Voter Participation

The View from Utah

This piece in the Salt Lake Tribune explains how the Electoral College, as it currently operates, harms Utah voters:

Any power smaller states gained under the original system has been lost to unpredictable battleground states, of any size. In 2016, why did Iowa (after primary season), with 3 million people, a strong rural component and six electoral votes (all like Utah), get 21 campaign events and Utah only one? Because Iowa’s a battleground state.

In Utah, we had 10 presidential contenders. The Republican won the statewide popular vote with only 46 percent of the total. The other nine candidates combined won 54 percent. The result? The six electors chosen by winner-take-all to ride our Electoral Bus to its destination represented fewer than half of our voters. That’s how Utah contributed to the infamous popular vote/electoral vote split, and with margins in presidential contests growing tighter every cycle, keeping these state winner-take-all laws makes the possibility of more splits loom over every future election.

 However, if the winner of the national popular vote became the president:

[B]ig states, small states, big cities, small cities, rural communities nationwide — where you vote won’t matter, that you vote will. Every vote in states like Utah will be as powerful as every vote in states like Florida, and candidates must go everywhere to get them. On that election night, for the first time in American history, finally, electors representing the nation’s entire vote will ride Electoral Buses to their destination: the selection of the president.

Competing Draws a Crowd

Elaine Kamarck notes that the Bush vs McCain campaign in 2000 attracted “enormous amounts of attention and new voters.” Page 77.

They competed in many states. The media followed them. In state after state they battled, paying attention to local issues, building Republican party registration numbers. Exactly what would happen in the general election from June to November if the parties’ candidates had to win the national vote in order to get the electors necessary to become president.

The Republicans who want to ground their party on the center-right, where the majority of Americans are found, should vigorously fight for a national popular vote as the way to choose the president. They would be basing the Republican “base” on a true majority of voters.

If Candidates Had to Win the National Tally They’d Compete Everywhere

A shibboleth of the enemies of direct democracy for choosing the president is this:

If every vote mattered equally no candidates would care about the votes in less dense or rural states.

On its face this claim seems self-contradicting. If every vote counted equally, then obviously every candidate would try to get every vote everywhere. The question would not be whether they wanted every vote, but rather how would they go after the votes in less dense areas. 

We already know the answer by looking at how major brands and retailers reach every possible customer. 

First, retailers invest in national branding. Currently in the general election presidential candidates spend almost nothing advertising on national television shows. If every vote mattered equally this would change. You’d see the president advertising on the Super Bowl, or for that matter, stalking the sidelines for “product placement.”

Second, in major urban areas the cost of reaching customers through broadcast or cable channels is much higher than in less dense areas. Therefore campaigns would proportionally spend less on television spots in dense areas, and much more on television in less dense areas. If you own a television station in the Dakotas, you should want the national popular vote to pick the president. Similarly there’d be political advertising on local radio in rural areas, whereas today there is none from the presidential candidates.

Third, the rise of social advertising is inexorable, because social advertisers can pick the target audience with more precision than can one-to-many advertising. Especially in dense areas, social would be preferred over old school techniques. But because distance is irrelevant for social advertising, the big social firms would be a platform for reaching every voter everywhere.  

Fourth, just as Wal-Mart ignores no one, so candidates would ignore no region in their search for votes. Very likely, in right-leaning states the effort to get out the vote for the Republican nominee would go up, because the Republicans currently gain nothing by seeking higher turn-out in the more rural states where they are the preferred party.

 Fifth, there is some evidence already that confirms these hypotheses. This is from the estimable web site

The fact that serious candidates solicit every voter that matters was also demonstrated in 2008 by Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district (the Omaha area). Even though each congressional district in the country contains only 1/4% of the country’s population, the Obama campaign operated three separate campaign offices staffed by 16 people there. … Mitt Romney opened a campaign office in Omaha in July 2012 in order to compete in Nebraska’s 2nd district and … the Obama campaign was also active in the Omaha area.

In many cases, small states offer presidential candidates the attraction of considerably lower per-impression media costs …

Can't Save What Never Had

Rick Hasen rightly praises the many good features of H.R.1, a bill that would reform many aspects of our elections, but the title of the article wrongly claims it may save democracy.

You cannot save what you do not have. We do not have a democratic method of choosing the president.

If you want democracy, the single most important reform of elections in the United States unquestionably would be a guarantee that the national vote winner always became president.

