The Electoral College Puts Democracy at Risk

Our democracy is gravely at risk from foreign meddling.  As Michael Chertoff and Anders Fogh Rasmussen explain their article, “The Unhackable Election: What It Takes to Defend Democracy” in Foreign Affairs:

Because the Internet and automation enable aggressors to act anonymously on a large scale, technology has significantly reduced the costs and risks of election meddling.

In some cases, foreign meddlers have tried to directly boost whichever candidate or party was most likely to adopt a soft stance on Russia. However, in most cases, their strategy is simply to discredit the entire democratic process. In the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries, for example, Russian operatives supported both the Republican candidate Donald Trump and the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, with the goal of radicalizing the political debate.

Nor is the threat limited to Russia:

In August, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, announced that there was a “sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling, and North Korean meddling” and said that the U.S. government was working to crack down on it. That same month, Twitter suspended 284 fake accounts with apparent links to Iran, and Facebook discovered 76 fake Instagram accounts originating in Iran. 

The article discusses many approaches to the threat, including the technical and human aspects of cyberdefense; cooperation between the government and private sectors; updating our voting systems; and public education campaigns.  It does not, however, mention something that makes elections in the United States particularly vulnerable to foreign interference: the Electoral College.

To shift the result of our elections, a malevolent foreign power does not need to reach everyone—just a few people in the small number of states that decide elections.  If the president were elected by the national popular vote, coordinating a disinformation campaign would be more complicated, more expensive, and less successful.  


Women and the Electoral College

In 2016 more women voted for the president then did men. And women preferred Clinton by a bigger margin than men preferred Trump. Obviously, if the United States had a democratic system the preference of women would have become president. 

The chart below, showing what would happen if only women voted in the 2018 midterms, shows how the preference of women for the Democrats led to that party’s victory in the House of Representatives in 2018.

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The chart also explains how the preferred choice of women in 2016 did not become the president. It may very well explain how the democratic nominee may not become president in 2020 unless some states allocate electors to the national popular vote winner. 

The problem is the bizarre electoral college system in which the people in a few arbitrarily chosen states effectively pick the president.  

Despite the huge Democratic preference among women nationally, in 2018, women in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were less supportive of that party. In many districts in these states women were still in the Democratic camp but statewide the female preference for Democrats was more muted than in the country as a whole. 

These happen to be the swing states where the results of the 2020 election will be determined. Unless the system is changed.  


Bloomberg Understands the Pitfalls of the Electoral College for Independents

Following the news that former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering running for president as an independent candidate, former mayor Michael Bloomberg released a statement regarding independent runs.  Bloomberg had considered an independent run in the past, but found that:

“The data was very clear and very consistent. Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before.”

 Bloomberg understands that, at best, independent candidates can only serve as a spoiler in presidential elections.  A centrist independent candidate would only have a chance of winning if we reform our system so that the winner of the national popular vote becomes the president.


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.


Blame the System

As the Gallup chart below shows, Americans as described by their political views are fairly evenly balanced. Most are moderate to center right. Compromise is obviously the way to get things done.

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But the presidential selection system motivates both parties to push turnout of a few voters in a few states in order to win all the electors in those swing states. Noisy divisiveness is the tactic that the swing state system calls for. 

(The people in the swing states especially don’t like this.)

If a few disparate states awarded their electors to the winner of the national popular vote, like Ohio, the Dakotas, and Oregon, then by 2020 both parties would have to win nationally. To do so, they would have to reflect the views of the majority of voters everywhere. The result would be more pragmatic, effective candidates, and a welcome harmony between the wishes of the majority of the people and the behavior of the winner as president. 


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 Shutdown Hurt Swing States Less—And it’s not a Coincidence

Take a look at this map of states most and least affected by the government shutdown:

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Now take a look at the list of the closest states in the 2016 election.  A cursory glance shows a remarkable amount of overlap between critical, close states and states minimally affected by the government shutdown.  The decisive states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire are among the states impacted the least.

 The shutdown hurt all of America, but it did not hurt all Americans equally.  The shutdown was most harmful to the states both parties can afford to ignore—D.C. and Maryland on the left; Alaska and Mississippi on the right—but largely spared the few voters that matter.

