Charles Lane argues that we should have fewer elections, for Democracy’s sake:

One of political science’s better-established findings is that “the frequency of elections has a strongly negative influence on turnout,” as Arend Lijphart of the University of California at San Diego put it in a 1997 article.

Yet in the United States, we constantly hold elections: Every two years, we elect a new Congress and, in many states, a new legislature. Every four years, that’s combined with a presidential election. Some jurisdictions squeeze local balloting — for sheriff, school board, judge, coroner, you name it — into the years between midterm congressional and presidential elections. Of course, these are often twice-a-year exercises, since a primary precedes the general election. Sometimes primaries have runoffs!

The United States and Switzerland don’t have much in common, but they both have (a) frequent elections, with Switzerland holding at least three or four national votes per year, in addition to cantonal elections, and (b) relatively low voter turnout. A mere 49.1 percent of registered Swiss voters cast ballots in the 2011 national parliamentary elections.

First, I believe there is some truth to this. For instance, we have far too many elected officials. First off, we elect judges when we really shouldn’t. But whether we think judges should be elected or not, for a lot of urban voters it overstuffs the ballots considerably. When I lived in Colosse, there were over 300 judgeships, and while their elections were staggered over time, there were still scores of them every single election. When I first voted at 18, I read up on every single race. But political nerd that I am, that didn’t hold up after the first few elections. I would vote straight-ticket Democrat on the basis that Colosse County was Republican and any Republican judge close enough for my vote to matter was probably a lousy judge. (Colosse County is now not so red, so I don’t know what I would do.) There are also multiple executive positions at every level of government, many of which probably don’t need to be independently elected. I also question the city/county distinction and believe that as often as not we should merge those governments.

It’s also true that we have too many election days. This includes bond elections, periodic recalls, and special elections to fill vacancies. It seems reasonable to me that we should be able to reduce elections to an annual affair without too much of a problem. There may be some emergency bond election that may not be able to wait until November, and I think provisions can be made for those such as requiring turnout thresholds. If you can’t get more than 30% of voters to show up to vote for it, it can’t be all-important. I am not a fan of recall elections generally, but absent something impeachment-worthy (where impreachment is a possibility) the solution is to work it so they’re up for election the next November along with whatever other elections are being held. And I believe we can – and should – restructure how we handle succession in case of a death or retirement. I also support IRV to avoid runoffs (and hell, maybe do away with primaries).

Beyond that, though, I believe that holding national elections every four years – and only every four years – is a terrible idea. I don’t believe that it’s too much to ask voters to come out once a year. I’m open to “voting week” instead of “voting day” if that’s the hangup, despite my general skepticism of excessive early voting opportunities. And voters who can’t be bothered to vote once every two years don’t especially deserve to have their voices heard. This may create some discomfort at the national level with the “two electorate problems” but canceling elections is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Realignment is constantly shifting, and the situation will resolve itself at some point. I prefer both the voter feedback that midterms can provide, as well as having different elections devoted primarily to different levels of governments. While the US may be a bit of an outlier when it comes to the sheer number of elections we have, in parliamentary federal republics provincial elections often do not align with national elections (and shouldn’t).

If I were in charge, we’d have election week every November basically going presidential-local-gubernatorial-local. It wouldn’t be strictly federal-local-state-local since legislator elections at the state and federal level should still be staggered, but that does have the advantage of boosting turnout somewhat while also allowing the focus on elections to be more federal some years and state the others. I’m not reflexively against having state elections on odd years and avoiding that, though presidential-gubernatorial-local/congressional-local/gubernatorial lacks elegance and I’d need to look up how it affects turnout in odd-year states (Louisiana/Jersey/Virginia).

The current system is messy, and apart from certain electoral advantages I can understand the impulse behind deciding that policy should be decided (perhaps even at all levels) on very periodic elections but where most people show up, but I would prefer that be balanced with tighter feedback and a bit of separation between state election years and federal ones where the issues are often different. By all means, we should look at reducing the number of elections we have, but within limits.

Category: Statehouse

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32 Responses to Reducing Democracy For Democracy

  1. Michael Cain says:

    Just to toss something in, universal vote-by-mail as practiced in a few western states — with Arizona and California soon to join that club, I think — seems to increase the participation rate somewhat. From my own experience, I’d really hate to give up voting at my kitchen table and putting the ballot in the outgoing mail. It’s one of the few changes in voting practices that once implemented, gets overwhelming support from people in both parties.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      I agree with Michael, I love vote by mail. I’m much more likely to take the time to do research on candidates & issues ahead of time. I suppose it could enable voter fraud, but doing so would require a rather wide scale conspiracy which seems unlikely.

