Since at least 2000, most Americans have known of the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. We also know that the United States Senate provides a built in over-representation for small states over large. But changing these provisions of the United States Constitution would mean a fundamental alteration of this country's federal system -- a most daunting political challenge.
Let's also consider that American citizens are called upon to vote more often than most of us can stomach. We are besieged to vote in primaries as well as general elections, for President and both houses of Congress, and for a panoply of state and local offices, including: governor, attorney general, mayor or county executive, district attorney, state legislators (usually in two chambers) and members of city or town councils. No wonder that our statistics for voter turnout are as dismal as they are, generally hovering around 50 percent.
As we move into this year's election season, I wish to advance a two-fold proposal for electoral reform: amending the U.S. Constitution to change the terms of office for President and Members of the House of Representatives.
First, I propose that Presidents of the United States be elected for a single six-year term. The final two years of recent presidencies that have lasted into their second term -- from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush -- have all been relatively unproductive, if not disastrous, usually consumed in controversy or scandal.
Historian Lewis L. Gould, author of The Modern American Presidency, even goes back further, claiming that "there has not been one good second term" in over a century. But if we begin with Eisenhower, he had his scandal with his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, who was forced to resign in 1958 for influence-peddling. Richard M. Nixon infamously resigned over Watergate. Ronald Reagan was bedeviled by Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair. And George W. Bush's second term suffered a series of wounds: e.g., the "heck of a job, Brownie" fiasco of Hurricane Katrina, the felony conviction of Cheney aide "Scooter" Libby, deteriorating war situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally a failing financial sector.
Aside from eliminating the doldrums and pitfalls of a second term, Presidents would be emboldened to do what they believe is right in their first (and only term) rather than being inhibited by overtly political calculations on what would work for getting them reelected. It will also give them more than four years to push their agenda -- a fairer chance at succeeding. They could devote six years to governing, without taking up to a year toward the end of their first term concentrating on being reelected.
I'd also like to see the term of office for Members of the House of Representatives increased from two to three years. The time and energy of Members of the House would thereby be less consumed by the constant fundraising needs of reelection campaigns. More of their time could be devoted to legislating.
A three-year election cycle for the House could easily be coordinated with the new six-year Presidential term. The Senate's electoral cycle is more complicated, with one of three Senate seats up for grabs every two years; since changing this to one half every three years would also require amending the Constitution, it may be best to leave Senatorial elections as is. This would have the positive democratic effect of presenting the incumbent President's party with a smaller but still significant popular test of its policies toward the end of the President's second and fourth years (alongside the new mid-term House contest in November of the third year).
Still, my two proposed changes would spare the people of the United States the expense and shenanigans of a significant number of electoral campaigns. Who knows? Maybe even the unfortunate level of cynicism that politics and politicians have understandably earned in recent years can be reduced by such a cutback in the business of campaigning. Also, perhaps the hyper-partisan tone of contemporary politics may be alleviated by a welcome reduction in the need to campaign as often.
Our traditional American attachment to federalism would in no way be compromised. This doesn't mean that the Electoral College should not be eliminated or that the undemocratic Senate shouldn't be reformed, but the kind of term changes that I suggest here would provide no discernible advantage to either major party, and may consequently be more attainable.
Ralph Seliger is a New York-based editor and freelance writer, who contributes reviews and commentaries for "In These Times" and "Tikkun," among other publications. He blogs at www.meretzusa.blogspot.com.