With just days left until the Electoral College meets to determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election officially, it’s becoming increasingly likely that we’re in the final episode of the Trump presidency.
While tumultuous at times, Donald Trump’s reign has had all the makings of a blockbuster television series. It’s been infused with lies, scandals, assassinations, and plenty of palace intrigue to keep both national and international audiences glued to their seats. The last few weeks have been no different. Trump surged to an early lead in the late hours of November 4. Still, like the 1972 Olympic men’s basketball final, Joe Biden won it all with buzzer-beater finishes in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.
Unsurprisingly, those victories were not without controversy. Within days, the Trump administration and its surrogates took to Twitter, refusing to concede while making outlandish claims of widespread voter fraud and corruption. However, after multiple defeats in court for lack of evidence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that those claims have been without merit and that Joe Biden’s promotion from former vice president to sitting president is all but inevitable.
The truth is Donald Trump lost for a variety of reasons, but none of them included voter fraud. He lost because of his own shortcomings and inability to manage his administration strategically. The former television star turned politician, who was praised for his prowess in public relations, fought a war of attrition with the mainstream media and lost. Negative storylines peeled off his support the way water erodes rock, leaving a Republican coalition too undersized to repeat the anomaly that took place in 2016.
What’s striking is that the past four years before COVID-19 were actually reasonably good for the American people. Under the Trump administration, the United States achieved record unemployment and considerable economic growth, so much so that 61 per cent of Americans say they are better off now than they were three years ago. However, that did not translate into support for the president because of his failure to effectively communicate with the public. Instead of controlling the news cycle, President Trump fought battle after battle with the media over nanoscopic issues that often distracted the public from his successes.
In hindsight, those skirmishes brought self-inflicted wounds, but they didn’t bring down the orange swan. It was COVID-19 that acted as the kill shot.
In fact, according to NBC exit polls, the coronavirus pandemic was the most important factor for 17 per cent of American voters. Of those voters, 81 per cent of them favored Joe Biden. That, of course, is not an accident. Since the epidemic began, Donald Trump has failed to communicate consistently and has made it easy for his opponents to chastise his response to the virus. Casually dismissing the pandemic, publicly quarreling with the nation’s top medical expert, and eventually testing positive with the virus, amongst other such instances, were weaponized by Democrats to paint Trump’s approach as ineffective and unserious. And that’s precisely the impression millions of voters had when casting their ballots.
So voter fraud is not why Trump lost this election, but that doesn’t mean that the American electoral system is not without flaws. Indeed, American democracy is in a crisis right now, marred with widespread dissatisfaction, a concerning lack of political pluralism, and a decentralized set of election rules that set the tone for chaos. What the United States needs to do before 2024 is reform its electoral system. Here are ideas on how that could be done.
Break the Duopoly
According to the Pew Research Center, almost 60 per cent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way their democracy is working. Obviously, there are multiple reasons for that, but the Republican and Democratic Parties’ duopoly over the American political system is ostensibly the most fundamental cause of this discontent.
As Harvard’s illustrious Michael Porter has pointed out, the two parties might seem like bitter rivals, they actually have colluded in creating rules that guarantee their dominance and prevent competition. For example, the Federal Election Commission requires a presidential candidate to have a 15 per cent polling threshold to participate in a nationally televised debate. This was a rule obviously set to benefit the establishment parties. What it means is that although candidates like Gary Johnson (Libertarian) who polled at 10 per cent and represent millions of voters are never given an opportunity to make their case in front of the broader American public.
There are numerous examples of laws and rules like this that make it hard, if not impossible, for third-party candidates and alternative voices to compete. Consequently, we’re left with an alarming lack of thought diversity, millions of people discouraged from participating in politics, and a bipolarized electorate that is being increasingly pushed to extremes. Thus, there needs to be a systematic review and reform of the laws and rules surrounding elections. The barriers to entry for third-parties have to be lowered, allowing for more open competition and equal opportunities.
Introduce Ranked Choice Voting and Get Rid of the Electoral College
Another aspect of the two-party system and this prevailing dissatisfaction is the winner-take-all nature of American elections. Congressional seats are determined on an all or nothing basis, which means the candidate who wins a majority or plurality wins everything. The same goes for determining the presidency, where 48 states give all the electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state popular vote.
This inevitably forces voters to coalesce around the two major political parties. For example, a person might favor the Green Party, but knowing that the Green Party is in the minority and has no chance of winning, that person will either abstain or vote for the candidate they view as the “lesser of two evils.” This once again stifles political competition and disincentivizes participation.
The way to solve this is through ranked-choice voting at both the congressional and presidential levels. Ranked-choice voting means that voters vote for more than one candidate and rank their choices by their first, second, and third preference. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote.
This system of voting encourages more participation, political diversity, and promotes majority support. However, to make it possible, Congress would have to abolish the electoral college, which would bring even more benefits. It would force candidates to campaign across the whole country instead of focusing solely on a few swing states. In fact, Republican voters in deep blue states and vice versa would have more reason to participate because their vote is no longer meaningless. More meaningful participation translates into more satisfaction.
Standardize Federal Elections
The next step is to standardize the federal electoral process. Standardizing the election will bring more fairness and clarity—and less controversy and chaos.
A major source of the chaos that has followed this year’s race is the fact that each state has its own rules concerning elections. How you can vote and when you can vote depends on the state you’re in. This means there are unequal opportunities to vote, as some states have more days and fewer barriers to voting than others. It also leads to misguided accusations of voter fraud based on citizens misunderstanding the election process in states different from their own.
There is no reason someone in Pennsylvania should have more or fewer opportunities to vote than someone in Georgia. And likewise, there is no reason an election that determines the leader for the entire country should have different rules based on different locations. This is an easy and obvious fix.
That said, we should be realistic in the actual potential for reform. The truth is that American politicians love telling other countries how to improve their democracies, but rarely do anything to improve democracy within the borders of the United States. Republicans and Democrats have very little incentive to break up their duopoly, provide voters with choices, and cede authority to a standardized system that might threaten perceived advantages.
For that reason, it’s unlikely that lawmakers will make any fundamental changes. However, if you’re someone who wants to see American democracy succeed, then making such reforms should be a priority not taken lightly.
From our partner RIAC