This reform would: 

  • cause both parties to compete everywhere for votes, using all the Internet-enabled tools to find and seek to persuade every eligible voter in every part of the country.

  • drive up total participation by 20 to 80 million votes, roughly ten times the amount of increased participation that all the measures in H.R.1 would be able to accomplish. Yes, that's right: ten times more impact!

  • change the two major parties' policies, practices, and pitches so that each would be far more likely to seek voters than to reject voting. The reason is that wooing and winning a plurality among the extra tens of millions of voters is more likely to succeed than discouraging a few hundred thousand voters in swing states.

  • discourage voter suppression by bringing every effort of that kind into proximity of every voter. Why? Because if both campaigns valued, looked for, needed, and tried to get every vote, then any effort to discourage voting necessarily would occur in every precinct. That would cause the vote-suppressing party to be known everywhere as the enemy of democracy—hardly the way to win elections. By contrast, with the current system, where the presidency is chosen by votes that are elsewhere, far away, in a distant state, from the perspective of the vast majority of voters, then voter suppression too is someone else's problem. 

Who’s on First

Elaine Kamarck explains at page 71 passim of Primary Politics how Iowa and New Hampshire politicians have fought successfully to keep their caucus and primary systems at the front of the nominating process. The lesson is that just two states can affect the entire system profoundly.

So, if just two states awarded their electors to the national winner, they would go a long way, maybe all the way, to forcing the candidates in the general election to try to win the national popular plurality.

Just two states’ politicians could give America a true one person-one vote democratic way of choosing the president. The leadership role is there for the taking.

Kamarck Explains

A bunch of points from Elaine Kamarck’s “Primary Politics”:

1.     Turnout in Iowa has increased almost every year in which there’s a competitive contest. In 2008 227,000 Democrats participated in the caucus, as compared to 124,000 in 2004. Page 17. When candidates show up, participation goes up.

2.     In the 1970s the caucus and convention system, “long a private or at most semi-public process, became, by law in both parties, a fully public system.” Pp 20-21. States can change the system.

3.     “As the process became public it attracted the kind of attention and voter interest that was unheard of in prior days.” Page 21. If states allocated some or all of their electors to the national winner, then the nominees’ search for voters everywhere would attract huge attention and voter interest everywhere.

4.     The primary system had led to consolidation of voting around certain days. It could lead to a national primary, which is favored by “substantially more than 50% of the American public [that] favors the simplest and most direct form of democracy.” Page 26. Similarly, well more than 50% favor simple, direct democracy as the way to choose the president in the general election. The cure for non-participation in politics is to let the people participate directly in a single national vote for president.

The State of the Union Shows how the Electoral College Distorts Our Policies

In the State of the Union, President Trump called out a few specific states that, according to him, were particularly harmed by U.S. trade deals:

“Another historic trade blunder was the catastrophe known as NAFTA. I have met the men and women of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Hampshire, and many other states whose dreams were shattered by the signing of NAFTA.”

It is no coincidence that Trump’s list of states includes some of the most important battleground states that will decide the 2020 election. Under our current system, the president is free to ignore the needs of most Americans, focusing only on a few closely contested states. Our policies should be evaluated based on their overall impact on the nation, not just their impact on swing states.

New Mexico House Passes National Popular Vote Bill

New Mexico’s state House has passed a bill that would add New Mexico to the 11 states plus D.C. to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Currently, the Compact has 172 electors that will be pledged to the winner of the national popular vote if states with a total of 270 electoral votes join the Compact. If the New Mexico Senate also approves the bill, the state’s 5 electoral votes will be added to the total. 

A similar bill recently passed in the Colorado Senate and is awaiting consideration by the House. Colorado has 9 electoral votes.

Turning Out Every Vote Counts a Lot

As the chart below shows, voter turnout can increase drastically if a race is closely contested and people know their vote is likely to matter. A close Senate race in Texas and a close gubernatorial race in Georgia drove turnout up 14 and 21 points, respectively, above the average:


So if the presidential candidates competed to win the national popular vote, then every voter in every state would know their vote mattered. Turnout on average would go up in the 40 states currently ignored by the two parties’ candidates. An increase of 14 to 21 points would translate to at least 20 million more votes.

