We have established in earlier posts that the US is not a democracy. The founding fathers attempted to set up a governmental structure that was able to withstand the inevitable slide to corruption and for much of its history it was, generally speaking, fairly successful. The system would be able to function so long as at least one of its branches had not become corrupt. Today of course, corruption has spread to every branch of government, leaving a governmental structure that is little more than a farce. The American electoral system has been almost completely appropriated by the wealthy and corporate interests, its elections and candidates corporatised. The elites deploy a large variety of tools to ensure their continued grasp on power, even while experiencing popularity numbers that are so low that no barely functioning election system would allow them to remain in power.
From gerrymandering to voter purging, voter ID suppression, provisional ballots, black box machines, electoral colleges, broken exit polling, push polling, data mining, superdelegates, superPACs, dark money, ballot access and banning third parties from public debates, the US has the worst election system in the western world. In this part we will explore the means by which US elections are rigged to ensure that either the most right wing or the most establishment candidate wins. Even in light of recent progressive victories in the Democratic primaries, we can be assured that the establishment will employ every dirty trick at its disposal to ensure that those candidates are never elected; even if it means sabotaging their own candidates. The post next week will discuss how primaries are rigged, focusing especially on the Democrats since the Republicans pose no risk to the establishment. The following post will discuss how main elections are rigged, and this will focus on Republicans, as once both parties force through establishment candidates it becomes a contest of which party can give away the most to the wealthy elites. This week, however, we will take a break from exposing the dark side of the US (further) and instead focus on some good things about the US election system; things that the Australian system would be improved by adopting.
5.1. What is Good About US Elections
In a rare twist in this post we discuss things about US elections that I believe that Australia would do well do incorporate into its political system. Of course, in most of these cases the means by which they are implemented in the US are broken and corrupt, but they still represent useful democratic tools in the fictional world where they are implemented appropriately. And, to be fair, some of them still are from time to time, even today.
US elections do not exclusively involve individuals running for political offices. In what represents a rare form of direct democracy, voters can also participate in elections regarding various issues that are of local interest and, if successful, they have the potential to change the law at the local or state level. These are called ballot measures (or “propositions”) and are available at every election. There are various methods by which a piece of legislation can become subject to a ballot measure, among them are via initiatives, popular referendum, or legislative referral. The rules vary from state to state; in California, for example, proposals are to be submitted to the Attorney General, a fee of $2000 is paid, and the proposer has 180 days to collect 365,880 signatures. After 25% of those signatures have been acquired, joint public hearings must be held for at least 131 days prior to the election. In Colorado, 98,492 signatures must be collected over a period of six months, but the initiative may be vetoed if opponents can also raise 98,942 signatures.
As they are subject to the general public, ballot measures can be helpful or harmful but most of them appear to be helpful. Some examples of positive changes that arose from the 2016 election include local increases to the minimum wage, local restrictions on firearm ownership, and the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use in three states. However, some negative changes were implemented as well, such as the reinstatement of the death penalty in Nebraska and measures to make it harder to repeal it in Oklahoma.
While damaging initiatives such as those favouring religious fundamentalism (anti-choice, anti-contraception, etc), pro-corporate and anti-democratic interests are sometimes introduced, they are generally unpopular and tend not to be successful. Parties interested in such destructive approaches prefer the more reliable mean via the corrupt officials where they can bypass the democratic process entirely. Those interests do, however, devote a great deal of resources into defeating positive ballot measures that will impede their destructive objectives, such as the $140 million spent defeating eight initiatives that would have reduced the cost of prescription drugs, eliminated payday lending and established single-payer healthcare.
Ballot initiatives are a small means by which the average citizen can fight back against the corruption that has stagnated its government. Despite their own susceptibility to corruption they would would still be a powerful addition to the electoral toolbox in a functioning democracy, like Australia could be one day.
In the Australian electoral system, candidates are selected by the party and largely ignore the will of the voters. Voters must vote for whichever corporate hack the party has decided to put up for election. In America candidates are chosen by primary elections, in which essentially anybody who can acquire ballot access can run. Australians do not, for example, elect their prime minister. Rather, each party decides internally whom it run as its candidate and can appoint a new prime minister on a whim, as we have seen time and again in recent years. The parties are happy to conduct election that look like presidential elections, with debates and evaluations of the individual rather than the party, but they do not appear to be happy with allowing the Australian people to elect the position on a national level.
