Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A "Handicap Principle" for Electoral Politics

Periodically, the idea of term limits for political office gains traction. I have some feelings of support for term limits, but I also have some reservations. While there are crooks and incompetents who have been in office for extended periods, there is no shortage of newly-elected ones. Conversely, some long-time office-holders have demonstrated genuine leadership beneficial to the nation. A separate but related issue is that the electorate is frequently given no good choices.

Here I make a procedural suggestion that differs from strict term limits, and which permits genuinely good leaders to continue to serve while making it progressively harder for bad ones to continue.

There would be an incrementing threshold for re-election; for Congress, the percentage of the cast votes required for election/reelection would equal 50 plus the number of years served in that office. Thus a Senator seeking re-election after one term, for example, would be required to get 56% of votes cast. A Representative seeking re-election after one term would be required to get 52%. In order to be realistic regarding margins achievable for the legislative branch, we might choose to cap the total required at somewhere between 62% and 68%. As for a President, given the extraordinary power and responsibility of the office, and the nearly four years he/she will have had to demonstrate competence (or lack thereof), the reelection threshold should be at least 60% of votes cast. That is not outlandish; a 60% grade on an exam is barely a "D".

Under this system, both the challenger and the incumbent might fail to reach their respective thresholds for election or reelection. In such a case, a new election would be held, with all previous general election candidates barred from participating. (Actually, irrespective of the presence of a differential threshold for new candidates and incumbents, all elections should present the option of a "no" vote, which, if chosen with greater frequency than every candidate for that office, should necessitate a new election with fresh candidates).

My proposal should increase the average level of competence and honesty by three mechanisms: First, the aforementioned bar to continued participation by general election candidates with previously-demonstrated mediocre performance would promote the rise of new and hopefully better choices. Second, the "incumbent handicap" would encourage inadequate current officeholders to retire rather than seek reelection. Third, that handicap would incentivize the party structure and/or primary voters to replace an inadequate incumbent for the next election, to increase the likelihood of a party candidate winning.

The "handicap principle" appears to apply in biology. Perhaps it's time to apply it to electoral politics.

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