Voter Participation

Founders Misinterpreted Again

Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that the founders “sought…an elected president…reflecting the will of the people,” but they wanted “some kind of built-in screening device.” So, they invented the Electoral College. Pages 39-40. Made up of “locally prominent men in each state” it would be the “original gatekeeper.”

As historians have amply shown, this version of history is, to put a word for it, wrong. Some among the drafters strongly preferred direct election of the president. The slave and small state alliance had won inequitable, anti-democratic power in both the House and Senate, and they did not want anything short of this unfairness to be on their side when it came to choosing the president. No one thought that the electors would “screen.” Instead they would negotiate compromises among the different states, probably fail to produce a majority of electors for anyone, and then kick the process to the House.

This good book’s description of the history of the Electoral College is not one of the authors’ best moments.

Gatekeepers of a Small Tent

Harvard Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt write in “How Democracies Die”: “Although mass responses to extremist appeals matter, what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.” Page 20.

First, when it comes to democracy, better to trust the people rather than the professionals who occupy powerful positions in political parties. Asking the foxes to guard the chicken house is a bad idea.

Second, if parties are to be gatekeepers, then they should both insist that the president must win a national popular plurality. Only then will the parties need to build big tents that include the many factions necessary to win a national vote. If they are going to guard a gate, for the sake of democracy it needs to be a gate to a big tent.

Using Institutions Against Democracy

In their good book, “How Democracies Die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write at pages 7-8: “Institutions become political weapons [that] elected autocrats [use to] subvert democracy…democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy…to kill it.”

But the presidential selection system exemplifies how an anti-democratic institution automatically and routinely kills democracy, without any malign agent needing to lift a finger. The current system tells candidates not to bother to seek a popular majority in running for president. No presidential candidate has manipulated the electoral system to obtain an unfair win, with the arguable exception of the 1876 election, because it works like an evil charm to fend off democracy without requiring any bad actor to grab the controls. 

Lessons from Venezuela

At page 4 of “How Democracies Die” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline Hugo Chavez’s rise to autocratic power in sad, broken Venezuela. They note that in 2012 he was re-elected in a contest that was “free but not fair.” Yet they fail to acknowledge that the American presidential selection system also is “free” without being “fair.” There is nothing fair about a system that conducts a national vote in which the candidates ignore more than 80% of the population, and the winner does not need a national plurality.

How Democracies Die: Some Comments

Among other things, “How Democracies Die” has one of the best covers of any 2018 book. In the substantive parts of the short, compelling book, Harvard Government Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have sketched an important jeremiad against anti-democratic, authoritarian tendencies – risks to the American democracy that they say are all too real. But, as this blog will show, they have committed some real howlers by failing to assess the way the presidential selection system contributes to the risks they warn about.

Small Shifts, Big Facts

In What Happened, at page 406, Hillary Clinton wrote that “if Comey caused just 0.6 percent of Election Day voters to change their votes….only…in the Rust Belt, it would have been enough to shift the Electoral College from me to Trump.”

This deserves unpacking.

She meant that the margins of the Trump plurality in the swing states were so narrow that a shift of six-tenths of one percent in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would have caused all the 46 electors in these three states to come from the Democratic slates instead of the Republican slates. Trump’s 304 electoral count would have been reduced below the requisite 270. (He actually won states with 306 electors, but two cast protest votes against him.)

However, Donald Trump had a rock-solid plurality in enough states to total 230 electors. In Florida, not in the Rust Belt, he picked up another 29, leaving him only 11 electors short of the requisite 270.

If Minnesota and New Hampshire votes had shifted slightly from Clinton to Trump, he would have won 14 more electors from these two states, and won the Electoral College without getting any electors from the three states identified by Clinton.

If we are talking about shifts, Trump easily could have won by even a bigger margin of electors.

The fact is that Donald Trump had multiple ways to win 270 electors.

Because her base of “blue” electors was smaller, Hillary Clinton was the underdog in the election.

Clinton won the national vote, but it was not contested. Neither candidate ran a national election. Neither pursued a national majority. The system provides no reward for any candidate to appeal to all or even most Americans. This is not the way to obtain the consent of the governed, and to make candidates listen to everyone. That is why states should change the way they choose electors.

Not Quite Right

In What Happened, Hillary Clinton, at page 387, wrote that the Electoral College was an “archaic fluke of our constitutional system….that…gave disproportionate power to less populated states and therefore was profoundly undemocratic. It made a mockery of the principle of ‘One person, one vote.’”

This is the way she and most lawyers and politicians were taught, but it is inaccurate in three ways.

First, the winner-take-all system, and for that matter, even the phrase “Electoral College,” are not in the Constitution. Any state can change the way it chooses electors, and if even a few states allocated even a few electors to the national winner, then both campaigns would seek national pluralities.

Second, if campaigns had to win national pluralities to get to 270 electors, then by definition every vote would count equally. The Constitution does not block this move, or thwart the principle of ‘One person, one vote.’ States can make this the fundamental principle in choosing the president if even one or two of them decided to award electors to the national vote winner.

