American elections are designed to drive us crazy. It’s truly remarkable what we’ve done to ourselves. It is democracy at its most irritating.
For starters, we have no formal election period. Candidates announce their intentions years before an election. In the last cycle, Ted Cruz announced 596 days before Election Day. That means we had to look at his office-seeking mug and hear his Star Wars election analogies for more than a year before he tapped Carly Fiorina as his running mate and then promptly dropped out of the race.
For 2020, Congressman John Delaney announced his candidacy for President more than 1,100 days before the election. That’s three years of constant election-ing! Three years, and by the time the first debate rolled around, most of us still didn’t know who he was. (Of course, Delaney’s main problem is that he’s not a billionaire who can buy endless ads. He really should work on that.)
The entire country of registered Democrats and Republicans should have a say on who their nominee is by voting on the same day.
If you’re running for city council in Japan, you have a campaign season of one week. In one Tokyo district, you are allowed to put up 190 posters on 190 designated wooden billboards. If you’re running for Japan’s equivalent of Congress, you get to campaign for twelve days. Our representatives campaign during their entire two-year term.
In the United States, while some candidates formally announce their candidacy, others announce an exploratory committee to test the idea of whether they should formally announce. That’s like sending out a save-the-date before there’s even an engagement: “Please save the date for our wedding. That is, if she says yes. We just need another three months to figure out if our relationship is sustainable, plus, I snore, so we’ve gotta see if she can handle that.”
The effect of this timeline on the electorate is agonizing. You might have chosen a candidate—say, Elizabeth Warren. The media have written a bunch of stories about how she’s on the rise, how she has crept up on Biden. They might even write stories about her many, many, many policy positions. Mostly, they want to talk about how she’s creeping up on Biden or biting off chunks of the Bernie Bro’ pulation.
But they can only write about that for so long. Eventually, they have to take another tack—so they start the second guessing. Is Elizabeth Warren electable? (Which is, of course, another way of saying, “We forgot, for 3½ seconds, to mention that she is a woman.”)
So you, the voter, start saying stuff like “I really like Elizabeth Warren but . . . I’m not sure she’s electable.” This process repeats itself for a year until two of the whitest states in the union decide to tell the rest of the country who we should be voting for.
This brings me to the primary schedule itself, perhaps the most soul-deadening aspect of this election process. Why are the primaries so spread out? Why does Iowa caucus first? Because party leaders decided we needed thirty days to pass between major state and local events and because, in the summer of 1972, Des Moines didn’t have enough hotel rooms, so the date was moved up. That’s right, hotel room availability has affected our democracy.
By the time other states get to vote, the people in them are so exhausted that they walk into the voting booth as zombies. We’re not happy about voting by then. We’re not exhilarated by democracy. We’re not enthusiastic about our civic duty. We’ve been electorally waterboarded for more than a year and just want the primary to be over with—because then we have to go through a general election.
What we have done to the election process in the United States—particularly on the presidential level—has made the horse race unbearable even for political junkies like me. The entire country of registered Democrats and Republicans should have a say on who their nominee is by voting on the same day. Why are we wasting so much time and money on the longest and most expensive elections and the least coherent state voting patterns in the world only to have a turnout that is lower than Estonia?
I know, you’re saying, “Our turnout is a little higher than Luxembourg.” Shouldn’t it be a lot higher than Luxembourg? Shouldn’t we have just a handful of weeks meeting the candidates and then gleefully walking into the voting booth?
We’re doing this all wrong. And, infuriatingly, when it’s all over we get less than two years of respite, before we start all over again. Gah!