Reviving Democracy

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Larry Sabato, founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virgina and author of A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country (Walker & Company, 2007) believes that we should rewrite the American Constitution.

A More Perfect Constitution is available for purchase at


Larry Sabato

Comments [37]

figa from Brooklyn

Yusef Ali Jeffries-El is right. The grouchy old guys calling for national service are just trying to get kids to mow their lawns for free. I never hear anyone propose that we should require people who retire at 65 to spend two years performing national service to get their social security checks. If we want national service, create more jobs in the public sector or offer more funding for non-profit organizations. That doesn't take rewriting the constitution.

My wife's family fled Soviet Russia in large part because of their national service requirement. It was a national hazing system at best and at worst it meant fighting in Afghanistan. Sound familiar?

The problem in the US isn't that we need a new constitution. The problem is that our leaders don't abide by the existing one.

Nov. 07 2007 10:37 AM
J.C. from Minneapolis

Correction: I should've written "its" and not "it's."

Nov. 06 2007 12:22 PM
J.C. from Minneapolis

I also wanted to comment that I agree that Election Day is inconvenient. I think we should be like continental Europe and hold our elections on a Sunday.

In fact, I think Louisiana just held it's last election on a Saturday, so at least 1 state has the right idea.

Nov. 06 2007 12:18 PM
hjs from 11211

maybe u are right. but voting is so imporant to me if i had travel 10 hours to vote, i would. the sad truth is most staters don't care and will use any excuse not to vote. there are people who won't register because they don't want to be called for jury duty. another day off isn't going to make people care.
but maybe we should try it. why not. election day could be the day after thanksgiving.

Nov. 06 2007 12:03 PM
J.C. from Minneapolis

This guy was on another WNYC show a while back and I commented there that this ridiculous "national service" idea is built along the same thinking that says that if we make everyone go to church, then everyone'll be Christian. In any event, I disagree that apathy is rampant in the U.S. (just look at this message board!). Yes, a lot of people don't pay attention, but a healthy number do. And those who do not might be making a rational decision, but that's another topic.

I also had commented that having a larger army--which is what this idea would do--is not a good idea because the larger the army, the greater the temptation for the president to send in the troops. I'm very sympathetic to the problem that few Americans are directly affected by the Iraq War, but a surtax is probably the better way to go than to start drafting people.

An interesting sidenote: We forget that traditional democratic (small "d") thought has viewed standing armies as threats to democracy. In fact, 15 state constitutions ban standing armies in peacetime; another 8 constitutions strongly discourage them. See, for example, Minnesota Const. Art. I, Sec. 14.

Nov. 06 2007 12:01 PM


I totally disagree, I think more people would vote if it were a day off and quite frankly if you have to commute, don't live in Manhattan and have to work far from where you live it is a bit more difficult to go vote, not impossible of course...but there is so much apathy as it is there's no reason to create any more obstacles. make it as easy as possible to vote and no make there be no reason for any excuses to off for election day. Why not? I mean really...I fail to see how that could possibly be a bad thing.

Nov. 06 2007 11:53 AM
Stephen from Richmond Hill

Correction: my comment 30 above should read

"whichever candidate gets the most POINTS wins"

Nov. 06 2007 11:50 AM
Stephen from Richmond Hill

Antonio's comment 4 above mentions instant-runoff voting. Instant-runoff is actually only one of several ranked voting systems, and not necessarily the best of them. Some people prefer the Condorcet count (which is sorta complicated to explain). Others (including me) prefer the Borda count: out of 5 candidates, your first choice gets 5 points, second choice 4 points, and so on, and whichever candidate gets the most votes in total wins.

However, any of these ranked-voting systems would be an improvement on the current single-vote system, in which people cast a vote for their favorite candidate among those whom the news media have decreed have a chance of winning. If applied at the Presidential level, such a system would make the whole primary and convention systems irrelevant, because voters in November could express their preference among ALL the candidates, all at once.

Nov. 06 2007 11:46 AM
Stephen from Richmond Hill

Dr. Sabato's response to the on-air question about the interstate compact (Matthew's comment 8 above) seems disingenuous: if one state pulled out and brought the total participants below 270 electoral votes, the other states would no longer be bound by the compact either, so we'd be back to the current situation.

As for "it'll never pass", I don't see why not. It's in the best interest of non-swing states, which currently get little attention from Presidential campaigns. It's in the best interest of large states, which currently have disproportionately low electoral representation. (New York is both, so it's strongly in our interest.)

Nov. 06 2007 11:46 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

I think compulsory service is a direction we don't want to go in. We need to deemphasize rather than further emphasize the State in America.

However, if it were a precondition for voting rather than mandatory, I might be willing to agree to this. I am very much opposed to unconditional voting rights. I think on top of this, people should have to pass a civics test to get the right to vote and they would have to retake this test in the future to be able to renew their voting rights.