    • trumwill says:

      “… once implemented…”

      Which is why we must stop it from spreading!

      • Michael Cain says:


        I am always surprised (almost astounded actually) at how well by-mail voting filters my friends based on whether they were shaped by living east of the Great Plains or west. The eastern ones have various motivations: tradition, or sense of community from standing in polling lines, or “people who aren’t willing to suffer inconveniences to vote shouldn’t get to”. The western ones tend to be in the “I’m busy, make it convenient” line of thought.

        There’s a social-science PhD dissertation in there somewhere.

        • trumwill says:

          Some of it is the tradition and ritual, and elitism, but a lot of it is that I worry about ballot integrity for mail-in for the same reasons I don’t worry at all about in-person voter fraud.

        • Michael Cain says:

          For whatever reasons, the fraud argument has been unable to gain any significant traction here. My hypothesis on the matter is that the folks crying fraud here have shot themselves in the foot repeatedly. You can only claim fraud and then come up empty so many times before you convince everyone that the system does, in fact, work.

          • trumwill says:

            A system hasn’t been hacked until it has. There won’t be any major problems until there are. I see more vulnerabilities with mail in than others.

            I oppose electronic voting machines for the same reason, even though it hasn’t caused any major problems yet.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          As you say will, a system is unhackable until it is hacked. Polling places have been hacked in the past (see: Chicago).

          The thing is, hacking polling places or vote-by-mail on a scale large enough to actually hope to impact an election would require a conspiracy, which while not impossible, would be devilishly hard to hide.

          Electronic machines, on the other hand…

        • trumwill says:

          It would certainly take a lot of work, which is one of the reasons I don’t think it’s happened. The other reason is its (thus far) limited deployment. I think if we had it in all fifty states, and some folks figured out which states they desperately needed to pick off… it starts getting iffier. (Right now, you could maybe swing Colorado with the Perfect Plan, but the likelihood of those 8 electoral votes swinging the election is small.)

          Such a project is a non-starter with in-person voting. With mail-in voting, the number and severity of vulnerabilities are greater, the scalability is higher, and the likelihood of getting caught (even in the event the plot is discovered) seem lower. And the more people mail-in, the harder it would be to notice. (Making mail-in more vulnerable than traditional absentee ballots.)

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Hacking mail-in would require either committing wide scale mail fraud as the ballots went out to voters, or were returned by them, or it would require compromising the enough of the elections staff to have an impact.

          It’s a tall order either way.

        • Michael Cain says:

          Such a project is a non-starter with in-person voting.

          And yet, there’s a long history of “wholesale” voter fraud. Most of the schemes require someone on the inside and almost all are suppression of one form or another. Over-aggressive purging of voter rolls. Losing a box of ballots from the appropriate precinct. Small damage to the appropriate part of a pull-lever mechanical counter system. Too few electronic machines or ballots at some polling places so that people abandon (in the queueing theory sense). Aggressive observer challenges to slow things down (same queueing strategy). Without anyone on the inside, robo-calls advising thousands of voters that their precincts have moved (a different queueing strategy).

          My own perception is that fraudulent suppression is an orders-of-magnitude larger problem than individual ballot fraud. Vote-by-mail quickly and cheaply eliminates many of the ways to do that.

        • jhanley says:

          Voter fraud in traditional vote-at-the-precinct elections has been common enough that I’m doubtful it should be held up as much of a standard. Perhaps a “you have to at least do better than this minimum” standard.

          Vote-by-mail disperses the ballots widely, making it harder to do something illicit with them once they leave the central elections office. People are expecting to receive their ballots, and if they don’t come they’ll ask, so any large scale fraud would be revealed before election day, just by the sheer level of complaints.

          When the ballots are returned, they may be vulnerable, but no more vulnerable than in traditional paper ballot voting.

          It appears to me that vote-by-mail probably makes large-scale election fraud less, rather than more, likely.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Vote-by-mail fraud is easier in the sense that there is a single point of failure (the elections office), but harder in that those with an interest in the integrity of the election have fewer locations to vet or observe for fraud.

        • jhanley says:

          Why is a single point of failure worse than multiple points of failure?

          If we’re talking about a system where minor failure at one point relieves pressure that could cause a catastrophic failure at another point, I’d get it. But I don’t think electoral fraud works that way.

