this prospect, progressives must focus on 2016 now in order to expand the debate and make real the promise of democracy.
That’s why The Nation is making this commitment to encourage those who will fight to prevent the hijacking of the 2016 campaign by high-powered strategists, well-heeled donors and big media outlets that are more interested in cash, and a vapid politics of personality, than in a genuine clash of ideas. Our Project 45, featured in print and online over the next three years, will reject predictable approaches to the selection of the forty-fifth president—and predictable coverage of that selection. We’ll focus a great deal of attention on the money-in-politics issues raised by what former Senator Russ Feingold has correctly described as “this system of legalized bribery.” But we are not starting early simply to develop a better outline of the pathologies of American politics. Our purpose is to direct attention to the reforms and to the reformers who seek a cure. While some reforms (such as a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s toxic Citizens United ruling) will take time, others can be implemented before the mechanics of the 2016 campaign have been locked into place by Karl Rove and his Democratic equivalents.
In reporting from the campaign trail and in interviews with prospective and announced candidates, we’ll focus on reforms big and small. And we’ll make sure that groups like FairVote, Color of Change, Demos, Free Speech for People, Move to Amend, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, Common Cause, the Campaign for America’s Future and others at the national, state and local levels are kept in the conversation. We’ll bring thinkers from abroad into the discussion. And we invite readers to submit their own ideas to our website, and we’ll highlight them in the coming months.
Even in this era of big money and big spin, election campaigns can be teachable moments. We’ll look for such openings to draw attention to the need for official and voluntary controls on money in politics. And we’ll focus on defending and expanding the right to vote on every front: from the fight of Representatives Mark Pocan and Keith Ellison for constitutional guarantees; to the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy, Representative John Conyers and others to renew the Voting Rights Act; to implementing recommendations from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration that could make it easier to register and vote; to the work of expanding participation by the young, people of color, rural Americans, and all who have suffered disenfranchisement and discouragement.
We will turn the conversation to giving voting rights broader meaning by limiting the influence of gerrymandering and the Electoral College. When state officials seek to game the system—as Pennsylvania Republicans did with a 2013 proposal to restructure the distribution of electoral votes in that state, so that the loser of the popular vote might gain an Electoral College advantage—we’ll raise the alarm. But we’ll also keep an eye on the effort by Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin and more than 2,000 legislators across the country to create a National Popular Vote compact among the states to guarantee the presidency to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide.
The Nation’s reporting and commentary will highlight opportunities for immediate reforms. We are excited about the organizing to break the Democratic and Republican stranglehold on the presidential debates, and we’ll highlight the work of nonpartisan groups like the Free & Equal Elections Foundation and Open Debates to challenge the anti-democratic Commission on Presidential Debates, which limits formats and excludes independent and third-party candidates. We’ll keep an eye on the debate about debates in the primary season—and not just on Reince Priebus’s crude attempt to turn GOP debates into little more than joint press conferences. We’ll also keep an eye on the need for Democrats to hold primary debates—even if Clinton maintains what is currently the most commanding poll lead in history for an open Democratic nomination.
To be clear: this is not a “stop Hillary” exercise. We recognize the former secretary of state’s strengths, along with her appeal to millions of Americans who know it is time for a woman president, including many individuals and groups at the base of the Democratic Party. We understand that keeping the presidency out of right-wing Republican hands has value—especially when the forty-fifth president’s appointments could address the many crises created by the pro-corporate activism of the Supreme Court’s current majority. These understandings cannot, however, become an excuse to close off debate and limit options. So we will engage with and examine potential contenders like Schweitzer and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, prospects like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and any others who might emerge. Through it all, we will encourage primary competition that brings new ideas and new approaches into the process.
Once the nominees are chosen, we will pay attention to serious independent and third-party candidates, who in the best tradition of Progressive Bob La Follette, Socialist Norman Thomas and Ralph Nader, present radical ideas that will eventually be viewed as common sense. We’ll draw attention to ballot access and debate access fights, recognizing that voters deserve a broad discourse, and that front-runners become better contenders—and better presidents—when they’re forced to expand their frame of reference.
Presidential elections should not be a spectator sport. Citizens should be involved in shaping their content and character and in charting their direction. The Nation has always sought to facilitate that involvement. As we approach the 150th anniversary of our founding, our commitment runs deeper than ever, as does our sense of urgency. Because the election of America’s forty-fifth president is too important to be left to the power brokers, we begin Project 45 now.
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