Views on political reform in the United States of America
The United States of America is undoubtedly the greatest of the modern republics. I am not an American, I am Australian. Though I prefer the Westminster parliamentary system of government to the American style of Congress and President, my own countries constitution and federalism is influenced by it as well as Britain. We sometimes refer to it as the Washminster system. As great as it is, like another great republic over 2000 years earlier, it has some inherent flaws.
Like the United States influenced our system, perhaps some experience and outside observations might help influence the United States in return. I am an advocate for changing Australia from a constitutional monarchy to a republic, though a different form than the Americans. With some ideas from the US I think some other reforms could iron out some of our others problems. Perhaps these ideas could help inspire real Americans to make it a reality. I feel if even some of these proposals are eventually adopted, your democracy and republic will be strengthened.
The biggest problem in congress is the length of terms. We have the same problem in Australia with our triennial parliaments. Two year terms are not healthy for democracy. In a nutshell Congressmen are in a permanent election mode. They do not have the time to do anything bold that will upset his chances for reelection. At least with the United States President, there's the middle years where he can at least do work without the immediate fear of public backlash in polling. No wonder why all congressmen seem to spend all time at golf courses courting lobbyists (that is when they aren't courting male lovers under airport men room doors).
Also with the Senate. Understandably the Senate is supposed to be a more permanent wise body with six year terms. I personally believe elected offices which last five years or more is far too long. Though you elect a third of the senate every 2 years, you do not have a legislative body that accurately reflects the contemporary political will of the nation.
The solution? The House of Representatives and Senate are simultaneously elected every four years. It works for the President, so why not? In order for Congressional elections to not coincide with a Presidential election, they would be held between the election Presidential election cycles. E.g. Presidential 2008, Congressional 2010, Presidential 2012, Congressional 2014 etc
The two party system, which is now so thoroughly entrenched in the US, is partly due to the archaic electoral system. It is a shame that one of the oldest modern democracies is still using the first past the post system for both houses. Most nations have got more representative legislatures. The US, Canada and the UK are still behind. I will use Australia as an example since our legislature has partial links to the American one. I believe it should be used as a model to better democratise Congress and allow more political diversity. The House of Representatives, like ours could use Preferential voting, known in America as Instant Runoff Voting.
This will make sure people have greater say and minor groups have more enfranchisement. The Australian Senate uses proportional representation, therefore many minor parties have a say as well in our upper house. The Parliament still effectively maintains a two party system between the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition (Liberal Party, National Party and Country Liberal Party); it is a greater democratic reflection of the people.
The United States would only benefit from this. It is doubtful that it will break Democratic and Republican Party dominance, but it will add more voices and choices to the mix, forcing them to work harder on policy, be more accountable, and actually have to earn their places through a fairer electoral system.
The results of the 2007 federal election give an idea of how the major parties still are prominent but with more representation and participation from minor groups.
House of Representatives
Labor Party: 83
Liberal Party: 55
National Party: 10
Labor Party: 32
Family First Party: 1
Along the same theme, there is the issue of political donations. A loose survey found that on a state level in the United States, 23 of state candidates surveyed spent half their scheduled time fundraising while half of those candidates spent a quarter of their time doing so. Combined with the previously stated structural reforms, more is needed to cut down on the enormous emphasis on party financing and more accountability for the funds donated. Though the US has a structure, I believe the Australian Electoral Commission is more comprehensive. All political parties receive public funding. Each political party registered with the AEC has to disclose their donation records to the AEC annually, who then publish an annual donors list as public record.
Public funds and corporate donations which are strictly monitored make up the majority of forms of donations. The trade union movement also contributes a considerable amount. In 2001-2002 they made up 11.85 of the finances of the Australian Labor Party funding trade unions 2001-2002. Membership of a political party takes on a different form in Australia too. From what I have heard from American friends (note it apparently differs in different places) a person who registers to vote will register their party affiliations if any. I believe that is how they gauge the support of the major parties. I find this system deplorable if that is how it works. Registering voters here do no such thing. To be a member of a party you actually join the organisation and usually pay a membership fee. In my present circumstances my Labor fee is $18 annually. This adds another element to party finances.
