For more democracy, we need fewer elections

A voter walks in to a building
AP Photo/Ben Gray

We have an election problem.

Americans are called upon to enter the ballot box to elect some 519,682 officials for national, state, and local offices — from the president to township posts and school districts. Primaries are a multiplier, inflating the number of elections. Many voters, for instance, cast ballots twice every two years for the U.S. House of Representatives, first in the primary and then in the general election.  

Constant voting is not intrinsically democratic, however, as demonstrated in Europe and elsewhere. Americans may be asked to vote in 20 to 40 separate national, state and local contests within a four-year period. By contrast, German voters cast ballots in as few as six to eight races during a four or five-year stretch; some mayoral elections occur every six to eight years.  

Governments in parliamentary democracies like the United Kingdom commonly take four or five years to enact their agendas, simplifying the work of citizens to judge the performance of elected officials. Local elections there do boost the number of elections, but the tally is still considerably less than in the United States: 12 races at most in a four-year period, with most voters participating in fewer than 10 races. 

Why does the U.S. have more elections than other democracies? Our glut of elections is an ill-conceived scheme hatched during the Progressive era to achieve accountability. Insider advantages, outright corruption and unresponsive government would be eliminated, reformers imagined, by putting more and more officials on the ballot and expecting citizens to turn out repeatedly and make discerning choices. 

Advocates of the direct primary appealed to the commitments of Jefferson and others to political equality and “consent of the governed,” but their handiwork weakened democracy by deterring citizen engagement and opening the door to small numbers of extremists to wield exceptional power over nominations. 

Today’s voting mania has been resisted since it was launched by Progressives a century ago. They were challenged by competing groups of realist reformers led by state and local officials and prominent intellectuals like The New Republic cofounders Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann. The realists contended, correctly, that the prevalence of elections and primary contests would weaken democracy by dissipating citizen engagement. 

The sheer number of elected offices in the U.S. is exacerbated by the frequency with which voters are called to cast ballots. Turning out several times a year is common; some parts of the country look to voters to cast ballots on four or five occasions a year. For each election, they need to divert time from work and family to physically cast a ballot, gather information to distinguish the many candidates on many ballots, and cast a meaningful vote. More elections overload citizens, and overloaded citizens skip elections. 

Apart from the marquee presidential contests, majorities of people skip or ignore today’s flood of elections, especially in races for local and certain state offices. Even in the important elections to Congress, half or less of the voting-age population turns out for midterm contests in November and far less for primaries. With many citizens opting out, the voters who turn up often come with an agenda or interest to promote.  

Near the end of his life, Walter Mondale lucidly reflected on the multiplication of elections and concluded that “it’s healthier,” he reasoned, “for our democracy to fight it out between the parties over the policy issues that are most important to the American people.”

Mondale returned to the advice of Progressive era critics of primaries and Martin Van Buren: treat political parties as a “method of representation” and recoup their place in nominations and elections. Croly forcefully positioned political parties as the practical means by which “government by the people [worked] through their representatives” and gave priority to the national interest as opposed to the self-interests of party factions and stakeholders. 

The Mondale proposal for “fewer really good elections that matter more” would require a serious public conversation about the feasibility — and democratic payoff — of America’s flood of elections. Options include retiring defunct municipal and local elections that draw few candidates and voters; holding national, state and local elections on the same dates and consolidating primaries in states within a particular region. The aim should be to concentrate the public mind and elevate public awareness and knowledge.  

Democracy requires focused and engaged citizens. Fewer important elections would strengthen democracy. 

Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota and the author of several books, including “Democracy Under Fire.”

Tags midterm elections presidential election Primary election US elections Walter Mondale

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