Is It The Process or the People?  (It's Both.)
By A. D. Freudenheim

12 November 2000

As of this writing, the news is out: we don't know the answer to the United States presidential race. In the days since the election, the Gore and Bush camps have both hardened their rhetoric and their approach. Bush is acting as the pretender to the throne, assembling his "transition team," and talking down to Gore for contesting the election results and not "playing by the rules." Bush seems unaware that the "rules" include room for exactly the kind of challenges the Gore team is making. Gore, by contrast, has been generally silent, letting his campaign staff speak for him; the Vice President has indicated that he will fight, and fight hard, but will not question results that are deemed to be legitimate - without, of course, defining what constitutes a legitimate vote in this situation, and ultimately not adding much clarity to the process.

Yet the real question to be asked at this stage - regardless of the election's ultimate results - is quite simple: are you satisfied? Not just with the outcome but with the process itself. The voting may be over for now, but the process itself is not - and it needs to be reviewed and revised thoroughly. Estimates are that roughly 52% of the available US electorate actually voted - a miserable percentage. Can 48% of our adult population truly not care who leads them? Voter apathy, while not as strong as in the 1996 election, is generally taken for granted at this point, and the parties construct their advertising and marketing campaigns around one of two basic premises: that they need to change the minds of the people they already know will vote, or they need to work hard to motivate a new groups of voters. The latter is probably harder than the former. Nonetheless, some obvious ideas present themselves for changing the political process - and all of them are possible, because the process is very much our responsibility and ultimately under our control. There are three main revisions that need to be made:

1. cut down the overall amount of time for campaigns;
2. move all state primaries and caucuses to the same day, mid-summer of the election year;
3. and push the conventions back to roughly two months before election day.

1. Under the current system, we have roughly eighteen months of campaigning - a full year and a half between the start of most campaigns and election day. If there is one thing that might discourage voters more than anything, it is the sense, after all these months, that voting won't make any difference. The candidates have fought, slung mud, shaken hands - and perhaps even just blended together. We need to revise the process so that people do not lose the little interest and energy they may have at the beginning of the campaigns. Six months seems a reasonable amount of time.

2. By moving all state primaries or caucuses to the same day, we would further focus voter energy and reduce some of the more negative aspects of the media's influence (which unfairly influence candidates' standings based on showings in one state as they attempt to capture the next one). It's true, candidates would have less opportunity to bolster their chances on a state-by-state basis; but this would also cut down on their ability to pander to individual constituencies too heavily. Each candidate would have to make the most effective national - and local - case possible for their campaign, within a tightly defined amount of time. This would also help neutralize some of the ridiculous statistics about the importance of states like New Hampshire or Iowa - whose vaunted processes have, in the last three elections, nonetheless been poor predictors.

3. If the overall campaign timeframe is reduced to six months, and the primaries are all held on one day, the conventions themselves can be moved, preferably to dates roughly two months prior to the election. Since these days the nominating process at conventions is little more than a formality, it seems possible to abolish them completely, were it not for their public relations value. However, on a compressed schedule, the conventions might revert to the delegate-centered events they once were, where the party's candidate is not (necessarily) pre-determined and where the people who make up the party's traditional base can be involved in the process. Their votes may count again. Moving them will help tighten the process and bring more energy to the home stretch of the campaign for the official party candidates.

Some questions arise. Should theses changes be federally mandated? No - they should be voluntary; any federal law would infringe either on free speech (by preventing campaigning) or on states' rights (because the primaries are all set by the states). But it is in the best interests of the electorate to encourage these changes state by state, and they would also benefit the candidates themselves, cutting down on the amount of time for miscellaneous press hounding and by lowering campaign costs.

The downsides? Less time to dig dirt. In the case of Bush, this might mean the election could have come-and-gone without the discovery of his arrest in 1976 for driving under the influence of alcohol. From the Bush perspective - that of a candidate who spent a significant amount of time hiding from the press on the risky questions of his past - this would be a benefit. For Gore, a more focused campaign would have made it harder to go through as many public evolutions of his persona. While this might mean he could have been stuck with an earlier, less appealing version, this also assumes that anyone believes there was a substantive change in Gore between June 1999 and November 2000.

Ultimately, we control this mess, and we are responsible for it. We are responsible for the (s)election of poor candidates, because there's no excuse for not voting, and we are indebted only to ourselves for allowing candidates to manipulate us as much as they do. The external factors - from the money, to the corporate influences, to the media - are all significant, but cannot really be blamed. The best approach to seizing control would be to do just that: wrest control not just of the election, but the entire selection process, back away from the candidates and into our own hands. We owe it to ourselves, as well as to Governor Bush and Vice President Gore.

Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired!