Inequalities

Impossible

If the national popular vote chose the president, it would be impossible for a president seeking a second term to block the printing of the following:

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Such a move would cost too many votes. 

Under the current system, most of the aggrieved, those who are meant to be recognized by this image commissioned by the Obama Administration, are in states where they are outvoted by a majority of a different race, and so they have no weight in the calculus of winning the general election for president.



Think the Electoral College benefits small and rural states? Not so fast.

Conventional wisdom says that a national popular vote will harm the interests of small, rural states.  It is true that because a state’s electoral votes equal its representation in the House plus two votes for each Senator, small states do have a slightly higher share of Electoral College votes than they would have if the votes were distributed in accordance to population alone.

But how much does that really matter? The fact that Idaho has four electoral votes instead of two does not mean that candidates try to win any votes in Idaho.  No candidate visited the state in 2016, nor did candidates flood the airwaves with ads, nor did they discuss policy issues of particular concern to Idaho, nor did they set up extensive get-out-the-vote operations.  As a result, only 59.2% of eligible voters in Idaho voted for president in 2016.  Rhode Island, which also has four electoral votes, was similarly ignored completely by candidates and, not surprisingly, had correspondingly low turnout of 59.1%.

On the other hand, New Hampshire, which has the same number of electoral votes as Idaho and Rhode Island, got 21 visits from candidates in 2016, plus countless ads and a serious get-out-the vote effort. Not surprisingly, turnout for the presidential election in New Hampshire was 71.4%—the second highest in the nation. 

The differing treatment of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Idaho is explained by the fact that New Hampshire is a swing state while Rhode Island and Idaho are not.

New Hampshire gets attention in spite of the fact that it is small, not because it is small. 

In a piece in Bloomberg, Justin Fox explains that in the 1960s and 1970s, people criticized the Electoral College because it unfairly gave an advantage to big states and big cities, at the expense of small states. That’s because back then, the five biggest states—New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio—were all swing states. As Fox notes, any advantages conferred by the system to big states, to Republicans, or to Democrats, are transient:  

It’s easy enough to look back at a presidential election and determine how the Electoral College hurt or helped your side. It’s a little harder, but far from impossible, to come up with reasonable suppositions about which states will play a more or less decisive role in an impending election. Determining who the Electoral College helps or hurts over the long run, though, may be too tough a puzzle for anyone to solve.

... 

The best way to think of the Electoral College may be as a wrench that occasionally gets thrown into the works of American presidential elections, delivering a result that is at odds with the popular vote. I would beware of becoming too confident that said wrench is on your side. 

In other words, the only constant of the Electoral College is that it benefits swing states.  Most small states, like most big states, get ignored. 

And if you don’t live in a swing state, the consequences go far beyond how many ads you are likely to see in an election year. Your industries  get ignored, your funding gets cut, and you are less likely to get disaster relief funding than people who live in the handful of states that decide elections.



Oregon Officially Joins National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Oregon governor Kate Brown has signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact into law, making Oregon the 16th jurisdiction to join the agreement that will guarantee that the winner of the popular vote will also win the electoral college.

The Constitution gives each state the power to award its electoral college votes as it sees fit.  Right now, all states give their electoral votes to the plurality winner of that state (except Nebraska and Maine).  However, under the Compact, each member state will give its votes to the winner of the national popular vote. 

The Compact will not go into effect until states with 270 total electoral votes join—the number needed to secure a majority of electoral college votes.  Accordingly, the states will not award their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote until there are enough electoral votes pledged to guarantee the winner of the national popular vote becomes president.

Right now, the Compact has 196 votes committed, including Oregon.  In order to reach 270, there will have to be a massive public education campaign to show voters that this issue is bigger than partisan politics.  The fact that almost every state gives its votes to the plurality winner has serious consequences, including:

The electoral college will sometimes favor Democrats and sometimes Republicans, but in the long run, everyone will be better off if Americans can choose their leader directly, and every person’s vote counts equally.



Why Allocating Electoral Votes by Congressional District is Not The Answer

The problems with the way we choose our president are numerous and severe, including:

  • disproportionate attention to swing states (both during and after elections);

  • effective disenfranchisement of citizens who live in “safe” states for one party but prefer another party, leading to low turnout;

  • threats to our national security due the small number of states a foreign hacker can target to change the outcome of the election;

  • the fact that the winner of the election may not be the person who got the most votes—an outcome that we will see more and more.

Some people, recognizing the seriousness of the problems with our system, have suggested an alternative: allocating electoral votes by congressional districts instead of giving all of state’s votes to the plurality winner. 

