America is fuming. In Super Tuesday exit polls, as many as 95 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats said they were “angry” or “dissatisfied” with the federal government. Conservatives and liberals alike talk about their frustrations with a dysfunctional political system unresponsive to their needs and disconnected from their lives.
Voters say they want a revolution. But that’s going to take more than electing personalities that channel our angry politics. If we want real change, we need to look at fundamental reforms to all three branches of our government.
First, we need to join most of the rest of the world’s democracies in moving to direct, majority-based elections of our presidents. In a late-January Washington Post-ABC News poll, 69 percent of respondents said they were “very anxious” or “somewhat anxious” about the idea of a President Donald Trump, and 51 percent said the same about a President Hillary Clinton.
Yet outside a handful of swing states, most voters don’t see themselves as having much influence on the outcome. And they’re right: It’s basically impossible for Democrats to lose deep-blue states such as California or for Republicans to lose deep-red ones such as Idaho. It doesn’t help that a president can win with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, as has happened with 15 previous presidents, or by losing the popular vote altogether, as has happened four times.
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We wisely got rid of the election of senators by state legislators with the enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1913. We’re overdue to abolish the Electoral College. The United States should be led by a president who can garner a simple majority of votes. And if no one reaches that threshold, we should require a runoff between the two leading candidates.
Despite the best efforts of the Tea Party and other insurgent movements, congressional incumbents maintain a death grip on their seats. Ninety-five percent of sitting congressmen and 82 percent of senators up for re-election won in 2014. They have an enormous fund-raising advantage, but even more important, they are protected by how district lines are drawn.
To give voters real choices, we need a constitutional amendment barring gerrymandering of congressional districts and requiring that districts be based solely on population numbers and geographic continuity. Then we should alter our elections to allow the top two vote-getters in the primaries to run against each other in the general election, even if they’re from the same party, from a third party or are independent.
While voters in Texas still might elect Republicans and voters in Chicago still might elect Democrats, they might elect different Republicans or Democrats. Moreover, in choosing between candidates of an opposing party, voters from the minority party might favor a more moderate and ultimately more representative choice.
We need to finally end the absurd politics of the Supreme Court, which concentrates too much power in the hands of too few justices. With such a small court, one justice can have enormous influence on rulings. That’s why the arguments in so many cases, including the Texas abortion case heard this month, are pitched to a single swing justice. It’s why confirmations have become so traumatic, as the deadlock over the replacement of Justice Antonin Scalia vividly shows.
A larger Supreme Court would diminish the power of individual justices and increase the chances that the best legal minds could get confirmed. I’ve advocated for the expansion of the court to 19 members. That’s about the average size of a U.S. circuit court and in line with other major democracies. (Germany’s high court has 16 members, Japan’s has 15, and Britain’s has 12.)
The current size of the U.S. Supreme Court is arbitrary, related to the number of federal circuits in the late 1800s. The Constitution leaves it to Congress to determine how many justices the court needs. So we could expand through legislation rather than constitutional amendment. I’d propose ramping up gradually, preventing any president from appointing more than two justices to the new seats. And while we’re at it, we should pass legislation that allows cameras in the Supreme Court, so citizens can watch how the justices address cases that affect their lives and monitor the justices’ competence.
Americans are neither irrational nor apathetic. They’re alienated, because all the branches of the U.S. government have insulated themselves from the public to a dangerous degree. Rather than treating voters like barbarians at the gate, the government should let them in and allow them a more direct and meaningful role. Now that would be a revolution worth watching.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University.