This story appears in the December/January 2023 issue of Forbes Magazine. Subscribe
The recent midterm elections raise several questions regarding issues that threaten the integrity of our electoral system.
Why can’t states such as California count votes as quickly as Florida does? Why can’t most of the voting take place on Election Day, like it once did? Do new systems, such as ranked-choice voting, undermine the democratic process?
Our electoral system in several states is already broken. Days after Election Day, the results from many critical races remained unknown, not because those races were close but because the counting process was—and is—interminable. California is the worst offender, but other states, such as Oregon, are sluggish.
For a fair and highly efficient electoral process, Florida is the model, the gold standard, in election management. It’s the third-most-populous state in the country—and along with Texas is one of the fastest-growing. Even so, ballots in the Sunshine State were all counted within hours after the polls closed. No fuss, no big court challenges.
Florida enacted important reforms after the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election, when its sloppy procedures and badly designed ballots led to protracted litigation and the notorious “hanging chads.” After that the state cleaned up its act by passing several reform bills.
In Florida, for instance, a mail-in ballot must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day, period. There’s no controversy over postmarks. The counting of mail-in ballots begins 22 days before Election Day. The count must be posted within 30 minutes after the polls are closed. Some states don’t even start the count until Election Day itself.
Besides the inexcusably slow counting in California and Arizona, another thing that stands out, particularly since the pandemic, is how extended the voting process has become and—prodded by “temporary” pandemic measure—is growing. In fact, the words “Election Day” are misleading. Voting in some states starts a month or more before Election Day and, given particular mail-in voting rules, doesn’t end until well after.
The purpose of having an Election Day is so voters can make decisions about particular candidates and issues at a given time. And the whole point of a campaign is for candidates to make their case to voters. Early voting, espe- cially when it starts in September, distorts the campaign process. It puts underdogs and lesser-known candidates at a disadvantage. Often aspirants create momentum as Election Day nears. But now it’s not an anomaly for a candidate to win the balloting on Election Day but still lose the election.
Another bad consequence is that candidate debates seem to be a thing of the past; at most there may be one verbal contest. In Pennsylvania, a telling—and the only—debate for the U.S. Senate race was held well after hundreds of thousands of ballots had already been cast.
While early voting via mail-in ballots is entrenched in many states, the time it begins should be minimized to two to three weeks before Election Day itself. Moreover, states shouldn’t send out ballots to one and all, as Nevada does, as this invites fraud. Mail-in ballots should have to be specifically requested.
There’s another trend that makes a mockery of the concept of candidates’ winning by receiving more votes than their opponents: ranked-choice voting. Nevada just approved it. Alaska and Maine already have it, as do several cities. Under this weird arrangement, voters don’t just cast ballots for individual candidates; they also rank the other candidates in a particular race in order of preference—second choice, third choice and so on.
If no one receives more than 50% of the first-choice vote, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and the second-choice picks for the eliminated candidate are redistributed. The process goes on until a candidate gets more than 50%.
This becomes really complicated for voters when there are a number of contests on the ballot.
In the real world, the ranked-choice system is very undemocratic. The deep-red state of Alaska elected a Democrat to the House of Representatives, even though that person would have been clobbered in a straight head- to-head contest.
Another electoral perversion is the so-called jungle primary that’s practiced in various forms by California, Louisiana and Washington. There are no party primaries; instead, all candidates for an office are on one ballot. The top two in that round—even if they’re from the same party—then face each other in the general election. This ends up reducing party accountability.
All these changes—way-too-early voting, ranked-choice voting and jungle primaries—erode the democratic process.