Each state has a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress—two votes for the Senate, and a number that varies based on the state’s population for the House.  Under this proposed system, each state would allocate two votes at large for the overall winner of the state and the rest of the electors would go to the candidate that wins each of the congressional districts.  This is how Maine and Nebraska allocate their electoral votes.

Proponents of this system argue that it would be more fair, and that it would be less likely to result in a candidate winning the national popular vote while losing the Electoral College.  However, this is not true for one simple reason: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is a serious problem with our representative system. For example, in 2016 and 2018, Republican congressional candidates in North Carolina won about 50% of the congressional votes in that state, but claimed victory in 10 out of the states 13 districts (the Ninth District will have to vote again following election fraud in 2018).

Under this map, a Democratic candidate could get a plurality of votes in North Carolina (as Obama did in 2008) but still only be awarded only 5 out of the state’s 13 electoral votes (winning in 3 districts plus the 2 at-large votes). 

Because of gerrymandering, allocating electors by congressional district will actually be more likely to result in popular vote losers becoming president than the current system.  If the 2012 election had been decided based on congressional districts, Mitt Romney would have defeated Barack Obama in the Electoral College 274-264, despite losing the popular vote by nearly five million votes.  Donald Trump also would have won under this system in 2016 despite losing the popular vote. The incentive to gerrymander would increase exponentially if congressional districts determined control of the White House as well as control of the House, making the problem even worse than it is now.

As candidates adjusted their strategy to focus on the 16% of districts that are “swing” districts, a split between the popular vote and the electoral college will be even more likely.

The vast majority of voters would live in “safe” districts, meaning that most people still would have little incentive to turn out to vote and their concerns and issues will be ignored as they lose out on federal funding to swing districts. The swing districts will become the new target for election meddlers.

Proponents of district-based electoral allocation recognize that gerrymandering would have to be addressed before the system would be fair. However, the Supreme Court has, so far, declined to intervene to stop partisan gerrymandering.  Even if the Supreme Court does decide to strike down some of the most extremely gerrymandered state maps, and districts were redrawn compactly to preserve natural communities, as in this simulation, there would still likely be a relatively small number of swing districts because most communities are predominantly Democratic or predominately Republican.

Accordingly, allocation of electors based on congressional districts would only make elections more unfair and would not solve the problems with our current system.

Note: In another blog, we will discuss the problems with splitting a state’s electoral votes proportionally.



Why the Electoral College is biased against women

This is well known: from David Leonhardt in NYT

“As Gallup’s Lydia Saad notes, a large majority of Americans support both ‘protecting abortion rights when pregnancy endangers a woman’s life’ and ‘keeping abortion legal when pregnancy is caused by rape or incest.’”

No president could oppose this majority view and still win the national popular vote. 

But the national vote and views widely held in the nation do not matter in selecting the president. We are not one country when it comes to electing the president. In that activity only a few impassioned factions of voters in a handful of states matter. 

Opposition to abortion even in the direst circumstances is found principally among evangelicals. For stochastic reasons evangelicals compose a large percentage of the population in the four critical swing states that now determine the choice of the president (Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin). Evangelicals also have an exceptionally high turnout rate, making them an estimated 20-40% of voters in these key states. They vote overwhelmingly for the candidate who inveighs against abortion. That is the incumbent, as it was George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. 

The impact is seen in two respects: who gets elected president in close elections like 2000 and 2016 and who gets appointed by Republican presidents to the Supreme Court.  

A major reason Hillary Clinton did not carry the crucial swing states is that she has been a lifelong advocate of choice. (The million words written about her personality as the explanation for her loss of the plurality by narrow margins in these four states are a different example of bias against women.) 

The result is that the view of a large majority of women and men on the issue of abortion have had very little impact on Republican presidents since 1980. 

To be reelected, the current president for purely political reasons feels he must appoint people to the Supreme Court who do not necessarily honor the constitutional right of women to control their bodies even when raped or at risk of dying. 

Because he wants to be reelected, the current president is unlikely to oppose the draconian anti-abortion laws just passed on this issue in a few states. These states are taken for granted in the general election already, but he will be motivated to seek the votes of evangelicals in the swing states. That is the reason he is not likely to have the Solicitor General oppose these laws. That is the reason he will not speak against these laws even though the large majority of Americans oppose them. 

This bias against abortion even in dire situations stems from the electoral system. 



Thanks to Electoral College, Trump is sitting pretty

See the poll below. The incumbent has 230 electors in his pocket. With Florida he picks up 29 more. It’s one jump to 270— Pennsylvania does it; so does Michigan; so does the combination of the swing district in Omaha, Nebraska and Wisconsin in a combo. 

