Monday, September 5, 2016

Presidential election system is broken

It's no longer news that something like 60% of the nation's voters have negative views of both major party presidential nominees. Never before have two presidential candidates gone into an election disliked by so many voters.

We have to ask: Is the American presidential nomination process all wrong? Reforms over the last 50 years have given individual voters more influence in the nomination process. Nominees are selected now primarily by voters in the party primaries. Primary votes are translated into delegates, and delegates affirm the primary results at the party conventions. Before these reforms, party nominees were elected primarily by political power brokers in each party and by delegates to local, state and national party conventions. Reforms have shifted power from the "party bosses" to the broader electorate.

See how well that's worked out?

The primary selection system looks good on paper, but there are some flaws. State primaries that stretch across six months or more are influenced by "momentum" — candidates who do well in the early voting gain an advantage in publicity and in fundraising. Those who falter early usually drop out. But the earliest primaries are held in smaller, less diverse states, such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. States that are more representative of the nation's demographics as a whole — California, Texas and others — hold primaries later, oftentimes after the nomination has been settled. A single nationwide primary or a series of closely scheduled regional primaries might give truly national candidates a better chance.

Obscene amounts of money are poured into the primaries, to the point that the contests are often more about fundraising ability than about issues or governance. Reducing the influence and mandate of fundraising would make the primaries more about issues and governing ability than about money. Curtailing money's primacy might take a constitutional amendment, or maybe just a limit on presidential campaigning before a certain date, say May 31 of an election year. I'm reminded that John F. Kennedy did not announce his candidacy until January 1960. Today's presidential candidates are announcing at least a year earlier.

The news media and the modern 24-7 news cycle are partly to blame for the mess we've made of the most important decisions in American politics. Entertainment-based political coverage ignores difficult issues and focuses instead on the sensational, the personal and the provocative. This year's presidential season has focused on hand size, marital fidelity, emails and name-calling, all abetted by news media that blare the irrelevant while ignoring the important. Broadcast media, which are licensed by the government to use the public airwaves, should lose their licenses for failure to make political coverage about issues rather than sensationalism. Print media should use its First Amendment protections to deliver information that is truly important, not just spectacular. Broadcast licenses and the First Amendment are public trusts, which carry an obligation to deliver important information to the public.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the voters to reject the hype and the focus on things that don't matter and demand more coverage of what does matter. But like the high schoolers who can name all the winners of the Grammy awards but cannot name their state's governor or senators, too many voters don't have the knowledge to discern what is important.

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