Though many have referred to Trump’s decision to shut down the government as a “gamble,” it was a gamble for which Trump understood the odds.  He knew who would feel the pain and who would not.  An increasingly large majority of Americans disapprove of the shutdown and held Trump responsible.  But as any president or candidate knows, it is the opinion of voters in swing states that counts.  The opinion of the country overall simply does not matter.

At least not yet.


Going Westward

The Democratic Party more or less ignores the west in presidential campaigns. The reason is the Electoral College system. Nevada was the only state in the west where the margin of victory was less than 3 percentage points in 2016. The entire rest of the west is taken for granted by both parties. 

Every legislator in every western state should favor the use of the national popular vote to pick the president. By this reform, all voters in all western states would get attention, and all their state legislators too would be important to presidential candidates.


The Electoral College was a Compromise the Framers Didn't Want

“The electoral college was an unwanted child from the beginning,” writes Joseph J. Ellis, author of “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us.Ellis explains:

“Born in Philadelphia in mid-August 1787, when most delegates to the Constitutional Convention were eager to escape the heat and humidity and go home, it was the fruit of a compromise between the two warring factions at the convention: those who wished to revise the Articles of Confederation and retain sovereignty in the states, and those who wished to replace the articles by shifting sovereignty to a fully empowered national government.

. . .

Neither side was happy with the result.”

Fortunately, the Constitution does not require us to continue to be saddled with our current system. As Ellis explains:

“There is nothing in the Constitution that requires an elector to vote for the winner in his or her state, a loophole that might offer a way around the amendment impasse.”

In other words, if states agree to give there electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, we could finally be free from a system that no one really wanted in the first place.


Big Tents

“For most of the twentieth century, American parties were ideological ‘big tents’ each encompassing diverse constituencies and a wide range of political views,”  Levitsky and Ziblatt say on page 168 of “How Democracies Die.” They then assert that the Democratic embrace of the Civil Rights Movement collapsed the big tent. Next, immigrants supported the Democrats, and evangelists supported the Republicans. The result was two tinier tents, one for each party, and each with their own separate audiences.

The point of view here disturbs me. The parties, like sellers in a market, position themselves to win elections like businesses want to win market share. The principal reason that the two parties re-aligned since the 1960s is that the presidential selection system makes the national vote irrelevant. If candidates knew they had to win the national vote in order to become president, then Republican nominees could not have been so willingly insensitive to the desires of black people and immigrants. Nor could Democratic nominees have resisted the concerns of evangelicals. The parties would have needed to create coalitions that could win national majorities, especially in close elections, as opposed to carrying a handful of swing states.

Immigrants did not inevitably support Democrats, and African-Americans famously had long seen the Republicans as the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. These groups did not choose parties so much as the parties chose them or left them. For Republicans, getting the immigrant vote would not help carry California, and the black vote in the old Confederacy could not beat the white vote. For Democrats, the evangelical vote in the Rust Belt, while huge, could not overcome the labor vote.  If the national vote mattered, a different calculus would have prevailed. Both parties would have had motivation to build big tents.


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.


If you like moderation

Paul Starr contends that in the 2018 Congressional elections:

“The Democrats who flipped seats did so mostly in suburban districts where they attracted votes from independents and Republican moderates in what was an exceptionally strong year for Democrats. Many of the successful candidates were recruited to run precisely because they would appeal to moderates.”

The House races are the closest available proxy for a national presidential campaign. If the nominees had to win the national vote, they would ally with their party’s House candidates in every district, open get-out-the-vote offices with their House candidates, appear with them, and advertise with them.

Just as the Democrats won the House majority mostly because they attracted moderates, the presidential nominee also would have to attract moderates.

Requiring a national popular vote to elect the president would produce more moderate nominees, and the winner would be more moderate, than the current system which hinges the entire outcome on a handful of states not reflective of the demographics of the country as a whole. 


