The constitution specifies presidential elections every four years and House and Senate elections every two years. Only in the Senate is there an interleaving process whereby about 1/3 of all senators are up for election each year.
This is the firing cycle, if you will, of our federal political engine.
However, many states have non-federal elections of one kind or another every year, sometimes even more than that. So what it the reason why federal elections are so infrequent? What are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach?
There has been a huge shift in the technology of elections such that the gargantuan increase in the size of the electorate has been much more than offset by the ease that we now enjoy in our political campaigns and elections. Whereas it may have seem back in the 1790's that a two-year cycle was about as much as was possible, that is no longer true. The clearest example of this is the frequency of non-federal elections, for things like state and local offices, primaries (a relatively modern concept, not technically feasible in the 18th Century) and voter initiatives, in those states burdened by that practice. I believe that, like so many other things in our constitution, the two-year election cycle is a vestige of a less technologically advanced time. Are we condemned simply to accept it as a necessary structural element of our democracy, our should we consider changing it?
In its favor, there is a certain simplicity in the two-year cycle. At the national level, elections are like a hammer coming down every two years, alternating a heavier stroke for presidential years with a lighter stroke in the off-years. This definitely establishes a national heart beat, as it has for over 200 years. Some might argue that that is a good thing. It allows politically active people to rest for a year or more before bestirring themselves to get ready for the next election cycle. The people can go on about their business without thinking so much about politics for as much as 22 months at a time, in the traditional cycle (in spite of strong attempts in the media, I think most people try to not think about elections until two months (or two days!) before they actually have to vote).
I had the idea that we could go to an annual election cycle. The Senate would increase the interleave so that about 1/6 of its members would be elected each year, and the House would have an interleave so that half of its members were elected each year. For the purposes of simplicity, all terms would remain the same (e.g., you might get a more interesting spread if terms were prime numbers, like 2, 3, and 5, or exponential, like 2, 4, and 8, but I won't go there).
An annual cycle could be better integrated into the national life than the current bi-annual cycle. There could be a true "federal election day", perhaps even an annual holiday called “First Tuesday”. Not all states would actually have a federal election every year even under this approach (and I won't discuss here why or how that should be changed), but even the smallest states with a single representative could be set up to have a federal election 5 out of 6 years. This would result in smaller ballot lists, with a greater focus on individual races. Each election would have a smaller impact on the nation. There would be fewer sharp changes of power. Each year, there would be a new term of both houses of congress, unlike the traditional two-year terms. This would act to make both houses much more responsive to the national mood, while simultaneously filtering out truly radical transitions (because even in the House, only half of the seats would be up for election each year).
Also, since every year would be a federal election year, we wouldn't really be shifting in and out of "voter mode" so much. I think this would cause less "election year craziness", since each individual election would be smaller and therefore less “critical”.
An analogy would be with going from a four-cylinder engine to an eight-cylinder. You get a smoother ride and more power.
Well, that's it. Happy 9/12 day.