Stealing the Presidency: A Scenario

It’s 1973, Spiro Agnew has just resigned as Vice President. Republican President Nixon appoints Gerald Ford as his replacement, but the Democratic Senate and House of Representatives, following the precedent set by future Republican Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell, refuses to hold hearings or consider the nomination, saying the next election is only 3 years away, and the voters should decide. A year later, President Nixon, refusing to resign, is instead impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate for crimes relating to the Watergate break-in. Speaker of the House Carl Albert assumes the role of Acting Presidency. He refuses to pardon Nixon, who serves time in jail. Albert is re-elected in a landslide in 1976.

This didn’t happen of course. But it could have, and something like it could still. It would not necessarily be a bad thing, but it’s not really what the founders envisioned, and surely there is a better way. The US Constitution is in some senses a great document, it has preserved a democrat-ish government for over two centuries, the longest in the world depending on how you count democrat-ish. But it is also deeply flawed in many ways, and it’s in some ways surprising there has only been one civil war given the structural weaknesses. The notion of checks-and-balances is great, until it leads to gridlock, which is fine, until it would actually be useful for the government to do something.

According to the Economist Democracy Index, at least 20 countries are more democratic than the US. Some of them because they have better people, perhaps, who behave in more democratic ways, but mostly because that have better institutions and constitutions that encourage and allow people to behave better.

The US should seriously consider constitutional changes to reform the institutions. There are so many issues (I have some pet solutions in parentheses), a few are listed below:

  • Imperial Presidency. (This is up to Congress and the Courts in large part, but there are Constitutional reforms that can reign it in — see below.).
  • Lack of Independent Attorney General and Treasury. (Like many if not all states, the AG and Treasurer should be independent of the Executive. Each should get more of the cabinet.)
  • Bizarre Electoral College rules (Just make Congress the Electoral College, and eliminate the so-called “popular election” of the President, it would be a huge leap forward toward a Parliamentary-style democracy with a minimal change to the actual Constitution).
  • Unrepresentative Senate. (If it can’t be strictly proportional for political reasons, then each state should still get a minimum of 2, but then each 3.2 million people gets an additional senator, who would still be elected statewide. Essentially this doubles the size, but the new members are all proportional to population.) (Alternatively, each State automatically gets 1 Senator, and 1 more for every 6.4 million people, if the desire to keep the Senate at a more manageable 100 Senators is preferred, or 1 per state + 1 for every 2 states + 1 per 4.8M if we like Dunlop’s Number of 150 Members).
  • Winner-Take-All Seats  (Move to proportional representation for the House of Representatives, there are many models, including multi-member seats)
  • A Duopoly of Parties (Move to ranked choice voting, so third party votes are less wasted)
  • Gerrymandering (Boundaries of districts should aim to be convex and minimize their perimeter.)
  • Voter Suppression (Instead have mandatory voting)
  • Political Gridlock (Reforming the Electoral College at least aligns the President and Congress for the first 2 years of the term. Reducing Impeachment/Conviction requirements to simple majority in each house (respectively) after 2 years might solve the rest. If the Senate and House are held by different parties, it still can’t happen for solely political reasons, and wrongful impeachment of a popular leader could be punished by voters at the next election.)
  • Campaign Finance (All political spending should be accompanied by a full disclosure of the funding source.)

In practice this many reforms could only be achieved with a Constitutional Convention, and everyone is afraid to do that since the first one was so successful at overturning what went before. But really, if it were so bad, the reforms would not be subsequently adopted by three-fourths of the states.

I have steered clear of substantive issues (gun control, abortion, budgets) which should be dealt with politically, and instead focused on process issues which the political system cannot easily self-regulate.