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What a system! Trump will surely lose the national popular vote based on current polls, while likely winning the E C. 


Future Elections will be Close. That Means that We’re Going to See More Popular Vote Winners Lose.

Some defenders of the way we chose our president insist that a “wrong winner” election—when the person who gets the most votes does not become the president—is a “rare divergence” that is unlikely to happen again (despite the fact that it has happened in two out of the last five elections).

But according to our statistical analysis, the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College 32-40% of the time in close elections.  And as Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight has explained, the current trend of very close elections—within single-digits percentage points—is likely to continue.  The closer the election, the more likely a split between the national popular vote and the Electoral College.  In addition, in recent elections, there have been fewer swing states than in the past, and more states where the margin of victory was very large. The result: more and more elections where the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College.  

Nor does the current system give a long-term advantage to either party.  In modern elections, the Electoral College has appeared to be skewed against Democrats.  But, as Democrats and Republicans agree, this trend won’t last forever.  Swing states stop swinging, and safe states for one party shift to become safe states for the other.  The next “wrong winner” could just as easily be a Democrat who wins the Electoral College and loses the national popular vote.  In addition, as many, including Donald Trump, have rightly noted, no candidate has ever actually campaigned to win the national popular vote.  There is no telling which party would have an advantage if they did.

But one thing remains certain: so long as we stick with our current system, candidates will exclusively campaign in the current crop of swing states.  Most of America will be ignored, and their voices silenced. 



Electoral College On Track to Reward National Loser With Landslide Victory

According to this model the incumbent is on track to win by a margin of 294 electoral votes. That means 416 electors to 122 electors. This astounding landslide would be won by the most unpopular president ever re-elected, based on the fact that the president's disapproval rating typically runs more than 10 percentage points ahead of his approval rating. His broad and deep unpopularity is manifested in the extremely unusual fact that nearly half of voters say they will never vote for him. That is a much higher number than were dead set against Obama in 2011, when he was still battling the Great Crash and had only just passed the not particularly well-received Affordable Care Act. 

It is not necessary for the United States to have a method of choosing the president that re-elects such an unpopular president. The populist movement that seems to animate people on both the left and right should include as a core tenet agreement on the choice of an election method that guarantees the defeat of a president much less popular than his or her rival from an opposing party.

Of course the Democrats do have to nominate someone more popular than the incumbent. The odds of that happening are much better than the odds of that person defeating the president.  

Head-scratching does not produce any good reason why an extremely unpopular president should be able to get re-elected against a popular opponent.

  • Does the incumbent's unpopularity stem from the failure of voters to understand what he is really like and what he is really doing, which if they understood they would endorse? That doesn't seem likely given the enormous attention the president attracts to his own utterances and deeds.

  • Is the unpopularity merely transitory? The polls show remarkable steadiness in perception and over time views have hardened in place rather than changed.

  • Should we prefer a system where an elite can keep political power in the face of opposition from the poorer, less influential, less educated, or simply less empowered but more numerous majority? In other words, is an authoritarian system better than democracy? That is the fundamental question faced by governments all over the world, now that democracy is under challenge more than at any time since the Second World War.



The electoral college hates choice for women

The majority of women believe that women should have the right to exercise some choice about whether to have children. But evangelicals vehemently disagree. President Trump sides publicly with evangelicals.

It is almost impossible to believe that he has always sincerely held this position. 

But the electoral college system practically compels him to be taking this stance while running for president. Why? Because a huge proportion of voters in swing states are evangelicals. 

The views of the majority of women would militate for a different policy in the Trump Presidency. If they mattered. Which they don’t. Because of the electoral college system.



The Electoral College Versus Religion

This map shows one of the many religious denominations that are regionally concentrated outside swing states. 

The percentage of Mormons by county:

A very quick scan at this map reveals that with the arguable exception of Nevada virtually all Mormons live in states that are taken for granted in the general presidential election. As a result, members of this denomination are effectively irrelevant in the general presidential election. 

Generally speaking, Mormons vote by a large majority for the same political party and share a common agenda. If the national popular vote picked the president this religious block would get attention from all major party candidates. But instead the winner-take-all electoral college system politically neutralizes members of the Church.



The Small State "Advantage" Under the Electoral College is Illusory

Some argue that because small states get more electors relative to their population than large states, the Electoral College is good for small states and protects their interests.  However, that minor advantage is far outweighed by the incentives to ignore people who live in small states entirely when almost every state awards all of its electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.  From Ryan Cooper at The Week:

The 2016 candidates spent almost all their time in a handful of states, most of them medium or large. Two-thirds of campaign events happened in just six states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan. If we include Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Arizona, then those 12 states account for 96 percent of campaign events.

