A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life, Plank 1
Plank 1. Ensure ballot integrity.
1.1. To safeguard the sanctity of the ballot in federal elections: 1) permit only citizens of the United States to vote, 2) require states and localities to keep voter lists cleaned up on a continuous basis, 3) require a valid form of identification for in-person voting, 4) require that absentee and online ballots be notarized or verified in some reasonable way, and 5) encourage states to join an interstate compact for sharing voter-registration information on a real-time basis.
1.2. To maximize voters’ confidence in election results: 1) eschew voting-by-mail schemes, 2) make same-day registration at least as secure as pre-election registration, 3) make online voting at least as secure as online banking, and 4) permit voters to photograph their completed ballots for future reference.
1.3. To ensure a reasonable simultaneity of voting, restrict early-voting periods to no more than seven calendar days immediately prior to election day. To reduce gaming and coercion, do not allow votes to be changed, once validly cast.
1.4. To encourage higher voter turnout, publish the fact of whether a person has voted in a given election, after the polls have closed, without revealing how he or she voted.
1.5. To strengthen voter satisfaction with election results, and to obviate the need for recounts and runoffs, adopt instant-runoff voting, also known as full preferential voting.
1.6. To recover the benefits for voters of political parties: 1) greatly increase ballot access for third and minor parties, 2) allow only party members (as defined by the party, not the government) to vote on internal party matters, including nominations, 3) encourage parties to employ Utah-style neighborhood caucuses instead of primaries, and 4) abolish open (“cross-over”) and non-partisan (“jungle”) primaries. In doing these things, always strictly enforce the civil rights of all citizens.
1.7. To ensure that voters choose their representatives and not the reverse, take reasonable steps to minimize the evils of gerrymandering, such as the use of independent nonpartisan commissions guided by sensible rules. Do not let judges draw district lines.
1.8. To keep Representatives and Senators dependent on their constituents, eschew proportional representation schemes. Stick with geographic districts.
1.9. To encourage wiser deliberation in lawmaking, and a salutary stability in the law, eschew such Progressive-era “direct democracy” reforms as initiative, referendum, and recall. Instead, leave legislative questions to the people’s elected representatives.
1.10. To prevent a few populous states from dominating presidential elections, preserve the Electoral College and eschew the National Popular Vote Compact and similar schemes that would subvert the Founders’ wise and highly successful system.
1.11. To bring the House of Representatives closer to the people, expand the House slowly over time. Specifically, after the next census expand the House to 500 members. Thereafter, whenever a new state joins the Union, expand the House by at least ten seats, distributing the new seats by population as is done after each census.
1.12. To make Senators and Representatives more productive, 1) compensate them on a per diem rather than a salaried basis, paying them only for days actually worked, and 2) permit them to vote remotely, at reduced pay, from a district office or their state’s capitol building.
1.13. To get “money out of politics,” repeal existing federal campaign-finance laws and leave it to states to regulate campaigns, as the Founders intended, while restoring limits on federal power and dramatically shrinking the size and scope of government—the only sure ways to diminish political corruption.
Before explaining the recommendations, a few housekeeping comments:
First, my apologies if some of these recommendations may strike the reader as boring or trivial. This plank is a bit of a catch-all, gathering into one place a series of recommendations related to voting, campaigns, political parties, and representation.
Second, the plank’s title. I could have dubbed it “Reform Our Political System” or something along those lines, but instead I chose to call it “Ensure Ballot Integrity,” because ballot integrity is fundamental. All other reforms depend on it. Ballot integrity symbolizes and in a certain sense encapsulates the entire plank.
Finally, be aware that these recommendations are by default addressed to state governments, rather than to Congress, except in situations where, for constitutional reasons, Congress must get involved or take the lead.
And now to the individual recommendations.
Ballot integrity. If we can’t trust the results of elections, we can’t know what the voters want. Enforcing strict ballot integrity safeguards the Constitution. And it encourages democratic participation by giving citizens the confidence that their vote counts.
