America's elections are obscenely long. Here's how to shorten them.
Does the thought of having to endure 11 more weeks of this endless presidential campaign make you feel like giving primal scream therapy a try? Or jabbing chopsticks in your ears? Or curling up into a fetal position and settling into a nice cathartic sob?
Oh sure, it was fun for a while: The circus. The horse race. The drama. But now you must be sick of it. Who wouldn't be? The constant spin. The insulting tweets. The gaffes. The gossip whispered to reporters on background. The daily drip of polling data. The authoritative pronouncements and chin-scratching analysis offered up by legions of pundits and prognosticators. (Hi!)
Above all, you're sick of them: Donald Trump and his constant offenses against intelligence, taste, and civility; Hillary Clinton and her uncertain grasp of the truth and unfailing capacity to keep herself under a dark cloud of impending scandal. Yes, you're sick of them because they're both insufferable. But that's not the whole reason, or even the main reason. The real issue is that the process itself goes on far, far too long.
Take a moment to stand back and ponder it with a little distance. Our election schedule is absurd. The United States takes roughly 18 months to decide which candidate to elect to an office with a term lasting 48 months. That's 3/8 of the life of the nation devoted to the task of choosing its president.
Does it really have to be this hard, this arduous, this interminable? Of course not. Our political cousins in Great Britain just proved it.
On June 23, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. The following day, Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the Brexit referendum but opposed the results, announced his resignation. Less than three weeks later, on July 13, the country had a new prime minister in place. The process was quick, clean, efficient, civilized.
The U.S. and Great Britain are different in all kinds of ways. They have a parliamentary system, whereas our president is elected independently of the legislature. Theresa May was chosen by Conservative Party MPs, not by the voters in an election. The U.K. has one-fifth as many people as the United States and is much smaller in extent (merely one-third the size of Texas).
All true and all significant. But if the Brits could pull off a smooth, unplanned political transition in three weeks, couldn't the U.S. manage the same for its regularly recurring presidential elections in, say, six months?
Of course we could.
After all, what exactly were the candidates doing during the year prior to the July 2016 conventions? They were campaigning in primaries and caucuses, of course. But also participating in a mind-boggling grand total of 41 debates and forums — every one of them covered by national news organizations. Even long before the voting began, candidates were holding rallies. And meeting with newspaper editorial boards. And raising money. And spending money (on staff, travel, ads, and consultants). And appearing on network and cable TV news networks. And going on talk radio shows. And tweeting.
The whole process is wildly self-indulgent, bloated, and decadent.
Some of this is a function of the U.S. being a large country with a low population density, combined with the democratization of the nomination process in recent decades. Up through the middle of the 20th century, nominees were chosen mainly by party elites, which meant that active campaigning only began after the conventions were over, typically less than six months before Election Day. But now candidates need to scramble for votes in all 50 states, which takes time.
But does it really need to take this much time? Obviously not.
Campaigning (and participating in debates and forums) in the six months leading up to the first caucuses and primaries is completely unnecessary. As for the caucuses and primaries themselves, why not cluster them far more coherently? This year, the Iowa caucuses were held on Feb. 1. The last major primaries were held on June 7. There is no reason for them to take so long.
We needn't adopt the controversial idea of a single national primary. Just hold a series of five regional Super Tuesday elections every two weeks, with the order of the regional voting alternating every four years. Candidates would have 14 days to campaign and debate in 10 states leading up to each regional election day. The party conventions would then be held roughly six weeks after the last votes were cast.
Note that I haven't yet said anything about precisely when these regional contests, or the conventions, would be held. That's because the entire process should be drastically compressed. When candidates mainly communicated with voters at large public rallies spread across a vast continent-wide nation in which the fastest mode of transportation was passenger rail, it made sense for campaigns to take five months or more.
But now? In the age of air travel, TV, saturation news coverage, and social media platforms? Eight weeks from the end of the conventions to Election Day is plenty of time — more than enough for voters to gather the information they need to make an informed choice.
That would place the conventions at the end of August and beginning of September, with regional primaries and caucuses beginning on or around May 1.
Six months: That's all it would take — all it should take — for the United States to decide on a president. Yes, the presidency is important (as the nomination of a man clearly unsuited to it has brought home to many of us this year). But it isn't so important that we should be spending 3/8 of our national life fixating on who will receive the honor and shoulder the responsibilities of serving.
We're not electing an absolute monarch for life. Maybe we should stop acting like it — and save ourselves from a little bit of overkill in the bargain.