Supporters of President Obama, gay marriage, health care reform, and women’s rights are feeling more cheerful this weekend. But the prevailing mood around the country is more likely just relief. When the news cycle shifted to a devastating hurricane last week and it seemed like a welcome respite, you could tell the 2012 campaign was a dispiriting exercise.
American elections have become superficial, soul-sapping slogs through a small handful of battleground states, with much of the nation watching aghast as dunning campaign ads leave the truth in tatters. The barrage reduced one Colorado toddler, and probably a few adults, to tears.
Still, there is time to fix some of the system’s worst flaws before the next election. Here are three ways to make it better:
Manage the money gusher
Close to $6 billion was spent on campaigns overall.
If, as the US Supreme Court has ruled, money equals speech, then the 2012 campaign broke the sound barrier. The first presidential election since the Citizens United decision confirmed fears that a torrent of secret cash would drown out the voices of ordinary voters. Close to $6 billion was spent on campaigns overall, and the political ads — as artless as they were relentless — mostly debased the quality of discourse.
On Tuesday, 79 percent of Massachusetts voters in selected districts approved a non-binding ballot question asking Congress to back a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. That process will take years, and we should get going. But in the meantime, the “people’s pledge’’ adopted in the Massachusetts Senate race — abjuring outside Super PAC money — might have helped maintain a modicum of civility.
The pledge didn’t make the race any less costly – at least $76 million was spent overall — but it did force Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown to stand behind their campaign ads and disclose the identity of their donors. The result was a relatively mild ad war, with just a single “pants on fire’ ruling from the watchdog group PolitiFact. Faint praise, perhaps. But it’s a start.
The new Congress should also accept the US Supreme Court’s explicit offer to pass disclosure rules for campaign contributions — something the court said would pass Constitutional muster. The cloak of anonymity always makes it easier to slander an opponent — just ask the trolls who hijack the discussion in online comments.
Let the majority rule
Of all the fuzzy math that afflicts Washington, perhaps the worst is the US Senate’s calculation that a majority of its 100 members is 60, not 51. The knee-jerk use of the filibuster, or its casual threat, requires even mundane bills to get 60 votes. This abuse of a venerable Senate procedure can be ended with new operating rules adopted by the next Congress.
And let’s not forget the Electoral College. Sure, president Obama has mastered this game. But a popular-vote election would force future candidates to campaign in all 50 states, broaden the range of issues discussed, appeal to a wider electorate, and help heal some of our stubborn political divides. This, too, would require a constitutional change.
Over the past few decades, the country has sorted itself into like-minded regional silos, a process exacerbated by the winner-take-all Electoral College. Just look at New England, where only two of the 34-member congressional delegation are Republicans. Some may cheer the region’s distinctive liberalism. But when the red states get redder, the rest get stalemate.
Upgrade the apparatus
There is something stirring about seeing Americans queue up to exercise their right to vote, but the repeated spectacle of long lines, confusion, broken equipment, and hair-trigger legal challenges is unacceptable in a modern democracy. Mostly Republican efforts in several states to erect barriers to the franchise were delayed or struck down by the courts this year, but the rulings provided just a temporary reprieve.
To ease the Tuesday scrums, more states should adopt early voting, and the country should move to a system of universal voter registration, just as it does with selective service. For their part, liberals should stop being so squeamish about a national ID card. Why not call the Republican bluff about widespread voter fraud? Long lines are just another form of voter suppression.
As Obama said in his victory speech Tuesday, “We’ve got to fix that.”
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.