As is customary, today's US midterm elections have been construed as a vote on the incumbent president's record as much as it is a judgment on those senators, house representatives and governors actually facing a decision on their futures.
On that count, it is abundantly clear that Barack Obama will not emerge from the day with anything approaching a winning smile, with Republicans heavily tipped to wrest control of the Senate and tighten their grip on Congress (the GOP has already banked some early gains).
Then again, there's nothing particularly new about that predicament, with the parties of the seven multi-term presidents since the Great Depression having lost an average of 26 House and seven Senate seats during their second midterms.
Given the debilitating effects of this trend on leaders' abilities to govern for the remainder of their term — essentially multiplying the 'lame duck' effect inherent to the term-limited system — it is unsurprising that some Americans want to do away with the midterms, which, like so many quirks of the US political process, seem decades, if not a century or more, past their use-by date.
Such a move makes eminent sense, particularly to outside observers, but what is truly needed is a wholesale overhaul of the US electoral process.
We can't discount that the recent listless record of Obama and the persistent Republic obstructionism he faces in Congress have played a major role in sustaining the apathy with which voters have greeted the midterms. But nor should current travails detract from the range of problems with the US electoral system itself, which would ideally (but realistically, will not) be addressed before the 2016 presidential poll comes around.
Most notable in this regard are the vast sums — about $4 billion at last count — spent on contests taking part across the country. Politicians, largely Democratic, have spoken at length of the need to take the distorting effect of money out of the electoral process, particularly when there are obviously more welcome destinations for a lot of this cash.
There is also the fact that the general lack of competition in most of the midterm races — with only about 5% expected to go down to the wire — can be attributed less to a lack of flux in political belief than to the effects of widespread, and widely tolerated, gerrymandering.
Perhaps most troubling of all for those who continue to believe in the existence of a truly democratic process are efforts purportedly aimed at ending voter fraud in states including Texas, which are of course nothing of the sort. Owing to the extremely limited reported incidences of voter fraud, these efforts are more realistically seen as Republican attempts to suppress the votes of minority, youth and female voters, who would typically turn out for Democrats.
At their best, the midterms could provide an opportunity for politicians in Washington and the state capitals to address some of these legitimate concerns. If the midterms must continue to exist, they could at least act as a dress rehearsal for the larger contest in two years' time, helping to improve the fairness of the electoral process and the level of public trust it attracts.
As it stands, the midterms largely serve as a reminder of the overwhelming focus on the political survival of individuals and parties, rather than the assessment of any particular policies. At their worst, they also provide a valuable opportunity to fine-tune some of those prized Machiavellian skills ahead of future contests.
Photo by Flickr user nshepard.