Popular vote victors but Electoral College losers: Andrew Jackson (1824), Samuel J. Tilden (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), Al Gore (2000), and Hillary Clinton (2016).
Wikimedia Commons
Popular vote victors but Electoral College losers: Andrew Jackson (1824), Samuel J. Tilden (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), Al Gore (2000), and Hillary Clinton (2016).

The time for change is now

More than ever, we need four institutional changes as our government hovers on the brink of disaster

Elayne Clift (elayne-clift.com) has written this column about women, politics, and social issues from the earliest days of this newspaper.

As Greek philosopher Heraclitus claimed around 500 BCE, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. There is nothing permanent except change."

The noted philosopher meant that change is the only reality. Given our political processes in election years, institutional change is needed more than ever as we hover on the brink of disaster.

Four major changes need to occur, and none will be easy, but maybe we can begin by ending the Electoral College, an antiquated system that means we are not a true democracy because our president and vice-president aren't elected by a majority of the popular vote, which is why five times candidates who won the popular vote didn't get elected.

The Electoral College has its roots in racism and misogyny, as the Brennan Center points out. When it was established, it gave an electoral advantage to slave states in the South because they upheld the Constitution's declaration that "any person who wasn't free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation."

Racism still prevails through voter suppression. As for women, they didn't get to vote until 1920 - if they were white!

The 538 members of the Electoral College are chosen by state officials, a change from voter choice that resulted from the 2023 Electoral Count Reform Act, designed to deal with prior problems regarding who became a member of the College.

To win an election, a presidential candidate must have a majority of all the electoral votes cast to win. Nearly all U.S. states have a winner-take-all system in which all the electoral votes go to the candidate who won the popular vote in respective states.

To eliminate the College requires a Constitutional amendment - difficult, but not impossible. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, passed in the House (but not the Senate) in 2022, would have addressed many problems that arise as a result of the Electoral College. It's a bill that desperately needs to be a priority in the next Congress.

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Another pressing issue calling for change is lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court and the federal courts, an "outdated relic," as the Brennan Center calls the practice.

This structure gives enormous, long-term power to judges to decide laws that can affect generations. The consequences of that longevity can be dire, especially as the courts become more politically polarized.

Abortion is a case in point. SCOTUS overruled the Constitutional right to abortion that was established 50 years ago because far-right Trump appointees on the Supreme Court, who all promised in their confirmation hearings to follow precedent, proceeded to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That's why the call for 18-year terms and regular appointments on the Supreme Court is growing.

Term limits would enable every president to shape the direction of the court and its decisions during a four-year term. There would be no Constitutional crises because of unexpected vacancies late in that term, and scheduled appointments for Congressional oversight would be less contentious.

Enforcing ethical rules would also be upheld and belief in the court's integrity would be restored. Secret money would no longer be able to influence justices.

As the Brennan Center notes, "On average, justices today sit on the bench for more than a decade longer than their predecessors did. [...] Unbounded tenure allows a single justice to shape the direction of the law [...] without regard to the evolving views and composition of the electorate. It puts justices in an elite and unaccountable bubble. [...] It is time to reform the Supreme Court."

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When it comes to reform and rebellion, campaign finance reform is up there with the Electoral College and SCOTUS appointments. Many organizations support "a comprehensive and meaningful system of public financing that would help create a level playing field for every qualified candidate," as described by one of them, the ACLU.

To make our playing field more equitable, we can look to the U.K. for guidance.

First, they have a "regulated period" prior to each election campaign. The length of time depends on the election and covers the period that someone is formally a candidate.

And those candidates must spend only a limited amount of money on campaigning. There is no political advertising on TV, radio, or social media, other than a short, free pre-election TV broadcast. There are no debates!

Political donations to national parties over a certain amount, approximately $8,000 (U.S.), must be declared as well as donations to local parties worth more than approximately $2,000.

Donations to members' associations - groups whose members are primarily or entirely members of a single political party - also need to be declared above $8,000. That's it when it comes to financial donations.

In contrast, citing superPACs and dark money, the Brennan Center says that "a handful of wealthy donors dominate electoral giving and spending in the U.S. We need limits on campaign finance, transparency, and effective enforcement of these rules - along with public financing."

* * *

A fourth issue that calls for action is voting systems that keep people from the polls.

Purged voter rolls, gerrymandering, and deceptive election practices, primarily meant to block voters of color, low-income communities, students, and seniors, must be addressed so that everyone can participate in the democratic process of voting.

This is a time for constitutional change despite challenges. We must keep the pressure for reform up if we are not to become a banana republic.

This Voices column was submitted to The Commons.

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