Battleground versus Ignored

In 2016 there were 13 states in which both campaigns bought advertising or the final election result was within two percentage points on election day. In these so-called battleground states, 47.5 million out of 72.4 million eligible citizens voted, or 65.6%

But in the non-battleground states in 2016, 89.2 million out of 158.2 eligible citizens voted, or 56.4%. So when the campaigns advertised, opened local offices, tried to get out the vote, they drove participation up from 56.4% to 65.6%, an increase of 16.3%. 

An increase in voting of 16.3% when the campaigns seek the votes: a big number.

Senate Votes to Require Political Nonprofits to Reveal Donors

If passed, the bill would reverse a Trump administration policy allowing nonprofits to keep the identity of their donors secret. From the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.):

“These dark money forces are a threat to our democracy, and they must be reined in. Today’s action sheds more light on the wealthy few who are trying to buy our elections and drown out the voices of regular folks. We must wrestle our country back and continue to bring transparency and accountability back to political campaigns.”

If They Asked Me

A Republican interested in running statewide in, say, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, or Michigan, would be well-advised to support a plan that compelled the presidential candidates to compete nationally for every vote. There are two reasons at least: (a) Most voters want a guarantee that the person who wins the national vote always to become president. The way to do this is to have some electors awarded from at least some states to the winner of the national vote. (b) The Republican party needs to build a big tent that attracts multiple factions and groups in order to be a majority-supported party. If the party commits to winning the national vote, it will be a big tent party.

Make Your State Matter

Because the presidential selection system currently consists of independent simultaneous statewide votes, state politicians in a single state logically conclude their actions will have little effect on the presidential election’s outcome in other states. 

Republican legislators in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin can act against the apparent desire of the majority of voters in last month’s election without worrying about the effect on their party’s ability to win a national popular vote — because no such vote ever matters. 

But things would be different if some states awarded some electors to the national vote winner. Then state officials in both parties (for the first time in American history) would have a ballot-based reason to be concerned about the reaction to their conduct from fellow Americans across the whole country. Anti-democratic moves by either party in any state might shift public opinion against that party in other states. Notorious bad actions by either party even in a single state then might cost the party a national popular vote majority and as a result lose the presidency. 

The anachronistic notion that what happens in a single state stays in that state would be eradicated. If the national popular vote mattered then the actions of officials in a single state might be subjected to meaningful judgment in the court of national public opinion. 

Former Senators Argue that the Senate Must Stand in Defense of Democracy

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, a bipartisan group of former senators “urge current and future senators to be steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy by ensuring that partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest” in this difficult time in our history.

Maybe Not

From conservative economist John Cochrane, comes this:

“Democracy, and US democracy in particular, serves one great purpose—to guard against tyranny. That's what the US colonists were upset about, not the fine points of tariff treaties. US and UK Democracy, when paired with the complex web of checks and balances and rule of law protections and constitutions and so forth, has been pretty good at throwing the bums out before they get too big for their britches. At least it has done so better than any other system.”

But maybe not when every vote does not count: in the not-yet-reformed American system of choosing the president, the candidates do not need or bother to campaign for every vote, and under these circumstances a passionate minority of voters can keep someone in office even when the majority would rather have someone else.

Not Good, Part 2

Out of the total eligible voting population in 2016, 40.9% did not vote. That amounted to 93.9 million people. They did not have better things to do. They realized that the current presidential selection system either makes their votes irrelevant or makes other people's votes much more significant. The nearly 100 million no-shows were not dumb or lazy or unworthy of voting. They realized that the campaigns made little or no effort to get their vote.

Making Media Matter

Commenting about direct election of the president in 1974, political scientist Charles Press wrote that "a most important effect of a straight out popular vote system will be an increased influence of the national media." 

If the national media is composed of the news-related cable channels and network television, they have little influence on the presidential elections of this century. Newspapers have even less.

If the national popular vote count determined the president, then more advertising would go to these outlets. In this sense national TV would have increased influence. Currently the networks get almost no presidential campaign ad money. It goes almost entirely to local broadcasters in a few swing states.

A national vote that mattered would cause local newspapers to make more money, potentially a lot more.