You just won't see here the same extent of non-stop lobbyists and mass fundraising rallies. Elections are expensive but they will never go anywhere near as far as the billions that are thrown around in the states. It's just not a big a problem because of all these factors. Unfortunately the former Howard Government in 2006 altered the donation laws (along with other laws to disenfranchise youth voters) to increase the disclosure threshold for corporate donations from $1,500 to $10,000. This is disgusting and has allowed corruption, free from conflicts of interest; corporations can secretly donate tens of thousands of dollars by distributing equally amongst state party branches. This was done to save the Liberal Party from last years electoral defeat. Thankfully the Rudd Government was elected and we can fix this up and go back to being a positive example in that regard.
While we're still on about the US Congress, give full representation to Washington D.C. The people of the national capital can now vote in Presidential elections but have little say in the nation's legislature. The argument being that it isn't a state and is merely property of the Federal Government and has no real claim to that right. Australia had a similar situation. There are six states in the Commonwealth of Australia; however we also have two territories, the Northern Territories and the Australian Capital Territory. The ACT which contains the capital Canberra is the same as the District of Columbia and Washington. Both the NT and the ACT are property of the federal government and don't have the same administrative rights as the states do. However in the 1970s they were granted full proper representation in the Federal Parliament. Both territories because of their relatively small populations have only two Members of the House of Representatives each. Australian States, like the US, are equally represented in the Senate. States have twelve Senators each; however, each territory is entitled two Senators each. All the territories parliamentarians have the same powers and privileges as their colleagues from the states.
Perhaps this could serve as an example for better representation for the people of Washington D.C. The House of Representatives should not discriminate because of lack of statehood. Each Congressman represents roughly 500,000 people. Washington's population exceeds that. They should be entitled a proper Member of Congress. As to the Senate perhaps the United States could follow the Australian system by creating 1 Senator for the territory of Washington. But there may be issues with keeping an even number in the Senate and making sure it remains a state's house. Even if they don't get recognition in the Senate, they should get full status in the House of Representatives. It's the people's house, not the states house.
Presidential elections need a reforming process too. Most urgently of all is the abolition of the Electoral College. It is a relic from a different age which has no purpose now. In fact it has proven counter productive for democracy. It has happen before, but with the 2000 election was decided upon the EC rather than the popular vote. The result of the popular vote should decide the Presidency, not an electoral college because it defeats the purpose of democracy. In 2000 a majority of Americans voted for Al Gore. The problem is unless your geographic location is strategically important your vote is not as valuable as others. Thousands more voted for Gore, yet because of a controversially produced majority in Florida, the entire result changed. What kind of system would allow a person elected by the minority to become the President of the United States? Had this system not been in place, instead of Presidents Hayes and Bush there would have been Presidents Tilden and Gore respectively.
The day of elections is a problem. Holding elections on a Tuesday was designed for 200 year old circumstances for traveling to polling booth which no longer have relevance. People need to work on a weekday and it's when people are most busy. It hinders people's ability to go and vote. In Australia all elections are held on a Saturday, when most people have the least commitments. I recommend the United States changes it to a Saturday to give people with working commitments the best opportunity to have their say. For your average Joe it might be no problem but for those at the bottom of society, juggling many jobs to make ends meet and a field of family commitments to take care of as well, a weekday would be less appropriate.
Another possible reform to help allow more minor party and Independent participation would be to adopt a similar process as is done for French Presidential elections. A two round presidential election would mean more choice and diversity of opinions, allowing people to give support to minor candidates without fear of 'splitting the vote' and giving the possibility for such a candidate to actually be able to contest a Presidential election and possibly win. After a first round national vote, the two highest scoring candidates go on to a second round to decide who becomes President. A possible timing scheme could be to have a first round Presidential election on the first Saturday of November, and holding the second round on the third Saturday of November.
This will be one of the most contentious idea, but compulsory voting. Since the 1920s all Australian citizens are obligated by law to enroll and vote in all federal and state elections. Failure to take five minutes from your day and exercise your democratic duty will cost you a small fine if there is not a valid reason. I don't see what people aversion to compulsory is voting is, especially in America where democracy is such a cherished institution which without will continue to slump into apathy. I hear the same reasoning that people should not be forced to vote if they don't want to. People without opinions shouldn't have to vote. I disagree passionately. Voting should not be a right; it should be regarded as a responsibility. It should be a duty to our society as much as it is to obey the law and to pay our taxes.