However, I think people who opted out in their youth should be able to do their national service at any point in order to get the right to vote. Closing it off at 26 will cause those who were immature in their younger years to be permanently disenfranchised after that window for service has passed, and I think that's a big mistake.

Nov. 06 2007 11:42 AM
hjs from 11211

who needs a whole day off to vote. voting should not take more than 15 minutes. if it does one should complain to their local board of elections!
if election was a holiday less people would vote. people would shop or visit relatives, as they do on every other holiday

Nov. 06 2007 11:41 AM
RosieNYC from NYC

The problem with our country is not the constitution but the level of political apathy and ignorance that the population of this country shows. It is the lack of involvement and critical thinking from the great majority of the population that has allowed the current administration to be so corrupted. You can make as many changes to the constitution as you want, but nothing will change as long as the citizenry of this country doesn't take responsibility and start getting involved.

Nov. 06 2007 11:35 AM

I hope in his book he discusses making election day a national holiday as well. It's ridiculous that it isn't a day off

Nov. 06 2007 11:34 AM
hjs from 11211

I like his suggestion to raise the number of representatives to 1000. It would really bring the representatives closer to the people.
also redistricting should not be handled by state legislatures rather by a non partisan commission. then we could end the winner take all system used to elected a president, as Maine & Nebraska have.

Nov. 06 2007 11:32 AM

I like both ideas. I'm a bit uncomfortable about compulsory service however the fact that it's not just military service does make it sound more appealing to me. However, i agree with Tammi's comment that there would absolutely have to be safeguards ensuring that the rich don't get to send their kids to the less risky assignments

I totally agree with the electoral college idea but would like to read his proposal in detail. I totally disagree with the electoral college system but his idea, so far, sounds better than just trashing it completely....just make it reflect the actual populace. I totally agree that the presidential election process is being held hostage by the Iowas etc and that absolutely needs to change...

Nov. 06 2007 11:30 AM
Laura from NJ

Not so! The educational benefits will not be beneficial enough to overcome the class bias for compulsory service! What will you provide, a 2000 or 4000 dollar scholarship when they're done? And NO housing. That's what americorps is like now, and it is absurd to subject america's young volunteers to live in conditions that are far below the standards of those they may even try to help! Volunteers who do not have the financial means are cast to a life of POVERTY! The system won't work.

Nov. 06 2007 11:29 AM
Janet Moyers from South Plainfield NJ

My vote was stolen twice in the last Presidential election: first, in the primaries, where it was over before NJ ever voted, and second, in the general election.How about a national 'primary day'?

Nov. 06 2007 11:28 AM
Amelia from Jersey City

I love the optimism of a constitutional convention. In terms of the national service option, it's useful to look at other countries that have that requirement. In Israel, people who have special creative skills like musicians and cinematographers get to continue to practice those skills in service to the armed forces. In Germany, young people work in hospitals and retirement homes instead of the army.

Nov. 06 2007 11:28 AM
Yusef Ali Jeffries-El from Brooklyn, NY

I find it fascinating that older people are always eager to mandate *voluntary* national service from younger people while exempting the same from older people.

Nov. 06 2007 11:27 AM
Michael from Park Slope

What does Larry think of Lanny (sp!) Guinier's concept of proportional voting?

Nov. 06 2007 11:27 AM
Enzo from East Village, Manhattan

CH's comment is good.

Proportional electors would make every vote count. This winner-take all system is whack. It is disenfranchising, and it neglects the cities.

Of course, this reform will shake things up, making the parties work harder, so they'll oppose it to the end.

Nov. 06 2007 11:27 AM
MichaelB from UWS of Manhattan

I give credit to the professor. He has thought these ideas through much more than most people who just shoot ideas from the hip.

His ideas show balance, and understand unforseen consequences.

I have fully endorsed a mandatory national service program for years. Another benefit is that young people get to spend time with others from different walks of life, different econonomic strata, and different regions of the nation. The military served as a social equalizer and integrator in the past.

Nov. 06 2007 11:26 AM
Rob Johnston from West Village

I support the idea of mandatory national service and ask all to call on the presidential candidates to support it. See Everyone Serves to sign a petition encouraging them.

Nov. 06 2007 11:26 AM
Joel from Brooklyn

Dr Sabato’s proposal for mandatory universal service sounds much like the one Robert Heinlein suggested in “Starship Troopers”, except that Heinlein was adamantly opposed to any sort of draft; he preferred to tie voting rights to having completed this service.

Nov. 06 2007 11:23 AM
mark from south organge, nj

Regarding the 2-year volunteer/military service (and with the military service aside), how do these these young people pay their rent during their particiapation in this program?

Nov. 06 2007 11:21 AM
tammi from Brooklyn

Regarding the mandatory service. Who would make sure that the wealthier segment of the population wouldn't get sent to the cushier services and the poorer segments pushed into the riskier?

Nov. 06 2007 11:21 AM

I agree completely with the idea of universal service. But EVERYONE must serve - absolutely no excpetions.

