What we can learn from the British: Quickly elect leaders who reflect the party

July 14, 2016.

Republicans and Democrats are a year into a painful political season with months still to go before the election, both stuck with candidates no one likes very much. I propose below a way to select party leaders more reflective of the views of party members. And do it quickly too.

`           In painful contrast to our system of electing party leaders, the British Prime Minister resigned on June 24 and, less than three weeks later on July 11, his replacement as Conservative Party Leader, Theresa May, was elected.

Of course, the British have a parliamentary system so replacing the party leader is simpler, although not as simple as it used to be. Conservative and Labor Party leaders historically were elected only by the Members of Parliament of that party, a group of 200-300 or so, which could act quickly.

In modern times candidates for party leader are selected and screened first by the MPs and then submitted to the public members of that party for a vote. In the Conservative party the MPs vote on all nominated candidates. If there are more than two candidates, the lowest vote getter is eliminated after each ballot until there are only two candidates remaining. Then a postal ballot to select between the two is submitted to all the members of the Conservative Party “in good standing who have been members for not less than three months” before the vacancy.

In the current race by the end of the second ballot among MPs the two candidates remaining were Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. It was anticipated that the postal ballot would be concluded by September 9. However, in the face of apparently overwhelming support for May, Leadsom withdrew on July 11, leaving May the elected leader.

(For my fellow admirers of political skullduggery and revenge, the original frontrunner was former London Mayor and Brexit leader, Boris Johnson. Johnson expected support from his fellow Brexit leader, Lord Chancellor Michael Gove. At the last minute Gove said he would not support Johnson and would run himself. Johnson withdrew. The double-cross was not popular and Gove, after surviving the first ballot was eliminated in the second one. May’s first act as Prime Minister was to appoint Johnson Foreign Secretary.)

The Labor Party gives less influence to MPs in the leadership election process. Candidates must have the support of 20% of Labor MPs and Labor members of the European Parliament. The number of candidates is not reduced by balloting by MPs. Rather, all candidates appear on a ballot to be voted on by all Labor party members and members of affiliated organizations such as labor unions. This effort to graft a national election system onto a parliamentary one has resulted in a Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, popular with labor voters but not with the MPs he is supposed to lead in the House of Commons.

Voting in the Labor Party election is by Instant-runoff voting (IRV) in which each voter ranks all the choices on the ballot. When the votes are counted any candidate with a majority of no. 1 votes would win. If no one has a majority, the last candidate is dropped and his votes are applied to the second choice on each ballot. If necessary, this continues with another candidate dropped and those votes directed to each voter’s next choice until someone has a majority.

As we head into another four months of campaign season, we can only envy the British the brevity of theirs.

Can American political parties adopt a similar method of selecting a party leader? First we must consider exactly what a political party is.

In general party adherents hold a loose set of general values. Very roughly, in the United States about 30% of the electorate consider themselves Democrats and 30% identify as Republican. About 40% do not formally register with either party and consider themselves independents. Republicans hold views on most issues ranging from the far-right to center while Democratic views on the issues run from the far left to center.

Very generally Democrats lean toward liberal policies, strong, active government financed by progressive, even redistributionist, taxes and regulation of business and labor for the public benefit. Republicans generally favor conservative policies, smaller government, lower taxes and nonintervention in business and labor issues to foster economic growth. Both parties have veered over the decades from isolationist to interventionist and back in foreign affairs.

Because there are only two major “big tent” parties there are often widely conflicting views on issues within the party. Those with views on the extreme right or left contend with centrists in each party. In the Republican Party there is a great split on social issues between libertarians and the religious right. In most of the 20th Century FDR’s Democratic Party coalition included both Southern white supremacists and Northern urban blacks and civil rights advocates.

The parties are currently in the process of writing party platforms over which there is much fuss but which are generally of import only to special interests and zealots. They are ignored by party candidates and members alike. It is no wonder that Donald Trump has been content to let traditional Republican special interests play in the sandbox of the Platform Committee. Nor is there surprise that to get Bernie Sanders on board, Hillary Clinton has been willing virtually to hand over the writing of her party’s platform to his supporters.

Recently I shared my opinion that my party, the Republican Party, had been hijacked by disgruntled Republicans and non-party members during the Presidential primaries. A knowledgeable acquaintance pointed out that under our present system those very people now are my party.

The current presumptive Republican nominee has long held views inimical to Republican orthodoxy and has previously supported the presumptive Democratic nominee. He supports more spending and higher taxes. Even when he recites the party line, one cannot quite believe him. It cannot be that he represents the general values of the Republican Party. It may reasonably be inferred that he is not the choice of most Republicans.