Which brings me to the point, how can people complain about having to spend a few moments to vote, yet there is no rigorous opposition to citizens not having to obey the law or refusing to pay our taxes. By law you ARE obliged to do these things, it's not going to change. So how can people who have to do that vigorously oppose making sure we have to have a say into who makes those laws and to who and where our taxes are going. Oh but they say, I'm not interested in politics or I don't have an opinion so I don't vote and shouldn't have to. Well that's preposterous, if we disregard the points I've already made, allow me to highlight something called Jury Duty. Ordinary people chosen at random, no matter how apathetic are obligated by law to be apart of a jury, to make judgments and vote, yes voting, to decide sometimes life and death matters. Now if it's good enough to enforce in our Judiciary why not the legislature and executives?
Now people who are not used to the system will harp on for ages about the tyranny of being forced to have their say in the process but in Australia like many places we've done it for over 80 years. We consistently have election turnouts well over 90 and people don't have objections. Its a few minutes once every couple of years to walk down to the local school, church or public building to decide how the future will effect you. Compare that to the US or UK. The Labour Party dreads an election day where it rains because rain or shine conservatives will vote and others will resort to laziness. Parties divert more energy and funds into car polling and begging citizens to actually turn up to vote than having a proper campaign and focusing on issues. We don't have these problems. A simple reform could make America a better place. At the end of the day after all these points, the simple fact about compulsory voting is it is the only way to have a legitimate democratic government because the result is the true reflection of the nation.
I am a member of the Australian Labor Party so it's fairly obvious I favour the American Democrats over the Republicans. But here's a simple incentive to the American Left. Compulsory voting will ensure there will never be a Republican President again. Rain, hail or shine who is it consistently turns up to vote? Conservatives. Imagine if you mobolised the whole population, all those minorities who have the poorest turnout rate, lazy liberals who need some legal incentive. The black, Hispanic and youth voters I'm sure would be enough to keep the Republican Party out of office for a long time.
I have also heard that some states have privatised their electoral commissions. I find that appalling for the obvious reasons. America will only get trouble from electronic voting.
The most apathetic of us may have to vote randomly, which we refer to as a donkey vote and others from my own personal experience scrutinizing the vote count, people tend to have some creative and profane things to write on their ballot. Those who waste their say with nonsense are counted as informal votes which are discarded. Between them and the donkey voters statistically is only a relatively small portion of the voting public. At the end of the day considerably more lazy unmotivated people end up coming to do their bit than if it was voluntary. That in my belief is an overall good thing which makes us a special.
Finally I want to leave you with a new idea. In the Westminster Parliamentary system, the government comes from and is responsible to the legislature. For example in Australia one way is through 'Question Time'. This is where members of Parliament may ask questions and call upon the Prime Minister or Minister, who are obliged to answer truthfully. This is a chance for the Opposition to hold the Government accountable and to directly debate them over policy. The procedure is that first an opposition MP asks a question to a Minister, Minister responds, a Government MP then gets to ask and so on.
This ritual takes place in Parliament a few times a week. America is different that the President is both Head of State and Head of Government. Our Head of State is ceremonial, the Queen who is represented here by the Governor-General, and the Prime Minister who is a member of parliament is the Head of Government. The Prime Minister is the real political leader and our system ensures he must hold his ground, do battle and debate and be made to answer for his actions almost daily by his political opponents. Generally Question Time is dominated by the duel between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The US President really only has to debate and directly take on the opponent who wants to take his place in three set piece show debates every four years. It is my belief that people like the current President Bush would not survive in our system.
Question Time provides a natural attrition to ensure the most terribly inadequate of politicians are not able to rise that high up or at least stay there for long. All contact with the President is PR sanitised. Press conferences are done by journalists the Administration does not view as a threat so no dangerous questions are made. America unfortunately has no official Leader of the Opposition. In our system, it's the MP who leads the Opposition, who would be if they won an election the alternative Prime Minister to an alternative Government. Since however most Presidential candidates come from the legislature this provides an interesting opportunity.
I propose the creation of a 'Presidential Question Time'. Where the United States can to some degree take part in responsible government. Since he is not a Congressman and he is busy running the world and other duties, once a month the President will come before the House of Representatives and take part in Question Time. He will then by asked questions directly and without the ability to stage manage and affect it with political spin, by both Democrat and Republican Congressmen in alternative order for perhaps at least half an hour to an hour. This way both allies and opponents in the legislature and some possible rivals for the Presidency can take on the big cheese, hold the administration accountable and prove their worth in public.
Do this and im sure the Presidents of the United States of America, whether Democrat or Republican will be of a much higher personal and intellectual calibre than George W. Bush. It's a natural attrition system for the duds. In our system we can watch an opposition leader take on the Prime Minister and gauge the quality of both. Americans haven't got that opportunity. Do this and they will.