Who has the power to ensure ballot integrity? Under the U.S. Constitution, the duty of safeguarding the sanctity of the federal ballot is shared by Congress and the states. States do the actual work of conducting federal elections, and have power to regulate who may vote in them, subject to minimal limitations (principally the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments, which guarantee the elective franchise, respectively, to all adults regardless of race, sex, or age). Congress, by contrast, has power to regulate when and how we vote. States run the elections and, within limits, choose the voters. Congress regulates the voting.
To ensure ballot integrity, we should do the things specified in recommendation 1.1, including requiring a trustworthy form of identification, to ensure that the person is a U.S. citizen and eligible to vote in the jurisdiction where the election is taking place. We should err on the side of making sure every eligible voter can cast a vote, but we should also be vigilant against any lapse that would allow or encourage outright fraud.
Voter participation. As for reforms intended to maximize voter participation, such as same-day registration, voting by mail, and early voting (protracted voting periods), while I find these practices unnecessary and fraud-friendly, I don’t regard them as wrong in principle, so long, again, as we have strict ballot integrity as defined above. I do prefer that these practices be minimized, especially early voting, which creates a disparity-of-information problem.
Secrecy of voting. The great benefit of ballot secrecy is that a voter can vote his true opinion without fear of reprisal. The downside is he can vote selfishly or maliciously with impunity. The benefits clearly outweigh the downsides. But I think the problem of selfish voting could be mitigated by publishing the fact of whether a person has voted in a given election (after the polls have closed), without revealing how he or she voted. This would put gentle pressure on people to participate, without (as in Australia) fining them for not doing so. It would also facilitate electronic and online voting, which I find attractive, provided the online voting is secure and the data is completely de-identified post-election (meaning the government retains a record only of the number of votes cast, not of how each person voted).
Frequency of voting. The age of online voting is upon us. Inevitably many if not all public elections will be conducted via the internet. Unfortunately, the low cost and convenience of online voting will make it tempting to hold elections more frequently than we do today, and even to refer policy questions directly to the voters (plebiscites). That would be taking a good thing too far. Legislation by direct democracy leads inevitably to injustice and instability in the law, as we’ve seen in states with Progressive-era ballot-initiative systems. Legislation by online voting would undermine the need for and benefits of representation. We should say no to it.
Political parties. Political parties are voluntary associations of private citizens banding together to affect public policy. Our Constitution cannot function effectively without them. Parties should be free to nominate their own candidates, and adopt their own platforms, without any meddling from non-party members. At the same time, states should allow lots of parties on the ballot, not just the two big ones. Governments should not rig the game to keep third or minor parties off the ballot. If we are going to restore citizens’ ability to reap the benefits of political parties, we will have to get rid of certain anti-party “reforms,” specifically primary elections and especially open and jungle primaries. Primaries enable local governments to influence public policy by meddling in parties’ nominating processes. Parties are forced to allow anyone who claims to be a party member to vote on nominations, not just those who are truly committed to the party’s principles and platform. In other words, lazy, occasional, half-hearted, and even malicious voters are encouraged to swamp the votes of real party supporters, in order to drive the parties in the direction of favoring the status quo. “Open” primaries are designed to narrow the range of ideas that can have be heard in public affairs (again, to advantage the status quo), by enabling partisans of one political party to participate in the internal affairs of another. In “jungle” or “non-partisan” primaries, all candidates are forced to compete on the same ballot, regardless of party. Jungle primaries are an invitation to one-party control of a jurisdiction, and I think Congress may have power to outlaw them under the Constitution’s Guarantee Clause. Certainly states should eschew them. What should states do instead of primaries? They should let parties make their choices at state conventions, where delegates chosen in precinct-level caucus meetings gather to make the decisions in person. This used to be the default system in most places, and is still used in Utah. Neighbors living in each precinct choose a delegate to represent their precinct at the state convention. This system ensures that people who are familiar with each other have a chance to debate and discuss the races at hand, face to face. Unlike primaries, which are easily influenced by deep-pocket corporate interests mounting paid advertising campaigns, influencing neighborhood caucuses requires lots of old-fashioned person-to-person organizing, which requires having a lot of identified and motivated local supporters. Remote big-money interests are usually pretty bad at that kind of organizing. An in-person process improves the quality of nominations and platforms by attracting voters who know and care about the issues and candidates.