Third, the “system” is not undemocratic because it empowers “less populated states.” These states in fact are almost without exception taken for granted and ignored by both parties in the general election. What’s undemocratic is the way the residents of virtually all states, and especially small states, have no say on what the major party candidates say, promise, and, when elected, do. The system is undemocratic because the vast majority of voters live in non-swing states and so are taken for granted and ignored in the general election.

Long-Ignored Americans Are Reshaping Politics

“Far from the bluest strongholds, a huge demographic swathe of forgotten Americans is remaking politics, and it is not the one getting most of the press. The new upsurge is not centered in the progressive urban enclaves where most national pundits live; nor is it to be found among the grizzled men in coal country diners where journalists escape to get out of the bubble. Neither of those poles looks much like most of America anyway. “

Election Day Blues

In her memoir of the 2016 election, What Happened, Hillary Clinton wrote about the Election Day, on page 378: “After twenty months…it all came down to this. All over the country, 136 million people were going to…make a decision that would shape the future of the country and the world.”

This was not accurate. Far less than one percent of that number—which counted, roughly, all voters—were going to make a decision that mattered. These were the swing voters in the handful of swing states who would constitute the plurality that awarded all electors in these states to one candidate, despite the closeness of the margin in these states.

In all states, all those who voted for the statewide runner-up would see their votes systematically discarded. In all states, all those above the one who established a plurality would see their votes disregarded. More than 60% of all votes would be given no practical weight.

Moreover, in 43 states the plurality was foreordained months before the election. No decisions made near the election day had any consequence in the non-swing states.

Only in the seven swing states—Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida—were Election Day decisions relevant, and even in those states what mattered more were the machinations of turn-out encouragers and discouragers, including Internet bots, leaflet distributors, and disinforming phone calls. Far less than one percent of the actual voters truly made a decision that mattered.

Real Third Parties Should Matter

If a presidential candidate had to win the national vote in order to get 270 electors then a third party with substantial support across the country could make an impact on politics.  

In a truly national election Ross Perot in 1992 would have campaigned across the country in pursuit of a minimum of 34% of the vote. At the very least if he got more votes, he would have moved the Republican and Democratic parties to closer alignment with his views. 

The Populist, Progressive, and Bull Moose Parties of 19th and 20th centuries too might have become enduring presences if the system required them to build national bases.

But the presidential selection system gives third parties spoiler roles instead of a chance to make a real contribution to ideological debate.    

Who knows after all what Nader now stands for? All we know is that he changed the outcome in 2000. But why? To what end? A real third party can shift the course of political thinking. That matters more than flipping a particular election. 

A national popular vote for electing the president can lead to healthy evolution of thinking in all political parties. 

North Carolina Officials Warned of Election Fraud in January 2017

From the Washington Post:

“North Carolina state election officials told federal prosecutors in January 2017 that they found evidence of efforts to manipulate the absentee ballot vote in rural Bladen County in the 2016 election and warned that such activities ‘will likely continue for future elections’ if not addressed…”

Third Parties—Not Fun

Third parties thrive in parliamentary systems but in the United States they are usually important only if they change the plurality in a swing state in the general presidential election. Any third party can frustrate the will of the majority of the people by slicing off a few percent of the votes as Ralph Nader clearly did in Florida in 2000, thereby giving the presidency to George W. Bush. 

I was friendly with the future president in college and I can testify that he never expected Nader to make him president.  

I was part of a group that tried to persuade Nader to drop out in 2000. He knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to help Bush win in order to prove that there was no difference between the two parties. The logic was lost on me. 

 But as Nader proved, the existing presidential selection system gives great negative power to an American third party. I fully expect that dark money at some point will fabricate third parties out of whole cloth with the specific purpose of repeating the story of Florida 2000 in the half dozen swing states that matter under the current system. 

This tactic might be tried in 2020. 

The Disappointment of the Reconstruction Amendments

The 14th Amendment turned the three-fifths compromise into a five-fifths concession. Former slaves were fully counted as citizens for purposes of allocating House seats, and thus electors in the Electoral College. When Reconstruction failed and Jim Crow laws denied black people access to the ballot, the white southerners ended up with increased power in Congress and over the selection of the president.

If black people did succeed in voting, despite all obstacles, then their votes for anyone but the choice of the white majority were discarded under the "unit rule."

The Electoral College system was a tool of repression against former slaves and their descendants in the south through history until even today. 

Legitimacy Comes From Voters

This isn’t totally right: “Questioning Trump’s legitimacy is basically the birtherism of the left,” said Christopher Buskirk, publisher of American Greatness, a conservative website. “Illegitimacy is just where both left and right are going these days when they lose elections. We don’t have a shared consensus on what the institutions of government should do, and that makes it harder for partisans to accept the outcome of elections.”

Legitimacy in every country that holds elections to pick its political leader comes from high participation in voting, with all votes counted equally, and the winner being the one who gets the most votes.  

That’s why President Trump is right to favor a national vote to choose the president.

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.