June 20th, 2011
12:26 PM ET

Is it time to update the U.S. Constitution?

We all know how Americans revere the Constitution, so I was struck by the news that tiny, little Iceland is actually junking its own Constitution and starting anew using an unusual - some would say innovative - mechanism.

The nation decided it needed a new Constitution and it's soliciting ideas from all of Iceland's 320,000 citizens with the help of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This social media method has worked. Ideas have been flowing in. Many have asked for guaranteed, good health care. Others want campaign finance systems that make corporate donations illegal. And some just want the country to make shark finning illegal.

There is a Constitutional Council. It incorporates some of these ideas, rejects others, but everything is done in plain sight on the web. As one member of the Constitutional Council said, the document is basically being drafted on the Internet. 

Now, why do they need a new Constitution anyway? Well, after Iceland was crippled in recent years by the economic crisis, they all wanted a fresh start. And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.

You might be tempted to say that Iceland doesn't have any reasons to be proud of its political traditions in the manner that the United States does. Well, think again.

Iceland is home to the world's oldest parliament still in existence, the Althing, set up in 930 A.D. The rocky ledge on which they gathered represents the beginnings of representative government in the world. So Iceland has reasons to cherish its history, and yet it was willing to revise it.

By contrast, any talk of revising or revisiting the U.S. Constitution is, of course, seen as heresy. The United States Constitution was, as you know, drafted in a cramped room in Philadelphia in 1787 with shades drawn over the windows. It was signed by 39 people.

America at the time consisted of 13 states. Congress had 26 senators and 65 representatives. The entire population was about one percent of today's number - four million people.

America was an agricultural society, with no industry - not even cotton gins. The flush toilet had just been invented.

These were the circumstances under which this document was written.

Let me be very clear here, the U.S. Constitution is an extraordinary work - one of the greatest expressions of liberty and law in human history.

One amazing testament to it is the mere fact that it has survived as the law of the land for 222 years.

But our Constitution has been revised 27 times.  Some of these revisions have been enormous and important, such as the abolition of slavery. Then there are areas that have evolved. For example, the power of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, is barely mentioned in the document. This grew as a fact over history.

But there are surely some issues that still need to be debated and fixed.

The electoral college, for example, is highly undemocratic, allowing for the possibility that someone could get elected as president even if he or she had a smaller share of the total national vote than his opponent.

The structure of the Senate is even more undemocratic, with Wisconsin's six million inhabitants getting the same representation in the Senate as California's 36 million people. That's not exactly one man, one vote.

And we are surely the only modern nation that could be paralyzed as we were in 2000 over an election dispute because we lack a simple national electoral system.

So we could use the ideas of social media that were actually invented in this country to suggest a set of amendments to modernize the Constitution for the 21st Century.

Such a plan is not unheard of in American history.

After all, the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787 initially meant not to create the Constitution as we now know it, but instead to revise the existing document, the Articles of Confederation. But the delegates saw a disconnect between the document that currently governed them and the needs of the nation, so their solution was to start anew.

I'm just suggesting we talk about a few revisions.

Anyway, what do you think? Should we do this? And if we were to revise the U.S. Constitution, what would be the three amendments you would put in?

Let us know in the comment thread and we'll post the best ones on the Global Public Square.

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Topics: GPS Show • Law • What in the World?

soundoff (2,350 Responses)
  1. Matt

    Nevermind Wisconsin – what about the fact that the 563,626 residents of Wyoming get two Senators and a House member while the 601,723 residents of DC get *one* non-voting delegate?

    June 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  2. Michael L. Graziano

    Fareed must have been out of the classroom when they taught Civics 101. The purpose of the Constitution is to limit the power of the federal government. The structure of the House and Senate, and the creation of the Electoral College are designed to preserve State's rights. Indeed, members of the Senate were to be selected by each State's legislature, not by popular vote. The College serves to protect the small states from the larger ones. These are the fundamental concepts that formed our Republic. Ben Franklin feared that we would not keep it; his fears now seem well founded.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • oldgulph

      The presidential election system we have today is NOT in the Constitution. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, are an example of state laws eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, Now our current system can be changed by state laws again.

      Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

      June 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Reply
      • oldgulph

        The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College.

        June 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • tepeters

      The purpose of the Consitution was not to limit the Federal Government but strengtehn it over against the States. It seems to be a common misunderstanding these days. The delegates to the Consitutional Convention were charged with revising the Articles of Confederation which as the name confederation implies, gave more pwoer to the states then to the Federal Government. This confederation made it impossible to function as a single nation so the delegates decided to junk the Articles and write a Constitution that made the Federal Government more powerful than the states with regard those issues wherein they believed a decision by a central government would best serve a single nation. The argument about states rights and the rights of the federal authority is what makes up the political history of our nation. To get the Constitution passed the Bill of Rights including the tenth amendment was added. But the tenth amendment has to be interpreted in light of Article VI section 2-the supremacy clause wherein the constitution and the laws made in pursuance of it are the surpeme law of the land and..."anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding." We even fought a Civil War over the idea that we should be a confederacy and not a federal system. But the federal system prevails because of the common sense of the founders that to be a nation you need to have a single identity and not thirteen or fifty.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  3. Michael Dawson

    A unicameral legislature, such as Nebraska's government, would be a good way to reduce gridlock and make legislators more accountable to the people.

    Reintroducing restrictions on the executive branch and limiting the scope of the judicial branch would also make people feel was more accountable to them.

    Introducing a national referendum would be a powerful way to allow for popular participation.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  4. Phil Perry

    +1 on Rick House's explanation for why the Senate exists, and we have a bicameral assembly (House and Senate). I would add that the House principally controls financial matters (they must originate there) because more populous states would be taxed more (due to larger population) and thus deserve more representation.

    As for the wisdom of having an Electoral College rather than direct vote by the populace, recall that our Founding Fathers feared the mob mentality of the common man. Even after restricting voting rights to landed white men, they still had the states select their Senators. Again, the intent of the Electoral system was to prevent mob rule by somewhat insulating the process from the common man. Whether that is still justified today (look at how many voters support extremist right wingnuts), something still smells bad about it (i.e., that a massive popular vote winner could still lose the election).

    If I were updating the Constitution, I would outlaw primaries and go to a "instant runoff" multiple vote system. While I'm at it, I might ban political parties, or at least require them to dissolve after 50 years or so. Our duopoly of Republicrats is ruining the country. They are only interested in holding power and patronage, not in what's best for the country. Perhaps there are other ways to suppress out of control parties in a fair and consistent manner?

    If our government truly represented us, and worked for we the people, perhaps there would be far less support for extremist nutjobs? Voters are increasingly frustrated and supporting the fringes in hopes of getting something done.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  5. John

    There are provisions in the constitution that provide for amending the document. Let's not let a flash mob decide how to change the constitution.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  6. Daveil

    Typical liberal logic. They can't get what they want under the current system so they want to throw it out and build something friendlier to their big government philosophy.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Reply
    • typical internet poster

      Typical Daveilist why think about how we can use our collective political will to make better lives for ourselves and our children?

      June 20, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  7. Mark

    I agree! New York population (19 millon people) vs. say Whoming (545,000 people). Yet there is equal representation in the senate? The system worked when we are a FAR smaller country, not now where these states lines were drawn arbitrarily, and many senators are basically representing tumbleweeds or cactus instead of reprenting the true will of the people.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  8. David

    Outside of the Bible the UNITED STATES constitution is the single greatest document on planet earth. DONT TOUCH IT!!! i DONT TRUST, either party to modify it in a way that best serves Americans!!!Our constitution is our unique identity...the notion of even altering could send this nation into a War!!! Trust me DONT TOUCH IT!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  9. Brick House

    Rick house, I agree. A bit of research would help.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  10. BW

    Why the focus on things being more democratic? A pure democracy is guaranteed to stomp on the rights/needs of minorities and underrepresented. We are, and always have been, a representative democracy. The electoral college and senate setup is necessary to give voice to smaller states who's needs/rights woudl be trampled by those of the larger states otherwise.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
    • oldgulph

      National Popular Vote has nothing to do with whether the country has a "republican" form of government or is a "democracy."

