As the new year rolls in, so are announcements from prospective candidates for the 2020 presidential election. Elizabeth Warren has already thrown her hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination. She’ll likely be joined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. On the Republican side, speculation is being fueled about candidates like Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Jeff Flake challenging President Donald Trump.
It’s official: campaign season has begun.
But wait — didn’t the 2018 midterms just happen? And aren’t we only two years out of the 2016 presidential election? Isn’t the 2020 election more than a year and a half away?
American election cycles are some of the longest around the world. By the time the 2016 election had happened, the presidential cycle had already gone on for over 500 days. Emma Roller notes in The New York Times, “we could have instead hosted approximately four Mexican elections, seven Canadian elections, 14 British elections, 14 Australian elections or 41 French elections.”
What makes our elections so long? There are a few unique parts of U.S. elections that incentivize them to drag on so long.
For starters, electoral terms are baked into the U.S. Constitution, meaning we know exactly when an election will happen. The presidency is up every four years, with senators and representatives up every six and two years, respectively.
Contrast that to parliamentary systems like Canada’s, which call elections only when the government dissolves. The vote following dissolution is held just months afterward.
The consequence of America’s fixed elections is that because the game begins early, everyone begins preparing early. With a timetable for when their next shot to run for a seat is, interest groups and politicians begin gearing up years in advance. They raise money by sending annoying email blasts asking you to donate. Political action committees begin sending out nasty ads and sponsoring toxic, one-sided political posts on social media. This acclimates us to a negative political culture and drains us of our energy before we even begin researching candidates. At some point, we become resentful of the process because it asks so much of us.
If we don’t become resentful, at the very least we become bored. Candidates spend more than a year on news shows, eating food and giving stump speeches at state primaries, and slinging mud at each other during painful-to-watch presidential debates. At some point, it’s hard for anything to jump out and motivate us to get involved in the election. After a few months, the election-season jitters ware off and the apathy sets in. We become desensitized to politics because nothing about it is special, just burdensome and exhausting.
Another factor contributing towards the long election season is America’s quirky primary process. Not only is there a general election to pick the candidate you want to win, but there’s a preceding election called a primary that decides who will participate in general in the first place. The dates for primary elections are scattered across the calendar with some happening as early as March and as late as September, but it means voters have to endure two different elections. When the time comes to pick the big winner, most people just want to get the whole thing over with.
Not to mention, packed in between presidential election seasons that essentially begin 19 months before election day are midterms, local assembly and mayoral elections, ballot initiatives, special elections and so on so forth.
The obscene length of the American election cycle makes politics exhausting. Luckily, there are a few things we can do.
The first is the hardest to change: revise the Constitution. America is not a parliamentary system, but we could learn from their short election cycles. Doing something as simple as consolidating the primaries that happen to a period of one month rather than six would be a good start. If all the primaries began in June rather than March, that would place the conventions in August and the general election in November. That would severely limit the number of primary debates and campaign stops, which would help reduce the constant exposure to the election season.
Additionally, we could change the way the media covers the election cycle. Perhaps the most excruciating part is being inundated with ad after ad after ad, all of them attacking candidates using ad hominem, below-the-belt character assassination. Namely, we could regulate large news companies and TV networks by reducing the amount of time they’re allowed to run the ads we all hate and cap the time they can spend covering elections.
Some might see that as a limitation of free speech, but stopping the 24-hour news cycle from breeding apathy is more important if it leads to better democratic outcomes.
Democracy is predicated not just on people’s right to vote, but on people’s willingness to participate. Jam-packing the primary process and adjusting the way politics is covered in the media are just a few ways we can start giving Americans the democracy they deserve.