The close runner up for the Democratic nomination is a long time office holder who just became a Democrat to run for President.

The current presidential nominee selection system is a mess. A hodge-podge of caucuses and primaries in different states at different times over a period of months often gives the aura of majority support to someone who has only plurality support. The early states have a disproportionate ability to wash out good candidates in a crowded field. One odd result of the “first in the nation” Iowa caucuses is widespread presidential candidate support for government subsidies for ethanol, which is essentially the diversion of food to energy. That’s a silly policy in a world full of hunger but good for corn prices and Iowa farmers.

While he was claiming the procedure was “rigged” Trump got a significant majority of the delegates with 13.3 million votes, although more than 16 million Republican presidential primary votes went to his opponents. Granted, as Trump points out, there were many other candidates – 16 others at the beginning – but he was unlikely to be the second choice of many of those voters. As I suggested above, Trump is not the preference of a majority of Republicans.

My proposal is designed to elect a party leader quickly with a much less chaotic process. It also aims to elect a leader who more closely represents the political values of party members.

I propose that the Republican and Democratic parties adopt rules for a nomination procedure similar to that followed in the UK for the election of a party leader.

The method of selecting and voting on candidates used by the Conservative Party produces a more effective parliamentary leader but would not work in the structure of the American electoral system. The IRV process used by the British Labor Party is ineffective to select a parliamentary leader but is much better suited to elect a candidate for President in a national election.

The prospect of a President Donald Trump or President Hillary Clinton highlights the benefits of the separation of powers and checks and balances devised by The Founders. Since we do not have a system of parliamentary government it is necessary to establish a method to propose candidates beyond those suggested by members of the Senate or House of Representatives.

The Proposal

            I propose that each party’s national committee establish a list of candidates to be placed on a national ballot. Automatic entries on the list would be:

  • A sitting President eligible for reelection
  • When the President is not eligible, a sitting Vice President
  • Candidates proposed by one-third of the party’s membership in the House of Representatives from at least 5 states
  • Candidates proposed by one-third of the party’s membership in the US Senate
  • Candidates proposed by one-third of the party’s elected State Governors
  • Candidates proposed by signed petitions of 1% of the party’s registered voters with no more than 20% of the signatures from any one state

Each party’s National Committee could add “viable candidates” by a majority vote of the National Committee. Among any others the Committee would vote on

  • Any names submitted by the party’s two most recent Presidential nominees
  • 10 party State Committees

Senators, Congressmen and Governors could each propose only one candidate for placement on the ballot. No candidate could be placed on the ballot without the candidate’s written consent.

The list of candidates for each party would then be voted on by persons who were registered voters in that party by February 1 of the election year. The latter requirement is to be sure that primary voters selecting a party nominee have some association with the party and interest in its success.

Candidates trying to get on the ballot by signatures could collect signatures between January 1 and March 31 of the election year. As there are roughly 150 million registered voters and assuming each party has about 45 million registered voters, a candidate would need about 450,000 signatures.

Voting would be by IRV (Instant-runoff voting). Ballots would be distributed on June 1 and returned by June 30.

Votes would be counted as they came in and the major parties’ nominees would be known by early July. The parties could have their traditional conventions to adopt platforms and vote on the nominee’s choice for Vice President and the usual meaningless infomercials of the modern convention.

The general election ballot would be unaffected. Other parties and independent candidates could get access to the November ballot in the same way they do now.

Candidates for the nomination would campaign during the signature collection period in January through March. The parties would conduct debates in April and May. (I have some ideas for those that will keep until another day.)

The distorting “intimacy” of traditional Iowa and New Hampshire campaigning can be replaced by the false intimacy of at least three major 24-hour cable news networks. It would be prohibitively expensive to conduct intensive advertising campaigns nationally as is currently focused on the early primary states but is that a bad thing? Social media would give a Bernie Sanders-type “grass roots” candidates a chance to catch on.

Computer technology should also make it possible for the parties to conduct their IRV voting without using the election mechanisms of the states, which would then be unable to take over the voting schedule. Convention delegates could be elected as they are now in state elections.

The general prejudice, applied at least to general elections, is to get as many people – no matter how uninformed or uninterested – to vote. This should not be the case in party elections. The February 1 party registration date is designed to confine, at least to some extent, the selection of a party’s nominee to those who generally share the party’s goals.

This should truncate the election season and, more importantly, promote party cohesion and produce nominees with deep support in the party.





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