      The United States has a republican form of government regardless of whether popular votes for presidential electors are tallied at the state-level (as has been the case in 48 states) or at district-level (as has been the case in Maine and Nebraska) or at 50-state-level (as under the National Popular Vote bill).

      The small states are the most disadvantaged group of states under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus. The reason for this is the state-by-state winner-take-all method (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

      None of the 10 most rural states (VT, ME, WV, MS, SD, AR, MT, ND, AL, and KY) is a battleground state.
      The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states.

      12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes) are almost invariably non-competitive, and ignored, in presidential elections. Six regularly vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota), and six regularly vote Democratic (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC) in presidential elections Despite the fact that these 12 lowest population states together possess 40 electoral votes, because they are not closely divided battleground states, none of these 12 states get visits, advertising or polling or policy considerations by presidential candidates.

      These 12 states together contain 11 million people. Because of the two electoral-vote bonus that each state receives, the 12 non-competitive small states have 40 electoral votes. However, the two-vote bonus is an entirely illusory advantage to the small states. Ohio has 11 million people and has "only" 20 electoral votes. As we all know, the 11 million people in Ohio are the center of attention in presidential campaigns, while the 11 million people in the 12 non-competitive small states are utterly irrelevant. Nationwide election of the President would make each of the voters in the 12 lowest population states as important as an Ohio voter.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  11. db

    I see a lot of "we want free health care" more beneifts, more entitlements. Why, who is going to pay for it, the tax payers. Why should the tax payers pay for something you can pay for yourself? Cut these federally funded free this or that, benefits, and entitlements programs with justification's at a minimum of every two years, decrease benefits or entitlements over a justified period, put people back to work, decrease government intervention, and anyone on a free federally funded program, benefit program, or entitlement program must submit an application, justification, and drug free test and be randomly tested for drugs to prove they are eligable for employment and futher consideration for these programs. One positive test for durgs and the person is on a 30 day suspension, unless it is a doctor authorized drug, and a second positive test is life revocation of any federal job or entitlement.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  12. charles gill

    The Constitution also had 3 genetic defects. Drawn by 55 wealthy white men. 17 of whom owned slaves, these defects are not surprising. African Americans , women and children were excluded. See the Dred Scot decision.Subsequent Amendments have addressed the first two defects , although no ERA. Children are still not there. Unless they live in Montana, the only State that specifically protects children in its Constitution. Charles

    June 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  13. Mike

    I suggest we revise the Constitution because the outcome would be HILARIOUS! I can't even imagine.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  14. frank

    the answer is NO.....what we need is..to go BACK to the forgotten constitution.....the one we don't remember....it was great then and it is great now. our country just forgot what it is!
    example...the electoral college had and has a purpose....because people don't understand it..not a good reason to get rid of it!
    an anti-liberal ammendment would be great

    June 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • tepeters

      The forgotton constitution as you want it never existed.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  15. svann

    How about "Government shall not borrow money, issue bonds, or print extra currency except in national emergency. All normal spending shall proceed from collection of taxes".

    June 20, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • Bob in pa

      And Taxes shall not exceed 10% of an individuals earned income !

      June 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
      • Steve

        Bob: But let taxes be up to 90% of unearned income.

        June 20, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Steve

      Sure, and Congress and the President would declare our debt to be a national emergency, allowing them to borrow and print currency.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  16. Blaqb0x

    Now that corporations are nearly considered citizens they can re-write the constitution for the rest of us.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  17. db

    Does anyone even read this swill or do they just mouth off?

    June 20, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • China

      I mouth off.

      June 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  18. Mark

    Proposed New Amendment to the United States Constitution:

    The new amendment to the Constitution now states the United States of America is now a Secular Nation. Any and all references to any religion or to the bible or the 10 commandments are to be removed from all government buildings. There will be no praying or religious services of any kind on any government property including the military. There will be no religion taught in any public or government schools and “intelligent design” will not be taught, only scientific facts. There will be no invocations at any government meetings at any level. No religious icons are allowed in any branch of the government. The national day of prayer will be abolished; “in god we trust” will be removed from all currency and “under god” will be removed from the pledge of allegiance. Absolutely no Christmas decorations on government property. This amendment clarifies once and for all that there is 100% separation of State and church. There are no exceptions. The United States government is not a Christian Nation and this amendment states the government is not in the business of religion and is and will remain 100% secular.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      If only.....