The nine smallest states (including D.C.), meanwhile, got precisely zero attention. Only the tenth-largest, New Hampshire, got any events at all. In total, 25 states (mostly small and medium-sized) got no events whatsoever. And while it's true the states that got huge attention are mostly on the big side, the very largest states were almost totally ignored as well — California and Texas got one event apiece, and New York none.

The reason for this is obvious. Almost every state gives all of its electoral votes to whoever wins the state — allowing candidates to take the votes of strongly partisan states for granted. Indeed, it's actively foolish to campaign where you are guaranteed to win or lose — only the swing states matter. It would be a waste of resources for a Democrat to campaign in California or Kentucky, or for a Republican to campaign in New York or D.C.



Swing States Stop Swinging

If you live in one of the few battleground states left, you may believe that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is against your interests as one of the few voters who actually has a say in the outcome of presidential elections.  But history has shown that states do not remain swing states forever, and voters in some of the most important swing states in past elections may soon find themselves joining most of the country in the Land of the Ignored Voters in the next election.

Take Ohio, the deciding state in the 2004 election. Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, criticized the popular vote movement as being against Ohioans’ interests because a national popular vote “would make Ohio not a player in the political game.” 

However, looking forward to the 2020 election, Ohio has already lost its coveted swing state status and moved into the into the column of states taken for granted by the Republican party.  The 2018 midterms, which generally provided significant gains for Democrats, demonstrated that Ohio has moved further into solidly-Republican territory “[s]o much so that the perpetual battleground seems less and less likely to be in play in 2020.”  A prominent Democratic super PAC has “significantly downgrade[d] Ohio’s targetability, listing it as a ‘GOP Watch’ state along with Texas and Iowa.”

 As a result, Republican commentator Scott Jennings predicts that “If you are one of the masochistic few who loves hearing your phone ring 48 times a day every fourth October, you are about to be sorely disappointed.”

On the other hand, Virginia, which had been a solidly-Republican state, then became a swing state, now looks more and more like a safely blue state.  The result: candidates may soon stop visiting Virginia, spending money in Virginia, and taking policy positions that serve the interests of Virginians. 

That former swing states should move to one column or another should not come as a surprise.  Indeed, even Democratic stronghold California used to be a swing state.  On the other side, Republican stronghold of Texas may become a swing state soon

As time goes on and demographics and party positions change, the key swing states that decide elections will inevitably shift.  A state with tremendous power and influence in one election may be completely ignored in the next.  But under the national popular vote, all votes will matter equally in every election.



Yup that’s it

This article correctly understands that the election turns entirely on who wins the statewide votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan. and Wisconsin. The very strong economy in these four states gives the president an extremely good chance of winning reelection while losing the national popular vote by a margin of millions. That would mean that in half of the elections of this century the loser of the popular vote nationally would become president. 



Still Another

Here is still another article that does not explain the meaning of presidential politics. The claim here is that President Trump is scuttling the China trade agreement (if there really was one in the offing) in order to improve his re-election prospects. The theory expounded is that by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports the president will get more votes, although it is also true that the Chinese will tariff their imports (our exports) of agricultural products, thus hurting American farmers.

What the article does not say is that the electoral college system makes the interests of American farmers irrelevant to the president. He is certain to obtain the electoral votes in the agricultural heartland of the country, say, Iowa, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska. He can ignore, and obviously is ignoring, the interests of farmers in these states, where evangelical Christians are sure to give Donald Trump their votes and a plurality that awards him all the electoral votes.

The reason that bashing China and hurting American farmers works as an election strategy is that, presumably, it is popular in the more manufacturing-intense states that by pure accident happen to be the only states truly relevant in determining the outcome of the election – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Florida, the lynchpin of the Trump election strategy, also is not impacted much by the Chinese tariffs on American agricultural products.

If the national popular vote were relevant to choosing the American president, farmers as a block of voters, regardless of where they live, would be important to the outcome. They number about 30 million and if their votes counted in a national tally no candidate for president in the general election could do without a coherent farm policy. Under the electoral college system such a policy is unimportant, and as farmers may have noticed the general election never features much discussion of farm policy.



Most of the 2020 Campaign Will Happen in Just Six Big States

Though defenders of the Electoral College often say that the institution is necessary to protect the interest of small states, in fact, the opposite is true.  A winning strategy for presidential candidates requires them to ignore small states and spend all their time and money on the few persuadable voters in large swing states.  

