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Matthew Streb
Matthew Streb

Rethinking American Electoral Democracy

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

February 7, 2008

Note to editor: For review copies of “Rethinking American Electoral Democracy,” please contact David Wilfinger at david.wilfinger@taylorandfrancis.com.

In new book, NIU political scientist touts
less-is-more approach to American democracy

Suggested reforms include revamp of presidential primary

DeKalb, Ill.—Northern Illinois University Political Scientist Matthew Streb says the presidential primary season need not be as long and grueling as a Chicago winter.

His solution: Do away with individual state primaries, Super Tuesday and the entire current system in favor of a national single-day primary election.

Streb convincingly argues in favor of a national primary in his new book, “Rethinking American Electoral Democracy” (Routledge, 2008). Due out in mid-February, the book provides a critical examination of the state of electoral democracy in the United States and an analysis of the major debates that rage among scholars and reformers.

Ultimately, Streb argues for a less burdensome democracy, one in which citizens can participate more easily. The presidential primary provides a prime example. Reforms could make the process less fatiguing on voters, Streb says.

“The national primary season might be entertaining, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says. “It places far too much emphasis on results in early and often less populated states. And it’s the only election where we don’t all show up on the same day and vote.”

What would make more sense, according to Streb, is a national single-day primary with “instant runoff voting,” a process that asks voters to rank candidates in order of preference and ensures a majority winner.

The NIU political scientist says a single-day national primary would provide equity among voters, bring dominant national issues to the forefront, increase voter turnout and shorten a campaign season that is tediously long—in fact far longer than in other democratic countries.

In “Rethinking American Electoral Democracy,” Streb also argues in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, reducing the number of elections, use of non-partisan redistricting commissions and an easing of voter-registration rules and of ballot requirements for third-party and independent candidates.

“A central theme in this book is that we shouldn’t overburden citizens,” Streb says. “Democracy is a good thing, everyone agrees, but more democracy isn’t always best. There are times when it doesn’t make sense to have citizens vote for certain offices and go to the polls numerous times in one year. In Georgia, for example, voters have the potential to go to the polls as many as six times this year alone.”

Other reforms favored by Streb include:

  • Elimination of campaign finance restrictions. Concerns about vote buying are overstated, says Streb, who notes that the well-known “incumbency advantage” has grown since campaign-finance regulations were added. He argues that removing restrictions on donation amounts would reduce the time candidates now must devote to fundraising and make it easier for challengers to raise money, thus making campaigns more competitive. Another plus: Studies have clearly shown that voters’ knowledge about an election increases as spending increases; turnout goes up as well. Requiring individuals or organizations to disclose contributions of $250 or more would keep the system transparent.
  • A reduction in the number of elected posts. Streb says a dramatic reduction in the number of elected offices at the state and local levels would make it easier for Americans to participate more effectively in elections. He believes Americans are asked to make too many decisions on administrative posts that they know little about and have nothing to do with policy. “Do we really need to vote for coroner?” he asks. Streb also notes that the election of judges creates the potential for significant conflicts of interest that can undermine due process and the justice system. Few people are informed about judicial candidates when they go to the polls, Streb says, and many can’t recall the name of a single judge they’ve ever voted for.
  • A reining-in of ballot initiatives. The initiative process allows citizens to vote directly on policy issues such as lowering taxes or increasing education spending. In a sense, it represents democracy in its purest form. But Streb says that initiatives, when overused, place an undue burden on voters. While living in California in 2004, for example, Streb was asked in a single election to vote on 16 statewide initiatives. Moreover, the process often undermines legislatures and the courts, making officials’ jobs more difficult. “Initiatives should be used carefully and sparingly. I don’t believe they should be related to tax and spend issues,” Streb says.

More information on Matthew Streb’s new book is available online at www.routledgepolitics.com/books/Rethinking-American-Electoral-Democracy-isbn9780415961394.

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