          It’s more like running a retail store, where you want to minimize the opportunities for employee theft. You can’t eliminate it, but you want to narrow it down to a few more easily monitored points (your second point), and ensure not only that those points are monitored but that everyone knows they’re monitored.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Single point of failure is easier in that I, as a nefarious election fraudster, need only subvert a single point in the chain. Which is awesome, if no one with a vested interest in the integrity of the process is aware of the point of failure or around to watch things.

          If the point of failure is made open & transparent, such that numerous eyes are on it at all times, subverting that point becomes exponentially more difficult.

        • jhanley says:

          I could be wrong, but I’m not sure voter fraud requires compromising multiple points in the system. I think any one point is a sufficient target to commit fraud, although some enable larger scale fraud than other.

        • Oscar Gordon says:


          We aren’t disagreeing here.

      • jhanley says:

        Yes, there are too many elections, a ridiculous number of them. Idealists might dream of an electorate that is continually involved in political decision-making, but most people don’t want the hassle, and you can’t really make them pay enough attention to make it worthwhile.

        The worst aspect is that at the local level everyone with a proposal that can’t gain majority support knows their best option is to run it through in a low turnout election, so we get minority rule in the guise of democracy.

        Vote-by-mail has only marginal effects on turnout, but it has high rates of voter satisfaction. I can’t understand objecting to a system that has had no experience of problems after 20 years of use and is extremely popular among those who actually use it.

        • trumwill says:

          What would you consider to be the ideal number of elections? Do you think my one-a-year is reasonable?

        • Michael Cain says:

          Excluding primaries, one per year seems reasonable to me.

        • jhanley says:

          I think one a year (excluding primaries) is probably too much. That’s fairly common in a lot of places and they tend toward low outcomes. My preference would be biennial. That’s not particularly a professional opinion, though, so I don’t want to leave the impression that it is.

        • Michael Cain says:

          Every other year would create problems here in Colorado because we’re a referendum-heavy state. Tax rate increases, including local ones, have to go to the voters. Any bill passed by the GA other than budget bills (and those with an emergency clause) has a 90-day waiting period to allow citizens a chance to collect enough signatures to force a referendum. In some cases, we’d be looking at a year-and-a-half wait between the time the referendum was announced and the time the election would be held.

        • jhanley says:

          Well, I wouldn’t force every state to follow the same pattern. I’d just recommend that Colorado and other western states reduce their reliance on initiatives and referenda, because as excitingly democratic as they seem, I think they lead to bad governance.

  2. CK MacLeod says:

    The point is to preserve a general perception of latent capacity to re-orient the system if things go too terribly far wrong, while generally discouraging any over-investment in government as such. The question, especially considering how much time and energy it generally takes to effect changes on such matters, and then to deal with unintended and unforeseen consequences, would be how much more or less voting or other changes would be required to achieve appreciably better results both in terms of the the “governance product” itself and in terms of people’s perception of it.

    I still don’t know why someone somewhere has tried a version of Buckminster Fuller’s electronic realtime direct democracy, as envisioned in NO MORE SECONDHAND GOD (the title essay, which was written on the eve of WW2).

    • jhanley says:

      “The point is to preserve a general perception of latent capacity to re-orient the system if things go too terribly far wrong, while generally discouraging any over-investment in government as such.”

      The point is ensure that policies can be changed while not creating too much reliance on government?

      Or just to preserve a perception of the possibility of change, a perception that may or may not be real?

      Words can be used to make ideas clear, or they can be used to obfuscate. They can even be used to obfuscate while signaling (cheaply) superior intelligence.

      • CK MacLeod says:

        There is no contradiction between the two alternatives, Professor. Both are contained within the statement, somewhat as two sides of the limited government coin. In other words, you seem to think that you don’t understand, but your explication as far as you take it shows that you do understand, or would, if your faculties weren’t impaired by your unnecessary presumptions.

        Until and unless policy is in fact successfully changed, we don’t really know whether the perception is real. Until and unless the effort is made, we do not know whether it would be successful, and it’s not especially in anyone’s interest, most of the time, to call for the effort or the test. (This all goes to the nature of sovereignty itself as per Schmitt, the classics, and some of the new-old thinking on the same subject from contemporary theorists.) Before that point, the general perception that the potential of the popular will is probably real, or must be finally real, or can finally be made real, re-assures the citizenry of some modicum of control, and introduces at minimum elements of uncertainty into the calculations of any overweeningly ambitious economic or political or political-economic elites: The demos doesn’t need and shouldn’t want to, and cannot, actively govern its affairs in detail via abstract political processes. It would be dangerous and at best a gross waste of energy. It or we govern our lives in living them, or would prefer to do so, while the presence of somewhat atrophied democratic forms preserves the potential in one way or another, even as the atrophy itself attests to our reluctance to exercise self-governance by that means. Attempting anything more is undesirable, as attested in the classical critique of democratism, and by the experience and observation of the American Founders as well as of the thoughtful citizen who among knows he or she could not really handle governing his or her own city, much less a world-grasping empire, and retains the traditional American suspicion of and distaste for government, next to a belief in the resulting mixed and messy government’s legitimacy. Its persistent failings re-assure us in this way that it is working as intended: not too well.