In 2016, 99% of campaign spending took place in only fourteen states, with half of that going to just four large states—Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  The rest of the United States was ignored.  And 2020 is shaping up to be even worse.  A pro-Trump Super PAC, America First Action, has stated that that just 13 states matter in the next election and plans to spend $250 million in just 6 large states—Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

 The result of the election may be dependent on an even smaller pool of voters: swing voters in Florida.

In Florida, for example, the starting Trumpworld assumption is that 10.5 million votes could be cast, which would represent record turnout in a fast-growing state. To be sure of a win, the president would need around 5.2 million to 5.3 million votes. At least 4.3 million Floridians, according to the campaign models, are already assured to come out for the president. The goal from there is straightforward: Find the 972,000-odd voters who would get the president to the win number.

The president isn’t wrong to commit to this strategy. The eventual Democratic candidate will certainly focus all of his or her energy, money, and time on these same few voters, taking the rest of the country for granted.  It is the system that forces candidates to spend all their time and money in large swing states.



Electoral college shapes foreign policy

This would not be taking place if it were not likely to win votes in Florida. Without carrying Florida the president has precious little chance to win re-election. But for an important segment of Florida voters both Cuba and Venezuela are seen as enemy states. Hostility and intervention there wins votes, whereas these same voters may support, or at least not mind, the president’s withdrawal from Syria or his amicable attitude toward North Korea. 

Spanish-speaking voters in Texas or California are far more likely to react negatively to Donald Trump’s policies toward Mexico and Central America, from where they’ve come. But they are relatively indifferent to his Cuba or Venezuela policies, since most do not trace their origins from those areas. However, these voters are taken for granted or ignored in presidential politics because of the anti-democratic  electoral college system. 

This is another in a litany of bad aspects of the selection system. 



The Electoral College Distorts the Primary Process

The Electoral College system has a tremendous impact on candidates’ campaigns and policies.  But it also dictates who the candidates are in the first place.

The 2020 Democratic primary is in full swing, and voters have a staggering number of candidates to evaluate. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 49% of Democratic voters think it’s more important that a candidate is more likely to win compared to only 35% who think it’s more important that a candidate’s position on the issues is closest to their own.  A focus on electability in itself is not terribly surprising—any primary voter should be concerned about a candidate’s appeal to the broader electorate.  But under the Electoral College, primary voters can’t just evaluate which candidate they think will do the best across the nation as a whole.  Instead, they think about electability in terms of a fraction of a fraction of voters—that is, swing voters in swing states. As Ed Kilgore explains:

“Without question, the most popular contestants for key swing voters next year are the Rust Belt white working-class voters — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 — who helped Trump win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and thus, the presidency in 2016.”

The problem is, voters tend not to be very good at determining electability. So the primary system forces voters to make a decision based on the perceived preferences of just a tiny sliver of the population, a double distortion that leads candidates even further away from the policies that most Americans actually want.



Both Candidates Will Continue to Fight for the Same Few States—While Ignoring Most of the Country

The manager of President Trump’s 2020 campaign said that Trump thinks he can win a few states that Hilary Clinton carried in 2016, while repeating his victories in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  The Democratic candidate will, of course, have to win some of the states that Clinton lost in order to win in 2020.

The problem is that both parties are continuing to fight for the same handful of states, with hardly a thought for the rest of the nation. While the states that are up for grabs may slowly change over time, the overall number of competitive states has decreased.  This means that more and more of the country is left out of the presidential election conversation entirely.  Presidential candidates rarely or never visit most states.  Worse, they tailor their policy positions to the needs of swing states alone—with serious consequences.

Until every vote matters equally, the system will force candidates to spend almost all of their time and money on winning the votes of the small percentage of the country that live in big swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania, ignoring most of the small states. That is not the system that our founders envisioned, and is not one that is working today.



What 2020 will be like

The map below, from NationalPopularVote.com, totals general election campaign events by the nominees of the two major parties in 2016.

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This is by no means the most useful measuring stick for how the Electoral College skews the importance of voters toward only those in a few states. A candidate goes to a state in order to obtain local media coverage and to bolster enthusiasm among loyalists. But there's no particular reason for a candidate to go to a critical state every day for a week, even if the state were absolutely critical, like Florida. A much better measurement of a state's electoral importance is advertising spending and a secondary measurement is money spent on the ground building field offices and installing the many mechanisms to drive turn-out. Nevertheless, the map of visits reveals what everyone in presidential politics know: the vast majority of American voters are taken for granted in the presidential election