Gerrymandering. Gerrymandering—the practice whereby the representatives choose the electors rather than the other way around—is a disgusting American custom. But constitutionally speaking, it’s a matter for the states to address, not Congress. Some states seem to have had success in reducing gerrymandering by handing the job of drawing district lines over to an independent commission. That works where the commission is well-designed to minimize partisan distortion. Leaving the task to judges, as some states do, is dangerous. Judges can be just as partisan as elected officials. Better to select commissioners known for their honesty and impartiality and measure their work against certain rules, such as maximizing the compactness and simplicity of districts, regardless of partisan distribution. Even more dangerous to liberty is the system known as proportional representation. It severely attenuates the link between voter and representative and tends to centralize power in the hands of party bosses and entrenched incumbents. Most countries use proportional representation, alas. We should not. We are much better off with the ancient Anglo-Saxon system of geographic districts, which helps preserve liberty and limited government by keeping the representative closely dependent on his constituents.
One man, one vote. Neither justice nor ballot integrity dictate that we apportion congressional districts on a strict basis of “one man, one vote.” That principle is admirable, but isn’t always practical and shouldn’t be taken to extremes. The Founders provided a sufficient approximation of “one man, one vote” through decennial redistricting, and we should stick with that.
Representational ratio. Some thinkers would greatly expand the number of federal Representatives, on the theory that there are too many voters per Representative today. I have sympathy for this view, but the question is how many should there be? The number of Representatives, which grew after every decennial census from 1790 to 1910, has been legislatively frozen at 435 for a century now. The Founding generation spent a lot of time discussing how many constituents per Representative there should be. Their consensus was to keep House districts relatively small and numerous. The original ratio in 1789-1790 was 30,000 people per Representative. Today it is more than 750,000. If we went back to the 1790 ratio, the House of Representatives would have 10,000 seats. That’s too many. The House would be tumultuous, its leaders would be too powerful. If we went back to the 1790 ratio of Representatives to Senators, which was 2.5 to 1, the House would have only 250 members. That, I think, is too few. It would make the present ratio problem worse. As a middle path, I would suggest we expand the House gradually over time, as follows. After the next census, expand the House to 500 members. Thereafter, whenever a new state joins the Union, expand the House by no less than ten seats (which would ensure at least five new Representatives per new Senator), distributing the new seats by population as is done after each census.
Campaign finance. What about “money in politics”? Shouldn’t Congress cap political donations and ban anonymous ones? No. Federal campaign-finance laws are unconstitutional. The Constitution grants Congress no power to regulate campaigns, not even in the Times, Places, and Manner Clause (Article I, Section 4). That power is instead left to the states. Could Congress at least require timely disclosure of campaign contributions and contributors’ names? No. While I favor such disclosure, as a policy matter, I oppose it on constitutional grounds. It violates the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment. In America, citizens have a constitutional right to give money to campaigns anonymously. I may not like that, but it’s the law. Those who find the situation intolerable can certainly try to amend the Constitution, but I don’t wish them luck. I think efforts to “get money out of politics,” by overturning Citizens United and so on, are misguided. They target the symptoms instead of the disease. Our institutions are not corrupt because special interests fund politicians. Our institutions are corrupt because special interests seek to capture government’s unlimited power. To reduce political corruption, we must limit government’s power. Limit government’s power sufficiently, and special-interest funding will dry up.
This plank does not require any constitutional amendments.
Will help restore confidence in our public institutions.
Will ensure that the voters choose their representatives and not the reverse.
Will ensure that political parties shape the government and not the reverse.
Will ensure the government serves the people and not the reverse.
Revised: October 25, 2015.
First published: June 21, 2013.
Author: Dean Clancy.