        This is just a roundabout and paradoxical way of explaining that popular government that is also limited government remains a blunt instrument, and that not just the Madisonian system but the whole American concept of government is aimed more at preventing the worst (tyranny, gross irrecoverable error), and otherwise allowing life to go on, within the bounds of the law and custom, than at achieving the best in the sense of the most efficient or most responsive governance. Or as Wilson put it, in lines that that Fukuyama uses as an epigraph for Political Order and Political Decay:

        The English race… has long and successfully studied the art of curbing executive powers to the constant neglect of the art of perfecting executive methods. It has exercised itself much more in controlling than energizing government. It has been more concerned to render government just and moderate than to make it facile, well-ordered and effective.

      • jhanley says:

        I’m pretty sure that being susceptible to change and only having the appearance of susceptibility to change are mutually exclusive options.

        And, no, I didn’t know you meant both, both because your style of writing obscures more than it reveals and because I assumed what it meant to reveal (if indeed you meant to reveal, rather than meaning to obscure) wasn’t self-contradictory.

        • CK MacLeod says:

          I’ll have to repeat myself, Professor: We don’t really know which is true – that the system is susceptible to change or only has the appearance – given the inherent uncertainty of human affairs and life in general. We don’t know whether the system that was susceptible last time will be susceptible next time. We don’t know that the system that was impregnable last time will be so next time. The “perception” of susceptibility will naturally be somewhat dependent on past experience, and is a good in itself up to a certain point. If the People vote too many times for lower taxes and instead get higher taxes only, then the People reasonably lose confidence in the system. The problem on the other side points to the problems of democracy or democratism – the impracticality and the dangers to self and others of too much so-called democracy (“so-called” because any democratic form always embodies democracy of a certain type or, to be more precise, in a theoretical configuration that will always have been imposed not “democratically chosen”).

          I’ll stop here because you all are having a friendly chat over desirable frequency of elections, I don’t really care whether the dog catcher is elected every four years or appointed by the Mayor, and have not desire to pollute Trumwill’s congenial blog with my speculation or our arguments.

        • jhanley says:

          Not that we could use a study of history to help us understand the system’s capacity for change. No, that can only be addressed by a philosophical approach that employs a turgid and cumbrous style to eventually reach the assumed answer, which is that we can’t answer the question.

          Hey, don’t mind me. I’m just a guy who was taught that crisp clear writing is superior, given that the purpose of writing is to communicate. I have an allergic reaction to writing styles that look like another Sokal hoax.

    • CK MacLeod says:

      I also see I garbled the statement about NO MORE SECONDHAND GOD. I don’t know why someone somewhere has NOT put his theories to the test.

      His radical democratic ideal, whose conception he dates to April 9, 1940, goes something like this (he sets it out in free verse):

      Democracy must be structurally modernized/
      must be mechanically implemented/
      to give it a one-individual-to-another/
      speed and spontaneity of reaction/
      commensurate with the speed and scope/
      of broadcast news/
      now world-wide in seconds.

      …and so on. It’s wonderful and visionary and very well-engineered and completely mad, the opposite of the lazy view I described in response to the Professor below, yet somehow converging with it, too, as very deeply American.

  3. fillyjonk says:

    Also, I suspect that in some Western states (like Arizona) that have really large counties and dispersed populations, getting to a polling place could be a challenge.

    Heck, even here, if you work long hours it can be hard getting in. A few times I’ve voted early (you can do that here, without having to state a reason) by going down to the election board the Friday afternoon before the election (typically my Friday afternoons are free-er than my Tuesdays). I also admit to skipping some of the “small” local elections where I feel as if (a) my vote won’t matter that much (“legacy” candidate who is about ensured reelection) or (b) it’s something like the School Board where finding information is tough and doesn’t *directly* affect me.

    I grew up in Ohio and the first time I voted (in Michigan) they still had the cool old lever machines, but I admit I could be on board with mail-in voting.

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