The Electoral College will Become Increasingly Undemocratic

University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy explains some of the major problems with the Electoral College, including how demographic clustering leads to “natural gerrymanders” the Constitution’s drafters never anticipated, and how it doesn’t actually protect small states:

“Even where there is no counter-majoritarian result, these electoral features can often lead to a significant “skew” between votes and seats won by a political party, racial minority, or other politically cohesive group.

The skew likely will only get worse, as “demographic clustering” (aka “The Big Sort”) continues, with Democrats overconcentrating in cities, leading to “natural gerrymanders.”  By 2040, 30% of Americans  will control 70% of the Senate, and they will not be demographically representative of the nation as a whole.

We should be troubled by such results.  Elections are designed to measure popular will; they should reflect that will accurately.

The Framers devised the College out of an inherent distrust of common voters; a desire to placate slave-holding states ; and as a compromise between large and small states.  None are persuasive today.  It’s not even clear the College really does protect small states.  Instead, it transfers power to about 10 swing states, only 2 of which are in the bottom half of states by population.”

(via Election Law Blog)


GWB the Big Tenter

In “How Democracies Die” the authors report that “President [George W.] Bush governed hard to the right, abandoning all pretense of bipartisanship [because] Republicans could win by mobilizing their own base rather than seeking independent voters.” Page 152.

Bush won a majority of the popular vote in 2004, and became the first presidential candidate to accomplish this feat since his father did in 1988. He ran as a “big tent” Republican, and generally held positions currently anathematized by the incumbent president.

In fact, it was not Bush but John Kerry who sought to use the Electoral College to thwart the will of the majority of Americans. Kerry battled hard to win a plurality in Ohio, and he came close. If he had pulled that off, he would have won an electoral victory even while Bush won the majority of votes in the country.


What Happens when Presidents Can Ignore Majority Opinion

As the shutdown drags on and on, it is becoming increasingly clear that our political system makes possible a course of action most Americans oppose.  As Ronald Brownstein writes for The Atlantic:

“Trump has abandoned any pretense of seeking to represent majority opinion and is defining himself almost entirely as the leader of a minority faction.

That carries big long-term risks for the GOP, as the Democratic gains in the House last November demonstrated. But because the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College disproportionately favors the older, non-college-educated, evangelical, and rural white voters who comprise his faction, Trump’s approach could sustain itself for years. And that promises a steady escalation in political conflict and polarization as Republicans tilt their strategy toward the demands of an ardent minority—and lose the moderating influence of attempts to hold support from a majority of Americans.”

Most Americans agree that appealing only to the extreme wings of both parties is a losing strategy for America.  The electoral college is the only reason a party can choose this approach and remain viable.


Supreme Court Mischaracterized: They Got FDR and the 19th Amendment Wrong

The Supreme Court was designed to be profoundly anti-democratic. As a result, it inevitably can become an instrument for anti-democratic forces to use in order to create a rule of law that is neither desired nor supported by the majority of Americans.

In “How Democracies Die,” Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt at page 119 condemn Franklin Roosevelt for wanting to change the size of the Court in order to appoint justices less inclined to kill legislation that the vast majority of Americans thought necessary to respond to the Great Depression. Roosevelt was on the side of democracy. The professors wrongly characterize him as contributing to the erosion of norms essential to the working of democracy.

It should also be noted that the Supreme Court ought to have term limits and a strong and public ethics code in order to mitigate its anti-democratic character.

On page 125 they claim the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 gave women the right to vote, and exemplified “bipartisan cooperation.” This amendment was not ratified by the requisite number of states until Tennessee barely adopted it in 1920 (not 1919). It exemplified, if anything, regional white male hostility to any threat to the hegemony of this demographic. As the map below, from Wikipedia, shows, the red and orange states had no or very limited suffrage for women in elections at every level prior to the Nineteenth Amendment:

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In general, regional differences have characterized all efforts to extend the franchise. This is the case with efforts to cause the national vote winner always to become president.