Nov. 06 2007 11:20 AM
Enzo from East Village, Manhattan

On the Electoral College: well-done, Professor! I've often thought of abolishing it between the Electoral-Gore debacle, and the quadrennial snub of NY State in national elections. My vote is taken for granted here, while the candidates meet most of the people in Iowa and New Hampshire. Clearly, this is why NYC, which gives so much to the USA, is neglected, such as transit funding, healthcare, education, and housing.

The national service requirement is interesting, but sub-minimum wage! We can't live on minimum-wage plus 33% in NYC. How are these young folks supposed to live?

Nov. 06 2007 11:20 AM

The idea of National Service is a great idea. I am in an MPA program and we talk a lot about engagement. I also think, the current "millenials" want to be involved. I am a Gen Xer and I got involved in the non-profit sector on my own, but Millenials are modivated, they have passion and it would be a shame to see it wasted.

Nov. 06 2007 11:18 AM
Matthew from Columbia University

Fortunately, there's a simple way to transform the College into a "one vote, one vote" system, without a constitutional amendment. Maryland passed a law in April committing its electoral votes to the nationwide popular-vote winner, providing that the other 49 states do the same (New York Times, "Electoral Vote Change," April 11, 2007).

Large solid-red and solid-blue states can do even better, giving their electoral votes to the national popular-vote winner in the next election. They would gain significant attention from candidates, and would likely see a surge in voter turnout, which could swing the national popular election. It's a risk, but not a large one; swing states would need to pass similar laws to retain their own importance, greatly speeding the reform process.

Nov. 06 2007 11:17 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

I think Sabato is out to lunch on the mandatory service. I mean, it could have benefits, but I'm unwilling to make this sort of socially-involved, paternal government. It troubles me to have the government forcing people to do ANYTHING even if it's beneficial to the society. And I'm someone who volunteers regularly, and I am a big supporter of the organizations mentioned. I just don't believe in forced volunteerism... because it isn't volunteerism.

Nov. 06 2007 11:17 AM
CH from NYC

The Electoral votes of each state should be divided to match how the total votes fell in that state. Sweet, neat and simple.

Nov. 06 2007 11:16 AM
daniel from midtown

I support the idea of universal service. It would inject a sense of community and democracy into the poulation, and step back from the idea that the only way to serve the nation is to kill for it through the armed forces.

Too, mandatory service would help mature young people, help them focus on the future. I'd have very much liked such a system when I was 18.

Nov. 06 2007 11:15 AM
antonio from park slope

Take a look at instant runoff voting...

Nov. 06 2007 11:12 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

Yes, calling a Constitutional Convention without restrictions would be somewhat dangerous. Too much petty politics of today would be injected. People would start tossing in abortion amendments and gay marriage amendments either for or against both topics instead of addressing the REAL issues that need to be dealt with.

So I would like an unrestricted Convention to create a new well-framed document rather than a couple of limited amendments to be debated, but at the same time, I wouldn't trust the delegates with framing a totally new document.

I think most of Sabato's ideas should be taken into consideration. I'm not crazy about mandatory civil service, but it should be debated at least. But I also think there needs to be some considerations for limiting the power of the President and more firmly establishing the boundaries of his (or her!) power. Whatever you might think about George Bush, his administration has raised a lot of questions over the powers of the President that need to be addressed. Except instead of addressing them, we just move on to the next scandal or crisis.

We also need to establish the right of privacy in the Constitution and the limits of that right as well. What are a person's privacy rights? I think the Supreme Court has been in the wrong to extrapolate privacy from amendments that have nothing to do with the subject. We need explicit language on the subject in our Constitution.

Nov. 06 2007 10:36 AM
Dabney Braggart

It could be neat, but I'm really concerned that a populace steeped in trivia and corrupted by [a generation of pseudo-Randroid Social Darwinist propaganda|a few generations of an all-but-Socialist nanny state] (take your pick) would push for, or more likely accept, some pretty severe restrictions on our freedom. This is especially a problem given that our government has been aiding the terrorists for six years by insisting that we be afraid; frightened people are more prone to give up their liberties.

I don't have the figures to hand, but I recall some large majority of those surveyed being against the First Amendment, believing the Ten Commandments should be in the Constitution, removing the Supreme Court's ability to declare laws unconstitutional, and so on.

I mean, look what happened in the late 1780s: they met to reform the Articles, and came out with a completely different document. I don't think something quite so extreme would happen today, since our national constitution (in the original sense of the word: how we're built, how we operate) is more firmly set...but a lot of damage could be done around the edges and working its way on in.

Nov. 06 2007 10:23 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

After hearing him on WNYC a couple weeks ago, I went out and bought this book. I found it to be a fascinating read. I don't agree with all of the proposals, but I think they would be a great way to reform our system. I was disappointed by the fact that the President's supremecy in the government was just sort of accepted as an unchangeable fact and that there seemed to be very little about securing in writing some important human rights that hadn't occurred to the Founding Fathers but which we today consider to be obvious.

Nov. 06 2007 08:59 AM

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