No Way To Jimmy With Federal Elections
After two of the more innovative careers in American presidential politics, spanning eight campaigns of both parties in six elections, Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Baker (as the presidents Bush like to call him) are the founders of international public policy academies in Atlanta and Houston, respectively. Carter’s, in particular, aspires to help emerging democracies abroad perfect their practices, and rare is the third-world election on which it fails to pronounce a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
Early this year, however, the former president and the former maker of presidents turned their attention homeward and announced a joint rescue effort for the democracy they know best. Citing opinion polls on public trust, the two Jimmies warned, “Americans are losing confidence in the fairness of elections.”
To avert what they see as not quite “a crisis today” from becoming one tomorrow, they launched a Commission on Federal Election Reform, composed of scholars, politicians of both parties, and a veteran political reporter. After six months of deliberation, they presented their findings in late September at a formal ceremony in the White House they both know well. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The PDF file for this report is very large and may take a long time to download. Readers using a dial-up connection might prefer to access the text-only version.]
Much of the report relates to issues of voter access and tabulation raised in Ohio a year ago and in Florida the election before that—many of them previously addressed by a similar commission headed four years ago by former presidents Carter and Gerald Ford. This commission, however, expanded its mandate to embrace some other processes affecting voter confidence. Once such doors had been opened, the current commission might have noted (but did not) the contributions made in years past by Carter and Baker themselves to the systemic flaws that need repair.
“The presidential primary schedule has become increasingly front-loaded,” the report laments. As a result, “less than 8% of the eligible electorate cast ballots before the presidential nomination process was effectively over.” Jimmy Carter should know. It was he who, as president a quarter-century ago, nudged a cluster of friendly southern legislatures into moving their primaries forward to blunt a challenge by New England’s Ted Kennedy. Thus began the “front-loading” spiral whose current outcome is the “de facto” national primary in early March deplored by Carter and his commission.
Baker, in turn, was the brains behind the Bush strategy that gave the final call in 2000 to a lopsidedly Republican Supreme Court. That outcome, of course, gave the American way of electing presidents its blackest eye in more than a century—awarding the prize to the candidate who, even by the most generous tally, trailed the other man by more than a half-million votes. Vladimir Putin has been known to smirk that, to win the job in his country, he had to get the most votes. Those of us with school-age children at the time are apt to recall struggling to explain the logic of all this in our homes.
So, leafing through the 113 pages of “Building Confidence in U.S. Election,” the words one keeps looking for are, naturally, “electoral college.” It turns out they’re nowhere to be found. How could that be? For half a century the Americans the commission hopes to reassure about the validity of their elections have been telling pollsters, by two to one majorities, that the country should get rid of it.
Jack Nelson, the onetime Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and the commission’s journalist, says the answer is quite simple. At the very first commission meeting, the two Jimmies peremptorily decreed the electoral college off the table. Politically, they declared, whatever opinion surveys may say on the matter, its abolition could never happen: The necessary amendment to the Constitution would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and the support of thirty-eight state legislatures. The states with the least population, they insisted, would never agree to give up their bonus mini-points in influence under the current arrangement.
There was little argument, says Nelson—though there easily could have been. When Richard Nixon, no pointy-headed chaser after lost causes, took a stab at getting an amendment, he won the votes needed in the House, and only the threat of a filibuster blocked it in the Senate. Filibusters are a lot harder to stage today—especially when the public (not to mention the nuclear option) is on the other side.