How to change the voting system for the better

  • Friday, November 15, 2013

In many places in South Carolina, we just finished with our local elections. And, as usual, we are now hearing folks talking about what’s wrong with our election system.

After every election, we hear the same complaints, from newspaper editorials, our neighbors at the kids’ football game and the stranger on the next bar stool. It seems like they are always the same complaints, and they are. And it seems like no one ever does anything about them, and they don’t.

But we can do something about these problems – there are answers and solutions. There are some things that the candidates can do, some things in the law that need changing, and some things “we the people” can do.

So here we go with the familiar list of complaints… and some solutions.

Low turnout – For local elections, turnout can be as low as 10-15%. The truth is that people turn out and vote when they think it matters, when they think they have something at stake. If the candidates don’t articulate any clear purpose or reason to vote for them, people won’t.

Beyond this, there are other things that can be done: 1) move elections days to Saturday. People often have difficulties with their work schedules finding the time to vote. 2) Mandatory voting. I can hear the howls now of people saying we shouldn’t force people to vote. I understand the reasons. According to Wikipedia, 22 other democratic countries have some form of compulsory voting, with Australia being the best known example for a large country. You may not like it, but it will get a lot more people to vote very quickly.

Incumbents always win – In most places, and especially in South Carolina, this is true. In some elections over 85% of all incumbents are re-elected. Term limits would change this. Lots of places have term limits and there is no question they are effective in increasing turnover. There are many different lengths of time or variations in different places – and some provisions create more new problems than they solve – but clearly term limits result in new people getting elected.

One party always wins – How the voting district lines are drawn makes all the difference in the world. The lines can be drawn to promote competition or to make real two-party competition almost impossible. The solution to this is to have an independent citizens’ panel draw the lines not the politicians. Politicians will always try and draw the lines to protect themselves and their friends and to hurt their opponents; that will never change. The places in the US and internationally that have independent citizens’ commissions or other independent bodies draw the lines have much more competitive elections.

If I could personally change one thing to change politics in South Carolina, this would be it.

Politics is all about big money – It is true that most often the candidate who has the most money wins, but not always. There are lots of different campaign finance laws that are in place in different areas of the country, some good and some bad. Some are more effective than others and all of them have political or financial trade-offs.

If you believe that big money is bad for the process, I would suggest the following simple three part solution: 1) only individual contributions – no corporate, PAC or other special interest groups. 2) If you can’t vote for them, then you can’t contribute. This will prevent all types of outside special interests from trying to spend big money to help or hurt a candidate. 3) Candidates must immediately report all donations and expenditures online. Thus, the public would know immediately who is giving to whom and how the money is being spent. These three things won’t solve all the problems of money and politics but they sure will solve lots of them.

So there you have it, folks – workable solutions for the four most often-heard complaints about elections in South Carolina. Do they involve trades offs? Sure. Will some folks not like this solution or that one? Of course. But, taken together, these reforms would represent real change for our state’s political culture – and real progress for the people of South Carolina.

There are lots of democratic governments and systems in the world. And, like other counties, our political and electoral problems morph and change over time – and our system needs to morph and change over time to deal with these problems as they arise.

So if we really do want to fix our election process and solve some of these problems….then, in the words of Nike we need to “just do it.”

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to promote big change and real reform. phil@scnewdemocrats.org www.SCNewDemocrats.org

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