In Defense of Midterm Elections

This op ed piece in the New York Times by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan argues that midterm elections should be eliminated.  I could not disagree more.

The piece offers a variety of reasons for eliminating the midterm elections and replacing them with elections every four years, with House members serving four year terms and Senators 8 years terms.  These reasons include a smaller number of people voting during midterms, consisting of whiter, richer, and more educated voters, and the midterms weakening the President.  Under the reform, politicians would have more independence from voters, and there would be less gridlock.

Here are my reasons for supporting midterms and opposing this reform.

1. Several years ago, I wrote an article arguing that the Constitution’s original meaning placed significant limits on ordinary political actions that change the pattern of institutions in the country. Even if a single party controlled the Congress and the Presidency, it could not transform the country. That changed with the modern Court’s departures from the original meaning.

Existing constitutional law allows Congress and the President largely unlimited authority to pass legislation that changes the pattern of institutions in the country (except for laws that infringe constitutional individual rights).  Thus, an administration from a party that controls the Congress can transform the country as the New Deal and the Great Society did.

The main check on these transformations is the midterm elections.  These elections give the country a chance after two years to stop a Congress and President from taking actions it opposes.  That is an important – an essential element – of limited government.  Thus, the New Deal only ended in 1938, when the Democrats lost big.  And the Great Society ended in 1966, when the Democrats again suffered a devastating loss.

I make this argument in this paper, where I apply it to the New Deal, the Great Society, the Clinton Administration, and the early Obama Administration.

2. Schanzer and Sullivan argue that the midterms make the President weaker and make it harder for the Congress to take actions without having to attend to the present concerns of the voters. But these are good things, not bad things. The modern administrative state has provided the President with a variety of additional powers, so checking his power is a benefit.  Moreover, administrative agencies operate to insulate from the voters many policy issues; eliminating the midterms would move the government even further in that undesirable direction.

3. Schanzer and Sullivan claim that the electorate for the midterms “has been whiter, wealthier, older and more educated than during presidential elections.” It is not clear why this (apart from race) is a problem.  More generally, it seems likely that the midterm electorate is more knowledgeable about politics, which is a good thing.  In fact, one might argue that having both presidential elections and midterms is desirable, because it allows both the uninformed and informed a predominant voice.