No more elections like this one

Bonnie Kristian
·5 min read

This has to stop.

We can't do another election like this. I don't mean the outcome — I don't anticipate being happy about that, either, but as I write this on Tuesday, it's still unknown. Nor do I mean the election process proper — proposals like moving to a national popular vote (which would require a constitutional amendment) or changes to voting method (which would take state-by-state legislation).

I mean what we commonly call "the election," which is more precisely the presidential campaign season, an utter fiasco that consumes half our public attention half the time and makes our country meaner, stupider, and more frightening. The way we are "helped" to choose our presidents is not conducive to choosing well, nor does it advance us in the necessary task of living with each other after the choice is made.

The most obvious and achievable reform is drastically shortening the campaign timeline, which since 1976 has roughly doubled in length and will, at this rate, span the entire presidential term by the time my children can vote. The 2016 election ran 596 days from the first candidacy announcement to Election Day; this year, it was either 1,194 days (if we count John Delaney's July 2017 announcement) or 673 days (if we go from Elizabeth Warren's race entrance in December 2018).

Four years ago, my colleague Damon Linker argued for a six-month campaign season, four months for the primaries and two for the general. I agreed then, but now I think he was too generous. We could do it in less than half that time — say, a month to pick nominees and a month to pick a winner. I'm thinking two rounds of three weeks of Tuesday night debates, and on the fourth Tuesday, an election: Debate, debate, debate, vote. Debate, debate, debate, vote.

That's the timeline of a book club, a gym class, Christmas decorations in grocery stores, or a new season of Ted Lasso. It's a timeline to which our attention spans are actually suited. In a two-month campaign season, we could sustain a level of interest and scrutiny that's now impossible. We might well learn more in less time. And crucially, this change could be feasible without a constitutional amendment. The Constitution gives Congress authority to determine when our elections happen, and if Congress can set an end date for campaigns, why not a start date?

I expect there'd be court challenge on free speech grounds, but it's not as if the federal government doesn't regulate campaigning already. The Federal Election Commission requires candidates to register their campaign committees at a certain fundraising mark; it could pin registration to a date as well. Plenty of government agencies have annual filing schedules. (We'd need a start date for exploratory committees, too, lest we have two-month campaigns preceded by two years of "exploration.") Campaigning may technically be a private activity, but shortening its timeframe strikes me as closer to curtailing state harassment than infringing on First Amendment rights.

With a brief campaign season, candidates would have less time to raise and spend enormous sums of money irritating the average American. Yet just to be safe, we should cap what their campaigns can spend, too. About three in four Americans already support such limits, but creating them would require a constitutional amendment thanks to a 1976 Supreme Court ruling. That seems unlikely, but it's perhaps less of a long shot than more controversial ideas like abolishing the Electoral College. If successful, a spending cap amendment could help level the playing field in the primaries, dampening the effects of personal wealth and the support of the major party establishments. If low enough, caps would shield us from this endless battery of ads, too.

And finally, speaking of ads, campaign text messages are a scourge upon the Earth, and one — along with campaign mailers and phone banking — significantly made possible by public voter records. Though it's impossible to claw back data released in the past, states should publicize far less of voters' information, at minimum removing phone numbers and email addresses from publicly available voter rolls. Some states do restrict voter data to prevent identity theft, commercial use, and the like. Yet, perversely, even the most restrictive states still give their data to candidates, who often use it to address themselves only to the most engaged portion of their base, exacerbating negative partisanship and ignoring voters with whom they might have to attempt persuasion.

Our long campaign season is exhausting. Even President Trump, whose enthusiasm for the adulation of the campaign trail seems boundless, sounds tired this year. These elections have become a multi-year marination in dilute anxiety and animosity, almost all of which accomplishes nothing beyond embittering our relationships and dulling us to issues of real policy import. We focus on gaffes and irrelevancies as distraction from literally hundreds of days of pointless bickering and polls. It's got to end.

Getting this all over in an intense 60 days, at a much lower cost and far less badgering, would still leave us with a new president, you know. And, at the rate we've been going, maybe a better one.

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