      June 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Get over it. The constitiution provides for freedom of religion, not from religion. If a good idea (things like thou shall not kill, or steal or ...) has foundation in religion we should ignore it because it's religious? Grow up. You're lifestyle and freedoms been crimped one bit because you live in a Judeo-Christian based society? has the Bible been cited as precedent for any legal decisions handed down by the SCOTUS? Been forced to worship God or any gods by the government?

      June 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • Jonathan

      Sounds like heaven! 🙂

      June 20, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  19. Bob in pa

    NO !!!
    What we need are politicians and a Government that actually adhere to the Constitution !
    Enough of this BS where the elite few think that if we would just do what they want, their way that our society would be better off. Our framers thought things out and laid out a decent roadmap that would prevent our government from taking too many abuses.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  20. Brian

    To say: "For example, the power of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, is barely mentioned in the document. This grew as a fact over history" is inaccurate and disingenuous. The entire third article outlines the judiciary, and the decision of Marbury v. Madison, which stated clearly what the constitution implied but left somewhat vague, that the Supreme Court would have the power to overturn acts of the other branches as unconstitutional, was decided in 1803.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  21. Mark Winklevoss

    Certainly not. By far the greatest strength of the Constitution is the fact that it removes certain extremely important things from the possibility of government interference (e.g. speech, press, religious practice, religious establishment, etc.) and therefore removes them from the domain of the mob. A gimmicky "social media" constitution would by definition require that these protections be stripped away, at least during the framing process itself. The right to free speech would need to be voted on, for instance, as would many other important provisions. There would be a strong likelihood that the notion of a separation of church and state would fail, and indeed that it would be replaced with some explicit "Christian nation" babble. The right to free speech would probably face some sort of revision forbidding "offensive" or "hateful" speech, as is common in Western Europe–a clear nullification of the entire concept of free speech. Many other important provisions would be damaged through clumsy revisions or eliminated altogether.

    The fact of the matter is that constitutions are far too important to be subjected to anything like a popular vote–indeed, the whole point of a constitution (and the great achievement of the American Constitution) is to lay down ground rules that protect individual rights from majorities which would, if given the chance, violate them at will or deny them altogether. If revisions are to be made to the Constitution, let them be revisions which further limit the ability of majorities to use government to impose upon individuals–a separation of economy and state, for instance, or a separation of society and state. But leave the populist nonsense out of it.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  22. gregory erg

    "The structure of the Senate is even more undemocratic, with Wisconsin's six million inhabitants getting the same representation in the Senate as California's 36 million people"

    Scary to think that a person with a program on TV does not know that this was precisely the intention. Congress has a proportional representation. The balance of power was the goal by giving two seats to each state in order to assure equality between states.

    "Progressives" these days want a single, centralized state (something like Soviet Union). Just read Nicholas Kristof's article of a couple days ago where he wants US to be run in a military style. And here goes another one: this one thinks he can write a better constitution. Failed experiences of other countries which have gone in the awful direction of centralization does not sound an alarm in "progressive" heads.

    What a miserable bunch! How they want a Borg Collective from Star Treck!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
    • John

      Do you know what a Republic is?

      June 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  23. China

    Dear America:

    Please become beurocratically top heavy and supress your people until you are bankrupt.

    Sincerely,

    China.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  24. Gavilan Salvaje

    Changes are Amendments and there is aready a process for this.

    Changes I would like to see are:

    No local government can write laws that violate the existing comstitution – See Chicago and Crook County and Illinois for examples

    Gerrymandering should not be allowed. Redistricting cannot be done in a partisan manner – see how Illinois Democrats just redistricted as an example

    Elected officials are no longer to be elected but consripted through a draft. No one can run for a position and must serve when drafted unless they have a good reason not to do so. That way these positions are seen as positions of service and not as positions of power.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  25. KenInOhio

    Mr. Zakaria, you are a complete idiot that obviously has never read our Constitution or taken the time to truly understand it. Shame on you for composing such a piece of trash for a news agency.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  26. Joe

    Revision of the Electoral College is the only true benefit I see in starting from scratch and that is not enough to convince me. The frustrations with Congress have not come from the structure of government but have come from the people who run it. Also, we are not as homogenous as Iceland. The difference in political and social climates from states like California, Texas, and Rhode Island would cause absolute mayhem. Tell me how citizens from all three of these states are going to agree upon one constitution?