The primary mechanism is different from state to state and party to party. The Democratic Party is the least democratic; we will discuss why in the next blog. Primaries are governed by state (not federal) laws and the two most common means are by election or, in the case of presidential election, by caucus.
Primary elections run in a very similar way as to how they would in a general election, with voters casting ballots for their preferred candidate and the person with the most votes wins. Who is allowed to vote depends on the rules of the party in each state. It is called a closed primary if it is open only to party members and it is called open if any voter can participate. There are 14 states that have closed primaries and 11 states that have open primaries. A further 12 states have what are called semi-closed primaries, where party members and unaffiliated voters can participate.
A caucus is not, strictly speaking, a primary election, but it is a means by which delegates are selected for a primary candidate. It only applies to presidential elections and serves as a means by which delegates will be selected. Caucuses are private events that are directly run by the parties themselves. They typically involve a comprehensive debate followed by an informal vote on who will serve as delegates
To be clear, primary elections are rigged and candidate selection is really made by moneyed interests within the party just as they are selected in Australia. However, in a primary the will of the people can sometimes overturn the party choice, such as with the recent win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to New York’s 14th district against the fourth highest ranking Democratic incumbent in the House. The Democratic Party will, of course, not allow her to win the actual election and Crowley has already pulled a stunt to split the Democratic vote and ensure the victory for her Republican challenger. Her primary victory stands regardless. And let us not forget the amazing rise of Bernie Sanders that nearly claimed him the presidential nomination. We will discuss the means by which such candidates are crushed in the next post, but the existence of primaries ensures such occasional victories for individuals who are actually interested in helping the masses. Conversely, the absence of such primaries in electoral systems such as Australia’s, ensures that those individuals will never be elevated to public office, unless they do so outside of the major party apparatus.
As we have discussed in a prior post, there is an election in the US every year. The one that naturally attracts the most attention is the presidential election that is held every four years, but mid-term elections are held in the second intervening years and off-year elections are held in the years in between those. Senatorial, House, and Gubernatorial elections are distributed across those years, with many important seats being up for election during non-presidential years. In recent years, for example, the House and Senate have often flipped during mid-terms. The Democrats gained control of the House in 2006 and the Senate in 2008, but as we have discussed in a prior post, they lost these and much more in the elections that followed. There are strong hopes that the House will flip back to the Democrats in the mid-terms that will occur later this year, and while recent history is in the Democrats’ favour, I do not believe that they will be successful.
Staggering elections of important seats is a great way to ensure that elected officials are kept on their toes, and a frightened official is a good thing for democracy – especially when they are afraid of the voting public. The downside is that the politicians never leave campaign mode and spend too much of their time campaigning and not enough time governing. I would suggest that this is already the state in Australia so there would be little detriment, especially if the new process actually encourages the service of the needs of the electorate.
Elections for high officials
In Australia high officials like crown prosecutors and judges are not subject to the democratic process. They are appointed by political whim, either by the Governor General or by the executive government and therefore bypass the will of the people. We see examples of favouritism and nepotism throughout the selection process as a result. In the US many high officers down to the local level are subject to election. Such offices include County Executive, Clerk of the Court, City Treasurer and School Board Member/President (this link provides a list of common positions that are subject to election). It should be said that, contrary to the popular saying, the position of dog catcher is not subject to election.
There are advantages and disadvantages to elections for high officials. The advantages should be obvious; it is a more democratic process to remove power from a small group of privileged individuals from appointing some of the most important offices in the land. Disadvantages include that one need not necessarily be the most qualified for the job for which one is running, as elections tend to be popularity contests and not job interviews. Also, as we see so often in the US, dark money corrupts small local elections much more easily than it does the highly visible state and federal elections. One can envision a variety of mechanisms by which these disadvantages can be overcome, from the requirement for ballot access to meet a qualification requirement and the public funding of all elections, the latter of which should always be the case in any functioning democracy.
It is my great hope that Australia may resemble a democracy someday. These are particular aspects of the US electoral system that, when properly conducted (as they are not in the US), will enhance the functionality of any democracy.