Curing Washington’s ails

Well, this was over a week ago, but sometimes I’m slow on the draw.  Following up on their Op-Ed about what’s gone wrong in Washington (and, yes, it is disproportionately Republicans fault), Mann and Ornstein hit the Op-Ed pages again to argue about some possible solutions to improving things.  In addition to offering potential solutions, they also kindly point out what won’t work: a third party, term limits, a balanced budget amendment, just waiting for things to get back to normal, (and just because they want to hit a beloved liberal idea as well), public financing of elections.  Now, Mann and Ornstein are right– public financing won’t “restrain special interest spending” but unlike some of the other ideas, it certainly would help make for a more functional democracy.

As for what they advocate, I am a big fan of instant run-off voting,  and certainly eliminating the filibuster, but I find their expanding the electorate (the actually recommend Australian style mandatory voting– we did steal their secret ballot 100+ years ago), recommendations most interesting:

In the United States, such near-universal voting could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes. Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle.

Other promising avenues to expand the electorate include automating the registration process (so voters can register online and carry their documentation with them when they move from one state to another) and to open up the primaries, as California has done, to all voters. Over time, open primaries could produce more moderate elected officials.

Finally, if we can’t persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches? Millions lined up — sometimes wasting all night — for a shot at the Mega Millions lottery in March. How about another lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected from the fines of those who didn’t vote? The odds of the mega-jackpot were about 1 in 176 million — we’d like to believe that the chances of fixing American politics are a bit better than that.

Now, I’m not sure any of these things would really “save” our democracy.  But, they are all worth doing and would all certainly improve things.  And, of course, we’re not likely to see any of them.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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