Electoral crisis isn’t necessary. Electoral crisis in Florida paralyzed the Al Gore/George Bush presidential election in 2000. Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states could have provided parallel crises in 2012.
Countries with a nonpartisan, nationwide election commission don’t have this problem. For the U.S. such an election commission could be conceived as a fourth branch of government empowered to run fair elections. This commission also could be mandated to form electoral districts so that “gerrymandering” and other anti-democratic drawing of electoral boundaries can be avoided.
India borrowed from British experience to establish and maintain an electoral commission widely applauded by bitterly contending political parties. The Electoral Commission of India also is a model for electoral commissions in several other countries established since World War II. The U.S. is the oldest continuous democracy in the world. However, we continue to operate with creaking, even dangerous, electoral institutions. We can do better, and now is the time to do so before the next election cycle overwhelms the possibility of constructive electoral reform.
Major considerations in establishing an electoral commission include:
- Powers to regulate elections in a nonpartisan, efficient manner. These powers should involve the authority to countermand and arrange for a new election in an electoral district.
- Appointment and number of commissioners. An arrangement similar to the appointment of U.S. Supreme Court judges is one possibility. An odd number of commissionersis necessary to avoid a tie in disputed cases.
- Drawing of electoral boundaries. Highly partisan legislators will fiercely resist giving up the power that results in safe seats for extremists in both parties. Nonpartisan electoral boundaries should lead to more contested elections in which moderate rather than extremist right or left views dominate.
Framers of the U.S. Constitution constructed a system of checks and balances that necessitate compromise. That system is in danger of collapsing under the triple threats of electoral fraud, extremist political confrontations and gridlock. An effective electoral commission can provide for fair elections and contribute to the founder’s goal of a U.S. political system based on compromise and moderation.
Paul Wallace is a professor emeritus of political science at MU and a Columbia resident.