But would Fox News and MSNBC have bigger audiences? I doubt it. Would their commentators be more influential? Nope. Would they have editorials? Not likely.

Campaigns would use social media to reach every voter in the country. They would not spend money on broadcast or cable ads in big cities; too expensive. They would pump up ads on local broadcast in all states, local newspapers and radio too.

NYT, WaPo, and WSJ would have to spend more money figuring out what moved voters in every state. They probably would get more subscribers. Local newspapers would surely sell more copies. Interest in local elections would go up. But social media would provide the primary avenue to voters everywhere. 

National Election Good for Increasing Optionality in Candidates

In 1974, Charles Press argued in 68 American Political Science Review 1756-58 that choosing the president by total national popular vote would "encourage a further nationalizing of American politics."  What he meant was that big city bosses and state leaders would lose influence over the nomination, and "Under [this] reform, you will be able to recruit your presidential candidates from South Dakota and Arizona without apology."  

Presumably he meant that each of the two parties owed the country a big "sorry" for the Goldwater and McGovern nominations but that a national vote might lead to candidates being chosen from small states.

Looking back at his point these many years later, it seems that "nationalizing" actually means that nominees would be less likely to come from a big state where they have a robust financial donor base. That seems good.

Primary Voting

In the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s both parties adopted nominating systems that allocate delegates according to population in large part but not exclusively. Famously or notoriously they also created super-delegates, composed mostly of elected officials, who are thought to be likely to choose the candidate who seems ideal at the end of the long primary season. Presumably early voters or poorly informed voters in some states might have erred in the process. 

This anti-democratic measure is under attack. Primary voters in both parties want to choose directly the nominee.

It follows that the same voters, by far the most likely to vote in the general, also support the notion that the popular vote should directly choose the president in the general election.

If the nominee needed to win the national popular vote to win the general election, it seems likely that the nominating process would become more democratic, and the number of super-delegates would diminish. It would make sense for any national party to use the nominating process as a test run to determine vote getting capability in every state. More than that, the vote getting would try out themes, policy positions, and arguments in advance of the general election. In short, the whole process from soup to nuts would probably become more democratic with a little "d." 

The History of America is the History of Race

The principal reason animating southern state opposition to direct election of the president at the time of the Constitutional Convention was slavery. To protect slavery, the southern state representatives had obtained the compromise that allocated them House seats according to population with slaves counted as three-fifths of a person.

If direct popular vote picked the president, the Three-Fifths gimmick would not have given southern states inequitable advantages in choosing the president.

Slaves of course could not vote, and the northern states had more eligible voters.

Founders from the slave states feared the outcome could be presidents unsympathetic to their "peculiar institution."

So they insisted on the electoral college system. By giving states two electors plus the number equaling the House members, the scheme extended the Three-Fifths Compromise to the process of choosing the president. It wasn't until 1860 that the unsympathetic president at last was elected. 

A Good Idea for Any Politician

In his book "Why the Electoral College is Bad for America," George Edwards reports that six times in American history a switch of less than 10,000 votes would have made the popular vote runner-up the president, in addition to the other occasions where that did happen.

As Alexander Keyssar, the preeminent historian of the vote in American, put it in a review of the book, the most "unpopular political institution" in America is the electoral college.

Any politician supporting reform of the presidential selection system to make it more directly based on the national popular vote will be pushing something popular. 

A Dream

 I dreamed last night that some residents of a state – any one of the 40 to 44 where the result is taken for granted in the general election for president – filed a class-action lawsuit against the legislature of their state. They claimed that under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution they should be given just as much attention as the people in a swing state of which there are only about six in any election. The lawsuit explained that if the legislature allocated even a few of the taken-for-granted state’s electors to the winner of the national popular vote then the presidential campaigns would have to seek the favor of the voters in every state, including those in the plaintiff class. 

 A unique and intriguing insight from dreamland, heh?

 The sleeptime conjecture did not convince me that I should have been a class action plaintiffs’ lawyer. There might be some problems (immunity, justiciability, etc.) with the theory. But in the woke world, where good dreams convince everyone, the claim has indisputable merit.