The Columns

W&L’s Rush Offers Opinion on Why Less Democracy is Better Democracy

— by on June 1st, 2017

“In sum, this is a call for a little less democracy in favor of better quality democracy. The way our politics is constructed, Americans have sacrificed quality for quantity — and the cost of this decision shows each election cycle.”

The following opinion piece by Mark Rush, Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law and director of the Center for International Education at Washington and Lee, appeared in The Hill on May 17, 2017, and is reprinted here by permission.

Less democracy is better democracy — Here’s why

Outrage over gerrymandering and demands for electoral reform crop up after every election cycle from pundits and journalists whenever they see strangely drawn legislative district boundaries or a peculiar election result. The former occurs every ten years as states undergo the decennial rituals of reapportionment and redistricting. The latter occurs when a president wins the electoral vote and loses the popular vote. Yet, the root cause goes unaddressed.

In the wake of the election of President Trump, calls for reform of virtually the entire electoral process have arisen from all points on the compass: use redistricting commissions, amend the constitution to get rid of the Electoral College, loosen restrictions on voter registration, etc. Fact is, though, advocates of election reform frequently lose enthusiasm when they discover that reform may actually cost them a favorite incumbent. Furthermore, we find that incumbents — not surprisingly — are more than a little hesitant to call for reforms that might cost them their place in the legislature. Self-interest still guides politics.

What might we do to improve elections that 1) would have a generally positive effect, 2) would not pose much of a threat to anyone’s self-interest and 3) would not cost much in terms of legislative wrangling?

Let me suggest that we lengthen legislative terms.

Ask any legislator and she or he will tell you that they like having districts tailored to their strengths so they can decrease — if not minimize — the cost of and time spent on the campaign trail. At first blush, this would seem about the most anti-democratic sentiment imaginable.

That’s a reasonable reaction in the abstract. But in reality, we need to admit that the legislators have a point. In Virginia, senate terms are four years. In the House of Delegates, they are two years. This is a common arrangement throughout the United States. Only five states have longer terms for the lower house of their legislatures: Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and North Dakota have four-year terms. This means that in 44 states (not counting Nebraska that has only a one-house legislature), members of the lower house are in what amounts to a constant state of election campaigning.

In Virginia, the general election is in November. The corresponding 2017 primary election is in June. To get on the primary ballot, one had to file papers no later than March 30. The legislative session runs only through January and February. This means that legislators have barely more than one session to engage in legislation before they need to take on primary challengers in anticipation of a general election. Could this be too much democracy?

Not to mention, the American electoral process is incredibly expensive. Virtually every candidate has to run twice — in the primary and in the general election — every cycle. To campaign effectively in the election cycle, one must be out courting voters far in advance. So if our elected officials must spend at least half of their time in office campaigning to stay in office, it stands to reason that they might want to make it easier to hang on to the seat they invested so much time in winning. Cast in this light, it’s not hard to understand a legislator’s desire for a handcrafted district.

In essence, the urge to gerrymander districts at the people’s expense arises from the people’s desire to have primary elections and lengthy electoral processes. So why not make a minor modification: Make legislative terms longer and give our elected officials more time to spend on legislating and governing?

Incumbents would be less worried about constantly warding off challengers — especially from their own parties in primaries — if they could spend more time establishing a legislative record. Maybe they would not be so preoccupied with creating designer districts. By lengthening legislative terms, we would decrease the number — and therefore the overall cost — of elections. This might actually make for a better democracy.

In sum, this is a call for a little less democracy in favor of better quality democracy. The way our politics is constructed, Americans have sacrificed quality for quantity — and the cost of this decision shows each election cycle.

Everyone would win if this small reform were affected. Voters would benefit from less gerrymandering and, perhaps, better Election Day choices. Incumbents would be able to focus on governing as well as campaigning. Challengers would have more time to build better platforms.  Democracy would improve. From this perspective, a constitutional amendment to lengthen terms would probably be entirely uncontroversial.

Lengthening legislative terms may seem like a small measure, but it would have an extraordinarily positive impact on American elections.

Mark Rush is Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law and Director of the Center for International Education at Washington and Lee University. His writing and research cover law, politics, elections, democracy and professional baseball and football. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Rush.