January 20? But that's forever from now!

The economy stinks, the war goes on, and Bush is still here; do we really have to wait until January 20?

Published November 14, 2008 8:45PM (EST)

Holding off for more than two months before swearing in a new president can feel a bit like dawdling when there’s a crisis on. Why the wait?

First off, let’s be thankful that it’s not the four months it used to be. The 20th Amendment moved inauguration day forward from March 4 to January 20. That amendment, by the way, was ratified on January 22, 1933, in the middle of the long wait for a new president in the depths of the Great Depression. Said a January 29, 1933 editorial in the New York Times, “The reason for the present change is the long and awkward interval, sometimes of virtual ‘interregnum,’ which separates the inauguration of March 4 from the November election day.”

That “long and awkward interval” from November to March was once necessary to count the votes, convene the Electoral College and provide the president-elect with enough time to move to Washington. Technological developments in transportation and communication made the extra time unnecessary, and folks were probably pretty sick of Herbert Hoover hanging around.

Various embarrassments aside, we’re presumably better now at counting votes than our Depression-era predecessors. And we’re most definitely better at sending messages, and people, across the country in a hurry. So, given how clearly the country prefers to have Barack Obama in charge to George W. Bush, should we make the transfer of power earlier? The British, after all, swear in their new prime ministers almost immediately.

But, though it seems interminable and unnecessary, our transition period actually has some positive aspects. For one thing, our elections are, on occasion, disputed. During the 2000 debacle, you may remember, the approaching meeting of the Electoral College (which always falls on the Monday after the second Wednesday of December, because our founders were weird people) was a major factor breathing down Al Gore's neck. Similarly, the contested election between Al Franken and Norm Coleman currently ongoing in Minnesota is unlikely to be settled until well into December. If there were a constitutional requirement that a new senator, or president, be sworn in on, say, December 1 -- well, the problem is self-evident. We could have a bona fide constitutional crisis on our hands.

To return to the comparison with the British system, there are several reasons why they don’t need to wait and we do. In Britain, opposition parties are more formally defined institutions, with designated “shadow ministers” who will take over the various cabinet positions after the election. So there’s no waiting time necessary for choosing appointees. And, in countries with sane methods of electing leaders, rather than a rickety 18th-century holdover “college,” there’s a very low probability that an election will be close enough to be disputed. One of the most frequently forgotten problems of the Electoral College is that it breaks down the popular vote into smaller pools, any one of which is more vulnerable to miscounting or fraud than the national popular vote would be. In other words, it’s easier to screw up an election in, say, Florida, than it is in the entire United States. So waiting until January 20 may be a bit much, but is hardly the eternity that the combination of President George W. Bush, two wars and a tanking economy makes it feel like.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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