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McGough ’23: Make elections matter again

Every two years, Americans gather at the polls to refresh the nation’s leaders. This biannual pace is perfectly normal to us, but it is astonishingly quick to our international peers. The parliaments of the United Kingdom, France and Canada default to five-year terms, while only two countries worldwide, Argentina and Micronesia, share our two-year legislative turnovers. In thirty years, most nations will elect six or so classes of leaders. America will elect at least fifteen.

With only two years of guaranteed stability, legislators rush through policies that are hardly given the chance to mature before they are mangled by the successive administration, ultimately calling into question the efficacy of the elections that brought about those policies in the first place. American elections are so quick that they are reduced to knee-jerk judgements of the masses that are regularly regretted later. This rapid turnover of the political class savages any attempt to build the institutional continuity that running a nation requires, but theoretically ensures that leaders reflect public opinion of the moment. Rapid elections have their benefits, and they are not something we can do away with, given their enshrinement in the Constitution and the collective consciousness. We can, however, combat politicians’ propensity to weaponize archaic institutions such as recalls, filibuster, gerrymandering and the Electoral College that are making elections less meaningful. Furthermore, we ought to defeat the rising tide of political violence, which breeds apathy and mistrust in all of our institutions — especially in voting. Won or lost, elections need to matter in America again.

Americans just witnessed a shameful effort by unscrupulous partisans to further undercut the legitimacy of regular elections: the California recall. Despite winning in 2018 by the largest Democratic margin ever in his state and defending his party’s legislative majorities less than a year ago, Governor Gavin Newsom just faced a ridiculous (and ridiculously expensive) attempt on his political career, primarily over his handling of the pandemic. Just 12% of Californians held the state hostage for the better part of the year, only for Newsom to increase his record margin from four years ago.

California having the option to recall supports the dangerous notion that lost elections can just be undone, incentivizing dissenters to channel their energies into these hopeless efforts. In California alone, 55 recalls have been started, only one of which resulted in the deposition of the sitting governor (and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger). In this hyperpartisan era, these attempts can be expected to escalate until there is not a waking moment in America without a concerted effort to upend a duly-elected governing party. As it is, governors only get four years to set their vision, and forcing them to spend their terms on the campaign trail distracts them from serious legislative efforts. 

Besides expensive recalls, extremist attempts to overturnelections reflect a growing lack of respect for a fundamental American institution. When partisans view elections as reversible, theyare inclined to invalidate those they have lost. Recalls are tamer manifestations of this sentiment. Less tempered are the riots, rebellions and insurrections of the last decade.

The deterioriation of institutions has had grave consequences for past republics, and the undermining of American elections could lead to a similar decline in our country. The Roman example is most pertinent, as America’s founders drew from the Roman Republic to build our institutions, and historians often compare these two great hegemons. In the final years of their republic, the Roman citizenry notoriously faced escalating political violence that encouraged many to avoid politics entirely, breeding a political apathy that tyrants leveraged to tear down institutions with impunity. Support for political violence in America is on the rise as well, depressing turnout and discouraging political engagement. Without healthy civic norms and cohorts of citizens willing to fill elected positions with their votes, our democracy will shrivel and be susceptible to the threats of dictatorship and tyranny.

The foundations of our democracy need shoring up, and the first step is to reassert the sacredness of regular elections. Provisions like recalls must be eliminated, and rhetorical attempts to delegitimize elections must be vigorously countered by political leaders. When a former president goes on a shadow campaign to be reinstated, we must regard it as a grave threat to our electoral process, just as when the same thing happens in a foreign nation. Talk of supporting a coup must be met with the appropriate legal response: Donald Trump, and any unelecteds in cahoots with him, should be banned from holding public office.

To adequately revitalize respect for electoral institutions, we cannot only focus on regulating the behavior of politicians but must also entice the public to participate with massive voting reforms. Local and state elections should be lined up with the federal cycle, minimizing the chance that voters miss odd-year elections and thereby re-engaging them with all levels of government. Paired with generous voting rights protections, small tax write-offs for registering and visiting the polls should be offered, and universal access to mail ballots should be made the norm in every state.

Most importantly, to bring voters back into the fold, we must reform our institutions so that elections actually effect change. As a prominent senator once said, elections ideally have consequences, so regulations inhibiting majorities like the filibuster and set court sizes should be tossed out. These much-maligned rules can be dealt with, but there are also structural afflictions in America that keep voters from making change. Thanks to gerrymandering, more representatives than ever are safe in their seats, a fact that would otherwise be improbable when considering how low Congress’s approval rating is. Legislative districts should be drawn to promote competitiveness, so that when voters change their minds, Congress does as well.

Another consideration in the fight to ensure that elections matter is the quagmire of the Senate. More than ever, states are safe for their incumbents, but it can hardly be said that state lines are substantially gerrymandered. For the Senate, perhaps we should turn to proportional representation to combat this, augmenting the voice of rural voters far from large, politically dominant cities in their senate delegations. 

The final front in the battle against archaic institutions is the Electoral College. Less important than the potential for the Electoral College to favor one party or another is how it incentivizes national political parties to ignore the vast majority of states. The winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College prevents candidates from campaigning in safe states, resulting in a system where as few as four states can be considered politically preeminent in presidental elections. This leaves 46 states without vocal advocates in campaigns and rests the nation’s political whims on incredibly narrow constituencies.

America’s political foundations are being shaken as voters lose faith in the power of the election to effect change, evidenced by increasingly high-stakes antidemocratic reprisals and recent destabilizing violence. Our political system is failing to reflect public sentiment in its current form — the form must be changed, or we will lose everything that makes it democratic. Today, in the wake of the California recall and decreasing faith in democracy, we must understand why we are losing confidence in our institutions and rebuild them before it is too late. Recognizing and remedying the diminishing value of elections is crucial to this mission. 

Jackson McGough ’23 can be reached at jackson_mcgough@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.




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