Missing the Explanation

Here two distinguished Harvard professors contend that, as a wanna-be autocrat, Donald Trump has manufactured a useful, ersatz crisis over the Mexican border. 

But they leave out entirely the relevance of the next presidential election. The Wall is a touchstone for the voters he needs in the handful of states that determine the outcome of the 2020 election: Florida and the Great Lakes states. The Mexican-origin population in these states is very low. The Wall, whether or not it exists, is far away and symbolic. The issue stands for one thing: will Trump live up to his promise to the voters in the swing states.

 If there were no swing states, but instead the way to be re-elected were to win the national vote, the president would not have precipitated this crisis.

Small not beautiful in presidential selection system

Say you live in one of the Dakotas. You're a school teacher, you're a Native American, you run a small business, you work at a grocery store. 

Because of the presidential selection system, your vote is never counted with similar people in other states. So you don't get to exercise the influence over the candidates' policy choices that you would if you could get your vote counted with other teachers, Sioux, businesspersons, retail workers, and so on across the country. The system divides the voters and conquers their preferences.

 Maybe a politician tells you that your vote is worth more because you have more electors per capita than do the people in Texas or California. This is meaningless. Your vote is ignored by the candidates. They take for granted the outcome in the voting, so they pay you no attention, never visit your state, don't even learn your concerns. If you could join up with those in other states and have all your votes counted together you might make a difference but with this system you are ignored.

 You can change this. If and when you have a chance, vote to have the winner of the national vote always be president. Then your vote for president will have meaning. 

Electoral College Prolongs Shutdown

Does the presidential selection system protect small states from federal government harm? Take a look at this

Screen Shot 2019-01-12 at 11.48.02 AM.png

“Axios senior visual journalist Chris Canipe found that of the 10 states with the most affected federal employees per 10,000, six voted for Trump — Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Idaho and West Virginia. The top 10 states that voted for Hillary Clinton were D.C., Maryland, New Mexico and Virginia.”

All of these except Virginia and Maryland are small states, and those two are only middle sized. The small state electoral college advantage, which is that they have more electors per capita, apparently does nothing to cause the White House or any potential Democratic Party nominee to end the shutdown.

The reason is that the electoral system makes first-term presidents and rivals concerned about the impact of their policies on swing state voters, not on small states. 

This record long shutdown is most harmful to states that both parties take for granted in the general election. The Democratic nominee will not compete in the six states Trump won; Trump will not compete in the four the Democratic nominee is sure to win.

The shutdown hits hardest in the land of the ignored, where the voters are taken for granted, and most of their votes are systematically discarded without being part of a national count based on one person, one vote equality. 

The electoral college system enables the president and his potential opponents in the general election to reject compromise, and disproportionately harms the voters in these ten states.

If every vote mattered in a single national count, then Trump and his potential rivals would be far more willing to compromise and far less willing to harm federal employees, their families, and the many others who rely on federal services. 

The legislatures in the victimized states can change this system by allocating their electors to the national popular vote winner, acting alone or in concert with other states. If they did this on Monday, the shutdown would be ended by compromise by Tuesday. Just saying. 

Florida Disaster Relief Contingent on Electoral Votes? Huh?

This from the excellent David Leonhardt of the New York Times:

"The Democrats’ best bet is probably to force Trump to end this mess himself, likely through a legally questionable declaration of emergency. That declaration would be the subject of a legal fight, and it would create some political risks for Trump. He is apparently considering taking money away from disaster relief in Florida and elsewhere, which doesn’t seem like the smartest move given the state’s electoral importance."

So what sense does it make that Florida's disaster relief money should be sacrosanct because of its electoral importance, but California's money for firefighting is at risk because the Republicans have no chance of carrying the state in the general election for president? For that matter, North Dakota would be vulnerable to presidential plundering because its Republican margin is so big that the Democratic nominee won't compete there in the general anyhow. 

 If presidents had to be re-elected by winning the national popular vote, as Donald Trump has said he prefers, then the president could take a little money "away from" everyone, and we all could collectively decide if this were a good or bad idea. Instead, the presidential selection system isolates the citizens of each state, divides the country between the victims and those passed over, and turns presidential politics into a perverse board game where the goal is not to have the token of bad luck land on your state. 

 It would be easy for states to change this system. Their legislatures or, in the case of states that permit ballot measures to change the law, their voters, can appoint electors who will vote for the winner of the national popular vote. Then raiding funds needed to fight fires in California would not be politically appealing for a Republican president, or denying repair money to a southern state hit by a hurricane would not be hypothetically attractive for a Democratic president.

Small states are especially at risk with the current system, because they do not have enough electoral votes to be as important as, say, Florida. They have voters any candidate would like to win, but under the current system they can be ignored when a president decides where to spend FEMA money. 

Some Votes Count for More than Others

A working democracy depends on the principle of “one person, one vote,” with no person’s vote counting for more than anyone else’s.  But when it comes to the presidential selection system, the votes of Americans who happen to live in small states count for a lot more than votes from large states:



He Played by the Rules

In their thinly veiled screed against Donald Trump, Harvard Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt assert, “We should worry when a politician…rejects…the democratic rules of the game.” Page 21. But Donald Trump played by the rules when he focused on swing states; assumed the Republicans would win the states they always win regardless of whether they nominate Winnie-the-Pooh or the Man-in-the-Moon; and ignored the states that any Democrat, Democratic Socialist, or other left-leaning candidate, would carry.

He didn’t reject the rules. The rules were anti-democratic to begin with.

Polarization and the Electoral College

In “How Democracies Die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write that “if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns through history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.” Page 9.

The presidential selection system not only does not temper polarization, it highly motivates candidates to adopt polarizing positions. The reason is that swing states are typically concentrated regionally. As candidates focus almost exclusively on winning these states, they appeal to local issues likely to inflame two evenly balanced constituencies (which balance is the definition of a swing state). The moderating influence of the great majority of Americans is irrelevant under this system.

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.

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.

Base vs Base?

In the New York Times, Philip Klein says the incumbent president will “relish” a clash between two bases in the electorates. 

The country as a whole does not contain two equally sized blocks of voters that disagree over the policies that divide Klein’s “bases.” 

Most Americans do not want the government shut down, do not think we need to recreate the division of East and West Berlin along the border with Mexico, and do want the government to pay attention to the bear market, the risks of missile deployment in North Korea and the threat to security, peace and democracy in war-torn areas of the globe. 

Klein’s “bases” happen to be roughly equally numerous in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida, at least as of the 2016 election. It is only because the presidential selection system makes the pluralities in these states determinative of who wins 270 electors that any incumbent president can “relish” the current fault lines in American politics. 

Progressive Activists Defeat Democrats' Gerrymandering Proposal

From Slate:

“As Democratic legislators barreled toward a December vote, New Jersey’s progressive community rallied against the proposal. A huge coalition of grassroots activists, union leaders, voting rights advocates, and racial justice proponents objected to the amendment. More than 100 activists and academics—representing a broad range of organizations, including the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and the League of Women Voters—testified against the amendment. They held press conferences and protests to shame Democratic leaders and demand real reform. It worked: On Saturday, Democratic legislators backed away from the amendment, canceling a Monday vote and effectively killing it.

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.

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.

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. 

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.