    June 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
    • oldgulph

      The Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

      June 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  27. db

    D.E.M.O.C.R.A.T.S. Dumb Enough Morons Or Charactors Ranting At Those Smarter.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  28. HF74

    The USA is a union of 50 smaller nations, far too many people forget this.
    Each State wants to be represented on an equal basis at some point during the process.
    Too many people think America is just one big Federal Government.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • db

      Tell that to King Obama. He, being a lawyer and disbarred like his wife, does not believe in the law, undermines it, totally ignores it, and feels it is his position to actually file a law suite agianst some states that does not support his stance, never mind that they are seperate enitites as you pointed out.

      June 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Reply
      • Sam L

        I see that we have the Beck watchers contributing.

        June 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • wrong.

      nice try guy who is apparently the manifestation of the articles of confederation. just because we call provincial territorial units states, does not make them sovereign State entities.

      if anything can be learned from Ken Burns Civil War, its that we don't say the united states 'are', but rather, the united states 'is'.

      moron

      June 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  29. blake

    Mr. Zakaria, the Constitution already has a well thought through mechanism for updating it. It is Article 5 dealing with amendments. There is no way the American people will sit idly around while a bunch of leftists seek a major overhaul of the Constitution to remove the obstacles that stand in the way to creating their Marxist utopian state.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • tepeters

      The Constitution also allows for a constitutional convention to be called. If that happens they can do what the original convention did when they dealt with the Articles of Confederation, scrap the whole thing and start again.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  30. terry Moore

    Easy, Rick House... The same logic that you use works the other way around just s well : Minor states can block legislation that is good for larger states and may not have much effect on smaller states. Whichever way you look at it, the Senate system grew out of the fears of the framers of the constitution, all coming from small states foresseing that larger states would exist one day as westward expansion started.
    Indeed the "mob rule" was very much on the minds of the framers, hence the Electoral College, hence the various rules ( fortunately gone by now) about who could and who could not vote.. You cannot think of the US Constitution as such a socially evolved document when Universal Suffrage is denied, when women do not have a right to vote, when slavery is not forcefully adressed and condemned, when firearms possession was clearly geared to a moment in History and not meant to become the free-for-all that is has become since.. I am quite positive that the Framers ( who were so distrustfull of the uneducated mob, as they so gently put it in various letters to each other)would be aghast at knowing that over 60 million hand guns roam the country thanks to their poorly phrased 2nd Amendment. To think that Constitutions cannot evolve is to belong to an age of conservatism. To think of it as an hallowed document shows no capacity as evolving concepts along with realities. To think that the Senate system is fair is far to often to condone special politics over the common good : Tell me that no small State Senator has ever bargained his vote on a non-consequential matter (to his state) in exchange of something benefiting his state. That is not the way to run a country and that is why we have pork barrel politics. The good for the many is far too often superseded by the benefits to a few. Manipulative especially Bi-Partisanship to the extreme were not supposed to be the rule of the land.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • KenInOhio

      Actually the 2nd Amendment is exactly how they wanted it. If you forgot, the founding fathers had to deal with, what they believed was tyrannical government (the U.K.), they worded the 2nd Amendment to allow for firearms to be in the hands of the common man to stop our own government from ever becoming what they fought to break away from. So in essence if we seriously followed the 2nd Amendment we would still be allowed full autos with no tax stamp, rpg's, motors, etc. to go up against our government if it ever decided to turn its back on the liberties given in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Furthermore, the 2nd Amendment affords us the greatest national security because what enemy really want to invade a country that has an armed populace.
      Case in point: "I would never invade the United States. There would be a gun behind every blade of grass." -Isoroku Yamamoto

      June 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Reply
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