I. In Focus This Week
This isn’t your Founding Fathers' elections system
What would they think?
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our nation with hotdogs, fireworks and apple pie, we here at electionline thought we would ask elections folks one simple question about the state of elections today:
If the Founding Fathers could see American elections today, what do you think would surprise them most?
Some of the responses are below. Have a very happy and safe Fourth of July!
Technology and voting by mail. — Brenda Sorensen, auditor, Klickitat County, Washington.
As an aside, since the U.S. Postal Service was created by the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, one has to wonder what the Founding Fathers would think about the modern postal service as well!
I believe they’d be surprised by how the franchise has spread to now include those who are not landowners, people of all races, to women and to citizens as young as 18 — and also by the number of people who have the chance to vote, but don’t take the opportunity. — Wendy Underhill, National Conference of State Legislatures.
[Th]e fact that for most important elected offices a candidate’s party affiliation is listed right there on the ballot, encouraging party-based voting, when the Founders despised political parties and hoped to avoid permanently entrenched ones; thus, the fact that it’s been the same two parties competing against each other since the 1860s, I think, would surprise and disturb them more than anything else. — Edward B. Foley, director Election Law @ Mortiz and Charles W. Ebersold and Florence Whitcomb Ebersold Chair in Constitutional Law.
I think they would be surprised that even with all the improvements in technology and processes, the core event – a community coming together to voice their choice – has been maintained. They would be surprised we’ve honored their republic, and we’ve kept it. — Michael Ertel, supervisor of elections, Seminole County, Florida.
I think the Founding Fathers would be surprised at how omnipresent elections are today – how often, how everywhere – compared to how infrequent and geographically limited they were in their day. — Doug Chapin, director, Program for Excellence in Election Administration, Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Consider these dates, July 4, 1776, September 17, 1787, July 9, 1868, August 18, 1920, August 6, 1965 and July 1, 1971. All these summer dates represent significant milestones in the forward progress of American Democracy. On July 4, 1776, the thirteen United States of America declared their independence; on September 17, 1789, the Constitution for the United States of America was signed and sent for ratification to those thirteen states; on July 9, 1869, after a brutal civil war, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the civil rights of all Americans was ratified; on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified giving women the right to vote; on August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed allowing African-Americans to finally realize the suffrage guaranteed by the 15th Amendment; and on July 1, 1971, suffrage was extended to every citizen over the age of 18. Would the founders be surprised? Undoubtedly, but I hope they would also be proud of the hard work we have done to include more and more diverse voices in our elections and the work we are still now doing to keep our elections free, fair and accessible to every eligible voter. — Elisabeth MacNamara, president, League of Women Voters of the United States.
By mail voting! — Steve Rawlings, Davis County, Utah clerk/auditor. Davis, like many other Utah counties has recently made the move to largely vote-by-mail elections.
I suspect that what would surprise the Founding Fathers the most is the complexity and diversity of elections around the country. I bet they'd be surprised by how many people run for office (think of the 35 people running for Mayor of Minneapolis last year, as one example). I wonder if they would be surprised by ballot measures and propositions. Not the idea that the people might make these decisions, but that they are on the ballot rather than a vote at a town meeting. But I hope they would not be surprised at all that elections have changed over the years, reflecting changes in society. — Whitney Quesenbery, Center for Civic Design.
The most true and, lesser discussed option, I think, is the amount of direct representation that occurs in elections. At the beginning of our country Madison (probably) wrote federalist 68 that advocated for the electoral college because of a perceived need for indirect representation in elections; Jefferson wrote “The Natural Aristocracy” which, although he (I believe) later recanted, advocated the idea that the average person was less fit to make political decisions than a smaller portion of better qualified individuals; and Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures not the general public. Now today we have voter referendums, senators are elected by the general public, and Bush v. Gore in Florida still causes a bit of an outrage in certain voters because of a perceived lack of direct representation. I think this would be a very interesting read. — Mark Listes, William and Mary law student interning at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
(Photo Courtesy of the Fairfax County, Virginia Office of Elections.)
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