Robert A. Levine 5-19-15
No matter what you think about the results of the recent British election, you have to be impressed by how short and sweet it was. And inexpensive. If you contrast the British campaigns with those of the Americans, you realize how lucky they are not to have years of political advertisements clogging the airways and mailboxes for their general elections. The elections for Parliament must take place at least every five years, though they can be called earlier if the governing party or parties is so inclined and dissolves Parliament.
On the other hand, Americans have elections for Congress every two years, with every politician continuously campaigning and continuously raising money to pay for his or her campaigns. You can imagine how much time that takes away from what should be his or her primary jobs, the businesses of writing laws and running the country.
In the United Kingdom, the duration of the general campaigns are very short by American standards, usually six to seven weeks after Parliament is dissolved. The spending allowed in the election for an individual’s seat in Parliament is well under $100,000, with the parties limited to tens of millions in total. This can be contrasted with the billions of dollars that are spent on America’s presidential, Congressional, and senatorial elections combined.
And instead of America’s election campaigns getting shorter and less expensive, the nation has been going in the opposite direction with much longer and more expensive campaigns. A huge waste of money and time, the nation’s election process contributes to governmental inefficiency. It also allows lobbyists and special interests to insert themselves into the government, by giving and raising money for the candidates and helping them to write the laws.
While Britain’s election campaigns are short, sweet, and inexpensive, the way the results are tabulated and the 650 Parliamentary seats distributed are not representative of the total number of votes each party receives. Several organizations in Britain have been working for electoral reform to make elections more equitable and the number of seats a party wins in Parliament more in line with the votes they have tallied. A proportional voting system where seats in Parliament correlate with a party’s overall vote count has been one of the reform measures suggested. Currently, Britain has a first-past-the-post system or single member plurality deciding the member-of-Parliament from each district. This allows parties to lose the general election even if they have the largest number of votes nationally, but concentrated in fewer districts than another party which has won more districts. For instance, the Scottish National Party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats while receiving 50 percent of the Scottish vote in the recent election (which indicates there will probably be another referendum on independence in the near future). The S.N.P. will be the third largest party in Parliament even though it garnered only 5 percent of the total votes in the election.
America’s lengthy campaigns and huge expenditure of time and money does not make its elections fairer, or the distribution of its votes more representative of the people’s will. In fact, the system in place for the national elections may show no correlation between the total votes a party has accumulated nationwide and the way that translates into members of the House, Senate, or even the winner of the presidency. For instance, Al Gore tallied over 500,000 more votes than George W, Bush in the 2000 election, yet Bush won the presidency because of the arcane Electoral College system that determined the winner. In 2012 (and other elections), the Democrats polled more total votes nationally for members of Congress than the Republicans, yet the Republicans won more individual races and control of the House. This was the result of gerrymandering which makes some citizens’ votes count more than others. The same is true in Senate races, where votes in rural states with fewer citizens count more than larger states like California, Texas, and New York with more citizens in electing senators.
But let’s get back to short and sweet. Though both England and the United States don’t accede to the concept of equity in their voting systems that would make their nations truly democratic, England makes their elections short and sweet and inexpensive. It is time for America to do the same, limiting the funds that can be spent and the time that can be devoted to campaigning. In addition, increasing the terms of House members from two years to three years would help a bit. It is unlikely that reform will come from the nation’s current duopoly, reinforcing the need for a centrist third party devoted to reforming America’s dysfunctional political system.