Guest columnist John Paradis: Nothing healthy about our elections

By JOHN PARADIS

Published: 08-02-2023 3:59 PM

‘I’m fine,” said the U.S. senior senator from Kentucky.

Wait? What?

Nope, you’re definitely not fine, I said to myself.

Fine, by definition, means “well.” Fine means “competent.” Healthy. Fit.

What we observed recently with Addison Mitchell McConnell III, however, shouldn’t be noteworthy in respect to just his physical or neurological health. Nor should it be about his repugnant politics or about his age and whether Congress is a gerontocracy.

If this were only about his mental capacity to serve, we should also be talking about 90-year-old Dianne Feinstein, the oldest U.S. senator, who former staffers say has a rapidly deteriorating memory.

But what torments me more than whether any one individual senator or congressperson is “fit” for office is rather the overall health of the governing institution itself: our system. Our body politic.

None of it is “fine.” It’s morally unwell, spineless. It has been for some time now.

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It’s rigged for the wealthy and well-connected. We all know that.

No wonder then that McCarthy’s freeze frame episode before the cameras, and questions surrounding Feinstein, have renewed calls for a closer look at term limits.

“Entrenched incumbency makes for an electoral system that is less fair, less competitive, and less representative,” Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant argued before the U.S. Supreme Court before it decided in 1995 to restrict states from enacting congressional term limits.

Although Arkansas lost the case, poll after poll since then shows widespread support for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress.

I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of term limits and have found the debate interesting, in an “order me another beer and let’s argue about it” kind of way. I admit that I find any means to remove tyrannical leaders like Mitch McConnell intoxicating. But I don’t think it’s a healthy answer, either. It’s superficially appealing and tastes good at first, but doesn’t sit well the day after.

I’m also enough of a skeptic and too cynical to believe it would, in actuality, cure what truly ails us as a nation in how we govern and legislate. There’s a reason why many libertarians, conservatives and the Heritage Foundation are utterly besotted with term limits. In their delirium, they believe liberals are what’s bad for the nation and anyone, even if it’s a Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert, is better than someone, anyone, who is “woke.”

“Look at the shape of the country,” U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman told The New York Times earlier this year after U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy cut several deals to become speaker of the House. One of them was guaranteeing a vote on congressional term limits. Norman, a South Carolina Republican, is the lead backer of term limits in the House of Representatives. “I could pick 435 people off the streets to get a better return on investment than with the politicians,” he said.

Ugh.

So be careful about what you ask for. Kicking out the folks who know how to make government work through term limits is not the way to do it. Term limits may make you momentarily feel good, but it can have dreadful and unintended consequences. Do we really want to turn over the art of statecraft to amateurs “off the street” and give more power to unelected staff, lobbyists, special interests groups and bureaucrats?

Ultimately, this debate should really be about the true disease in our nation: elections and voting.

Elections, after all, provide citizens with the real power to control terms in office by just voting bad people out of office. But I know that’s a Pollyannish statement in an era of mega campaign donors and unlimited corporate election spending. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it feels frighteningly impossible for elections to reflect the will of the people.

The real answer is the need for better, fairer elections and much improved campaign finance laws, starting with overturning the Citizen United decision, and by flat-out limiting the influence of dark money on elections.

Important reforms for greater transparency in how lawmakers vote and make electoral rules, and preventing politicians from gerrymandering their districts to keep themselves in power would also help make legislative bodies more responsive to voters. The discussion should also include ranked-choice voting, primary election reform and fusion voting.

These are all ways to help medicate our failing democracy.

So, yes, let’s talk about McConnell and whether he’s “fine.” And, yes, include Feinstein in the conversation, too.

But the most sobering antidote to our electoral infirmity lies first with all of us voting. And then with supporting all efforts to ensure everyone has the same right to vote, can easily register to vote, can get to the polls or can vote online or by mail-in ballot. Electoral reform is the answer.

Nothing is “fine” with the system we have right now. To say otherwise is classic denial, just like McConnell’s fantastical response last week.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence.

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