The two parties would have to reshape their policies, reconsider their coalitions, and perhaps change their nominating rules in order to capture a winning share of the huge influx of participation.

Missed One

The writers of “How Democracies Die” say on page 222: “political scientists have proposed an array of electoral reforms…that might mitigate partisan enmity in America. The evidence of their effectiveness, however, is far from clear.” They prefer instead addressing “racial and religious realignment and growing economic inequality” by “reshuffling…what America’s political parties stand for.”

In my own book, out in April, I reach a similar conclusion about inequality, but I wish Levitsky & Ziblatt had included the national popular vote as an electoral reform. I think they would have to conclude that it very likely would “mitigate partisan enmity,” promote “racial and religious realignment,” and “reshuffle” what the parties “stand for.” The reason is that neither party could win a national plurality without appealing to factions they now mostly ignore as they battle for victory in a handful of swing states.

Voting Holiday

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell says that making election day a national holiday is a “power grab” by the Democrats.

This idea is not about giving power to the Democrats. It is about giving power to the people. Right on.

Everyone in elected office legitimately holds their position only because they have obtained the consent of the governed. That is conveyed by voting. The more people who vote, the more the consent is validated. 

 It is weird for Senator McConnell to complain about democracy when the administration he helps so much is trying to unseat the leader of Venezuela on the grounds that he did not legitimately obtain the consent of his governed through a fair election

Declaring election day a holiday makes it easier for people to give their consent to Senator McConnell exercising power over them, but it also celebrates that act of democracy. I particularly like the idea of combining Veterans Day with Election Day because soldiers fought and died for democracy. 

Institutions Matter

In “How Democracies Die,” the authors inveigh against the use of impeachment to defeat the incumbent, of whom they plainly disapprove. Instead, they say “If Trump is defeated via democratic institutions, it will strengthen those institutions.” As one of these institutions they list elections. Page 218.

But the most important of all elections, the only one that directly relates to their goal of defeating the incumbent, is not democratic.

If a Democrat were to defeat Trump in 2020 by winning the electoral college without prevailing in the national popular vote, the Electoral College would certainly neither be strengthened nor would it be considered a democratic institution.

Indeed, it is easily possible to imagine the outrage among Trump supporters if they delivered him in 2020 a national popular vote plurality or majority and yet the swing states swung back to the Democrats, denying the incumbent a second term. Those Trump backers in this hypothetical would deserve support from everyone who believes in democracy.

One thing the incumbent is right about is this: he supports the idea that the winner of the national popular vote should always be president.

Colorado State Senate Passes National Popular Vote Bill

On January 29, Colorado’s Senate passed a bill that would add Colorado to the list of 11 states plus D.C. to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Currently, the Compact has 172 electors that will be pledged to the winner of the national popular vote if states with a total of 270 electoral votes join the Compact.  

The Colorado bill will now go to the state’s House for consideration.  If passed, Colorado would add its 9 electoral votes to the tally.

Independent Schultz Needs to Fund Ballot Initiatives

Howard Schultz, lifelong Democrat and, at least for several decades, a billionaire, is thinking of running for president as an independent.

According to Axios, a Schultz adviser stated that:

“In the latest Gallup data, 39% of people see themselves as independents, 34% as Ds and 25% as Rs.

The adviser said research by the Schultz team shows a centrist independent would draw evenly from the Republican and Democratic nominees, and bring Trump down to a ‘statistical floor of 26-27-28 percent.’”

But hello, Schultz Adviser: the problem with your guy’s would-be candidacy is the Electoral College system. On a national level an independent, especially one willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars out of a personal fortune ten times that amount, might harbor some hope of finishing first in a national three-person race, assuming that the Democratic and Republican nominees offered little appeal to the huge middle of the electorate.

But it is very unlikely that an independent would do well in the Electoral College. Most probable is that the independent who is a former Democrat, like Schultz, would guarantee the electoral victory to the incumbent.

The reason is that no independent can finish first in the solidly red states that comprise about 230 electoral votes for the Republican. The margins for the Republican nominee, whoever that is, are simply too big to be threatened by an independent, especially one who used to be a Democrat.

The Republican path to victory then runs through Florida, with 29 electors, leaving only 11 to be gained from multiple means – just Pennsylvania, just Michigan, or Wisconsin plus one of the three ways to get a single elector in Maine. If the independent ran strongly in these states, then perhaps the Republican nominee would not prevail in Pennsylvania or Michigan. But the Republican needs just the 11 more if Florida is the red bag of states.

