By Tom Campbell
I’m thinking of ordering a bumper sticker that says, “I survived the 2020 election.”
We knew this election cycle was going to be ugly, but this one hit new lows — filled with half-truths and outright lies, conspiracy theories, nasty character smears and little substantive content.
Even so, voters in North Carolina understood the importance of this election and, as of Wednesday morning, 49.53% of our 7.8 million registered voters (3,631,565) have either voted in person or have mailed in absentee ballots that were accepted. In the 2016 election, 68.9% of all registered voters cast ballots. We should exceed that percentage this year. That’s good news because our government functions best when we all participate.
But this election pointed to ways we can do better. Here are 11 recommendations:
1. Shorten the election cycle — Our traditional May primaries and November general elections drag on so long voters lose interest. We propose moving primaries to July, keeping general elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Shortening the cycle will reduce the time we’re subjected to unattractive weariness and might reduce the costs of campaigns.
2. Eliminate runoff elections — North Carolina has been struggling with this problem for years. Runoff elections are costly, very few vote, they lengthen election campaigns and aren’t a true reflection of voter preferences. Other states have successfully instituted instant runoff elections. It’s time North Carolina joins the effort.
3. Make Election Day a state holiday — If we truly want to encourage people to vote, let’s make Election Day a state holiday as an incentive to voters. We shouldn’t need to bribe people to vote, but let’s remove as many barriers as possible.
4. Shorten the length of time it takes to vote — Voters should not have to stand in line more than 40 minutes. A good way to speed up elections is by shortening the ballot. We should list the governor and lieutenant governor together as one race. The elimination of judicial elections would also speed things up, especially since most voters don’t have a clue who they are voting for. Finally, many of our Council of State positions should be appointed, not elected. Shortening the ballot will allow more people to vote in less time and will not damage democracy.
5. Standardize voting equipment — The state should standardize the voting equipment used in each county to ensure conformity and eliminate confusion. We should insist on a paper trail for every vote. The state should pay for the equipment, with enough extra equipment in each county to accommodate the inevitable breakdowns.
6. We need better training for precinct workers — Generally, precinct workers are courteous and helpful, but they are confronted with many requests, especially problems like the inevitable voter who wants to vote out of the precinct in which he or she registered. Workers need better training, a code of conduct for anyone working in elections and better pay for those who serve.
7. Improved elections oversight and supervision — The recent lengthy legal fights over mail-in ballots proves our current system needs improving. We would suggest the establishment of a bipartisan election commission, empowered with sufficient authority to settle all the disputes over rules and regulations without interference from elected officials or other partisan interests. Perhaps they could be the same group we establish to draw impartial election districts.
8. Eliminate all voter suppression tactics — Voter fraud isn’t a significant problem (with the exception of what was uncovered in the 9th Congressional District in 2016), so let’s stop beating the drum that undermines our elections. But we all need to raise our collective voices against any hint of suppression, intimidation or tampering. Penalties must be severe enough to be a real deterrent.
9. Improve on what is working — Early voting has proved popular with voters and has worked well. Absentee mail-in voting is also popular, and we should improve ways for voters to drop off their ballots. We also applaud regulations requiring early voting sites be open at least 10 hours on each of the last two weekends before elections, with at least one early voting site for every 20,000 voters. Sites must be easily accessible and safe.
10. Eliminate candidate debates — Very few are informative or conducted well. That said, the forums sponsored by the Institute of Political Leadership this year were good. We would replace debates by asking broadcasters, cable outlets and social media sites to give competing candidates an allocated amount of time to speak to issues. These messages from competing candidates should be unedited and aired back to back.
11. Take the “big” money out of campaigns — I’m for freedom of speech as much as anyone, but our U.S. Senate race is costing $250 million, an obscene amount of money, the most in history. A large culprit has been the superPACs and independent expenditure groups that resulted from the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision. These groups air smear campaigns filled with distortions and half-truths because they can hide the identify of donors. At the least they should be required to clearly state the name of their group and list their donors and the amounts given. We would also stop the practice of political parties making “in kind” contributions to candidates that exceed state campaign contribution limits. Either we have contribution limits, or we don’t — and right now we do for some, but not others.
It’s enough we’ve had to deal with the pandemic this year. We shouldn’t have to cope with another election cycle like we’ve seen.
Tom Campbell is a former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion that airs on the UNC-TV main channel at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 12:30 p.m. Sundays and the UNC North Carolina Channel at 10 p.m. Fridays, 4 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. Sundays. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.