Election Reform: It's about time

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Time needs to be added to the election reform agenda. But there are only two ways to reduce the time candidates spend campaigning. Neither is easy. The first – curtailing the time absolutely by restricting campaign periods – we can quickly dismiss. Numerous western nations do this (e.g., Canada and the United Kingdom), but free speech arguments will prevent it from ever being seriously considered in the USA.


The second way is to limit the time relatively by lengthening terms of office. Such ideas have emerged over the centuries. A single, six-year presidential term earns periodic backing based on the view that, without re-election considerations, it would afford enough time to accomplish something worthwhile. Supporters have included President Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice John Marshall and Senators Everett Dirksen and Mike Mansfield. Regarding terms in the House, President Johnson proposed four-year terms in 1966 and, more recently, 50 percent of respondents to a 2006 Rasmussen Reports survey backed three-year terms.

But internal flaws and faulty math consigned these proposals to failure, even before constitutional issues could emerge. Three-year House terms don’t sync with four-year presidential terms and a single, six-year presidential term doesn’t provide for the accountability of re-election, as historian Arthur Schlesinger has noted.

We can, however, add one year between national elections. A change to three-year terms in the House would sync well with six-year Senate terms. They were also the first to be adopted at the Constitutional Convention; James Madison advocated for them and they were accepted on June 12, 1787. A vocal minority, however, supported single-year terms and proposed a two-year compromise that ultimately prevailed.

The key step would be to change the president’s first term to six years and his or her second term to three years. Presidential terms do not have to be the same length, and a second six-year term would be too long for any lame-duck officeholder. A three-year second term would be a meaningful bonus for a job done well and a president’s maximum term of service would only rise from eight to nine years. A president would be a lame duck for only one-third of his or her presidency instead of one-half; without mid-term congressional elections during a second term, this lame duck quality would diminish further.

Concern that a six-year first term is too long is misplaced. Americans like their incumbent presidents. Since Herbert Hoover lost the White House eighty years ago, we have denied re-election to incumbents only three times. Fear of two extra years of a bad one-term president is offset by the risk today of two extra years of a poor two-term president (i.e., the occasional bad president can be re-elected as well as rejected).

If national elections were held every third year, we might not see 50 percent less campaigning, but we would get less – without regulations. Another result would be a structural counter to the reactive whipsawing of the 24/7 news cycle; our politics could benefit from a little less contrived urgency. And this change is strictly nonpartisan and nonideological.

While the details pertain to those who govern, the governed would benefit dramatically. If citizens vote for roughly 60 years, we would have to pay attention to only 20 national campaigns instead of 30 during our lifetimes. Don’t you breathe easier just contemplating that? (And your wallet would be fatter, too, with ten fewer campaigns to support.)

Back to that constitutional hurdle. Constitutional amendments were intended for just this kind of structural government improvement. Since the Bill of Rights was passed, two-thirds of the adopted amendments changed elections, voting rights, or electoral service. Granting women the vote and enabling direct election of U.S. Senators were dramatic issues in their day and required amending the constitution.

Perhaps the three-year election cycle can offer the kind of political drama this country could use. But first, the idea must be aired and vetted. So let the debate begin. After all, campaign reform can be about time too.

LaRue is working on a book, Every Third Year: the Election Reform that is About Time. He first shared this idea in The New York Times's Sunday Dialogue: A Single Seven-Year Term for the President? on April 28, 2013. He is former deputy director of the Eisenhower Institute and of the American Society of International Law.