Meanwhile the independent’s candidacy makes it nearly impossible for the Democratic nominee to get to 270. The Democratic base of electors is only about 211 electors, drawn mostly from solidly blue states like California, New York, and the combination of states in New England. An independent probably will gain the most votes from these states—and will need to do so to be competitive in the irrelevant national tally.

If the independent finishes first in any of the typically blue states, there aren’t enough electors in the swing states to give the Democrat, with a diminished base, a way to get to 270 electors.

If the independent somehow manages to stop the Republican from winning a plurality in Florida, then possibly the Republican also cannot get to 270 electors.

But here’s the kicker. If the Republican and Democratic nominee each fail to get to 270 electors, even if Schultz amazes everyone by winning the meaningless national tally, the House of Representatives then chooses the president.

Every state delegation has one vote. An untested constitutional issue is whether the votes would be cast by the existing House or the newly elected House. Currently, Republicans control a majority of state delegations, and they might well retain that position after 2020.  For that reason, resort to the House would probably favor the Republican nominee.   

Therefore, the Republican nominee will probably win the presidency.

Someone might want to encourage Howard Schultz to bankroll the ballot initiatives that in many states can let the people decide whether they want the popular vote winner always to be president. Then his candidacy could possible lead to his victory in 2020.  Otherwise, with the current, crazy, antedated, anti-democratic system, he can do no more than guarantee victory for the Republican nominee.

Not Quite

“[T]he minority share of the electorate is growing,” and this favors the Democrats, assert Levitsky & Ziblatt. They then explain that the Republican response has been to limit participation by, inter alia, pushing for voter ID laws. These have “only a modest effect on turnout. But a modest effect can be decisive in close elections…” Pages 183-85.

Two comments.

First, increase in minority participation may be important to the national popular vote, but of course that is irrelevant to the question of who wins the presidency. The increase in minorities in the overall population arguably has motivated Republicans to vote for their nominee in swing states more than it has favored Democrats in swing states.

Second, the “modest effect” is especially critical in swing states. In a national popular vote system, voter ID laws would not matter much because their “modest effect” would be unlikely to alter the outcome.

The Presidential Selection System Magnifies Threats to Fair Elections

In an article describing the influence of voting machine lobbyists in Georgia, the New Yorker explains: 

“The practice of democracy begins with casting votes; its integrity depends on the inclusivity of the franchise and the accurate recording of its will. Georgia turns out to be a prime example of how voting-system venders, in partnership with elected officials, can jeopardize the democratic process by influencing municipalities to buy proprietary, inscrutable voting devices that are infinitely less secure than paper-ballot systems that cost three times less.”

In 2016, 77,704 voters in three states flipped the election from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.  That’s just 0.057% of all votes cast.  In our winner-take-all system where a small number of states determine the president, we are incredibly vulnerable to election manipulation.

Voters Across the Country Reject Gerrymandering

In 2018, voters in four states—Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah—approved ballot measures limiting partisan redistricting.  But lawmakers from both parties are resisting these efforts for reform:

“Even as voters and courts vigorously rejected the practice this year, politicians in some states are doing their best to remain in control of the redistricting process. Critics argue that amounts to letting politicians pick their own voters.”

The Electoral College Makes Hacking Elections Possible

Christian Caryl for the Washington Post writes:

“Given just how narrow Trump’s margin of victory was — less than 80,000 votes in three key swing states — it stands to reason that any help he received from Moscow could have helped him to win.”

In other words, the 2016 election was decided by 0.05% of all votes cast.  When the margin is that small and that localized in key swing states, our system is vulnerable to abuse from outside forces. If the candidates had to compete for every vote across the country, it would be much more difficult if not impossible for outside forces to skew the results. 

2016 Misdescribed

On page 71 of “How Democracies Die”, Levitsky and Ziblatt write that the 2016 election “was essentially a toss-up [because of] partisan polarization…the uneven state of the economy and President Obama’s middling approval ratings.” 

It was not a toss-up. At all times Clinton was highly likely to win a national victory. But that mattered not at all. At all times Trump was likely to win an electoral college victory, because he had the freedom, as a wild card candidate, to craft a message exclusively designed for the swing states.

Also, Obama had good approval ratings.