Chile’s Democracy Died for Other Reasons

Harvard professors Levitsky & Ziblatt assert: “Politics without guardrails killed Chilean democracy.” They then describe Salvador Allende as participating in an erosion of democratic norms, but somehow, they leave out the well-documented American support for the overthrow of this popularly elected figure. They create the impression that the “military seized power” because the political parties had destroyed democratic institutions. Henry Kissinger, former Harvard professor, had a lot to do with this outcome. See pp 115-17 of “How Democracies Die.”

The more general point is that military interventions, secret or otherwise, are self-evidently lethal for democracies. The military is of course not a democratic institution, and should never be involved in domestic politics. It should not be a prop, or a political football.

Another reason to have a national vote always elect the president is that the military composes an appropriate share of the national vote, whereas it may constitute an unnaturally large fraction of the vote in certain states, thus exercising disproportional influence on representation in the Electoral College.


My Beef with This Book

The argument of “How Democracies Die” is found, among many other places (repetition is the soul of didacticism), at page 102:

“Unwritten rules are everywhere in American politics, [including] the operations of the Senate and the Electoral College…But two norms stand out…mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.”

I am scratching my head, but I think there are no important unwritten rules relating to the Electoral College.

Certainly, the two norms have no bearing on the presidential selection system. Third party spoilers, like Perot or Nader, have never tolerated the system or forborne to frustrate the will of the majority or plurality of the American people. Faithless electors have willy-nilly cast protest votes of no consequence, except insofar as they shown how broken the system is that the southern/small state alliance required as a price for ratifying the Constitution.

My simplest beef with this book is that it assumes the existence of a democracy that is, then, said to be at risk of dying. The problem with American politics is almost exactly the opposite. There is an absence of democracy in key institutions, and if our Republic dies the reason lies in our collective failure to create democracy in form and function, rather than our inability to adhere to unwritten rules or norms. 


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.”


It Ain’t Necessarily So

From NPR:

“The president also faces some significant headwinds for re-election in 2020. Just 30 percent of registered voters said they will definitely vote for Trump in 2020, while 57 percent said they will definitely vote against him.
....
For context, in 2010, when asked about then-President Barack Obama, just 36 percent said they would definitely vote for him, while 48 percent said they would not. Obama went on to win with 51 percent of the vote.”  

President Trump's national polling results, like Obama's in 2010, have little or no significance for two reasons. First, the time between now and November 2020 is far too long for current polling to have predictive value (see Obama situation in 2010, which was a function of the disappointing economic recovery). Second, national popularity does not predict the likely outcome in the handful of states that will determine the presidential election. 

In 2010 President Obama correctly believed that he was in pretty good shape in the swing states. His eventual opponent, Mitt Romney, was surprised to discover that in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota he faced a “blue wall” constructed by the electoral college system.

The incumbent only won the popular vote by 51% vs. 47% for Romney, but Obama got 332 electors to Romney’s 206, which is 62% to 38%.

The effect of the anti-democratic electoral system was to magnify grossly the Obama margin. The professionals in both parties drew wrong lessons from this outcome.  

Republicans failed to grasp in 2012 that the electoral college system hurt their chances to win. When the system flipped in 2016 to give Republicans a big win, they did not realize that the system arbitrarily perverts the will of the people nationally. There’s no telling whether it will help or hurt a major party’s candidate. Their party would be far better off building a big national base and depending on Republicans everywhere to give their candidate a plurality or even a majority of the popular vote.

Democrats concluded from the 2012 election that the Great Lakes states were solidly blue, and so Clinton was a favorite. In fact, the margins in those states, as shown on the map that follows, were narrow:

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Accordingly, a Republican who appealed to the particular demographic composition of voters in the Great Lake states could win. Therefore, these states would determine who won in 2016. The Clinton campaign’s policy stances were popular with most people, but not so much in the swing states.   

Both parties, and their camp followers, pay attention to national polls because they are frequent and ubiquitous. They are not only irrelevant; they are also distracting. Nothing matters for an incumbent except governing so as to maintain a base in the swing states. Going into 2020, these are Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire.

Is the shut-down hurting President Trump or helping President Trump in those five states? That’s the only relevant question in forecasting the 2020 outcome. I bet the White House polling shows he is still the favorite in those states. Hence he is the favorite in the 2020 campaign.