North Dakota Mistreated

I was kindly invited to speak on the Plain Talk podcast with Rob Port in North Dakota. Here’s what I tried to communicate:

  1. The 216,000 North Dakotans who voted for Donald Trump got three electors in the Electoral College, but only 174,000 Trump voters in Wyoming got the same number, and only 163,000 in Alaska got the same number. What's fair about not giving every vote in every state equal weight? The only way to do that is to count every vote in every state equally in a national contest for the presidency.

  2. There are according to various sources at least 583,000 eligible voters in North Dakota. Of course it is a Republican leaning state, but only 216,000, or 37%, voted for Donald Trump. Why? Because his campaign took the state's outcome for granted, and not every vote cast there mattered. This is how the electoral college system does not bring North Dakotans into full participation in the single national election. The result is that your citizens get less attention paid not only in the general election but generally in politics than they deserve. This is why, for instance, the tariff war doesn't help you, why the focus on manufacturing in Ohio does nothing for you, and so on.

  3. There are 60 million Americans in rural areas. By and large they are ignored relative to the residents of a handful of swing states, even though their concerns and issues are quite distinct. The reason is that almost all live in states that are taken for granted by the presidential nominees.

  4. According to Wikipedia, presidential visits to North Dakota are few and far between—only seven visits since Nixon—if you want to take that as evidence of being taken for granted.  By contrast, Barack Obama and Donald Trump alone have visited New Hampshire (a state with only one more electoral vote than North Dakota) seven times as presidents.

Majority of Americans Support Getting Rid of Electoral College

The widespread discontent with the Electoral College has recently gone from a slow, constant simmer to a full-on boil.

Making Every Vote Count weighed in on Hardball with Chris Matthews tonight, as CEO Reed Hundt joined the show to discuss the system’s inequities.

Workers Too

In the same commission process that illuminated the bias against African-Americans, Alexis Herman pointed out that the primary process’s schedule “affects which voices within the party are the loudest, which issues are given the most prominence. Where, she asks, is the vote of the manufacturing worker?”

In 2005, the commission mitigated the bias created by putting Iowa and New Hampshire early by moving South Carolina and Nevada, with their very different demographic compositions, up close behind the early two.

This in Primary Politics by Elaine Kamarck at 80-81.

In the general election, the winner-take-all system is biased against the interests of every working group not in a key precinct in a battleground swing state. That includes almost every constituent of the AFL-CIO. Labor should insist in every state that at least some electors are allocated to the national winner. The Chamber of Commerce should have the same view. Every business not big in a swing state gets taken for granted in the general election. That is almost all of business.

California Dreaming

But for the electoral college system, would the sort of confrontation reported below between a first-term president and the biggest state be imaginable? I have a dream of one country bound by a national election where every vote was weighed, measured, and counted equally. 

WASHINGTON — A day after California filed a lawsuit challenging President Trump’s emergency declaration on the border, the Transportation Department said it was exploring legal options to claw back $2.5 billion in federal funds it had already spent on the state’s high-speed rail network.

The Trump administration also said it was terminating a $929 million federal grant to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, according to a letter the Transportation Department sent Tuesday.

The Civil Rights Case for the National Vote

Elaine Kamarck explained that in 2004, testifying to a Democratic commission formed to reform the nominating process, Ron Walters, a “veteran of Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns,” described “how difficult it was for African American candidates” to “do well” in the “all-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.” He said that if “Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] suggests that we shouldn’t dilute the voter of minorities,” then putting these two states up-front in the process has “the effect of diluting the black vote.” The reason is that the results in these two states matter more than the results that follow in later states, where the percentage of African-American votes is much higher. Page 79.

The winner-take-all system of allocating electors has the same effect. In states where African-American votes typically are cast for the losing presidential candidate, such as across the states in the former Confederacy, those votes are “diluted.” Indeed, they are systematically discarded.

The only two ways to make those votes matter equally to white votes are to have all states adopt a proportional system of allocating electors according to the popular vote in states OR to have some states allocated some electors to the national winner, thus forcing the candidates to seek a national win based on a one person-one vote principle in order to get enough electors to be president.

The former solution works only if all states adopt it. If all were willing to do that, they might as well simply amend the Constitution by calling for direct election of the president. (Americans have long favored that step, but professional politicians have stood in the way.) The latter works even if only a few states chose to allocate electors to the national winner. The way to avoid diluting any group’s votes – not just African-Americans, but any group’s votes – is for some states to allocate some electors to the national winner. There probably is a Voting Rights lawsuit to bring on this topic. 

Electoral college determines foreign policy

The United States foreign policy with respect to South America and Central America is inconsistent, inadequate, and frequently anti-democratic. When it comes to Venezuela now, one can make a strong argument for the promotion of a fair popular vote in that country as a way to elect the leader. 

How did this happen? Do we certainly have an outbreak of common sense in our foreign policy? Skeptics might note that nothing about American policy as to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador seems focused on the well-being of the people in those countries. 

Immigrants from those countries have little or no impact on the results in any swing state in the election coming up in 2020. 

But Venezuelan immigrants who may vote in swing state Florida conceivably could determine the allocation of its electoral votes. So Venezuela now gets attention while the other countries are ignored. Once again the pernicious Electoral College is at work, undermining America’s dream for most people in the country and most people in the world.

Giving Female Candidates a Fair Chance

If Senator Gillibrand is running a feminist campaign, then she might want to make this useful point: in the last presidential campaign almost ten million more women voted than did men. By a huge majority the female voters preferred Clinton. The majority of women for Clinton was bigger than the majority of men for Trump.

So what happened? How could the more numerous group of voters, with the stronger preference, not have elected their choice as president?

The only reason that the majority of women did not see their preferred candidate sworn in as president in January 2017 was the Electoral College system.

In a tiny few swing states, the female preference was a little below the national average.

If every vote counted equally and all were counted in a nationwide tally that chose the president, then women (and men) already would have had a fair chance to elect a female president.

And if Senator Gillibrand, or anyone else, wants a fair chance to be a feminist candidate, then the most important reform would be the appointment of electors to the national vote winner instead of only to the winner of statewide pluralities. 

How about using democracy to choose the president?

Here is Stacey Abrams in her response to the State of the Union:

 “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”

And I would add that we should no longer ignore the fact that we do not have a democratic method of choosing the president. We don’t depend on one person/one vote to pick the single national leader, and that is the essence of democracy. 

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.

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. 

Black History Misstated

On pages 89-90 of “How Democracies Die” Levitsky and Ziblatt describe how black turnout was 65% or higher in critical states in the old Confederacy in the 1880 election. They write that “Democrats lost power in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia in the 1880s and 1890s.”  

Jim Crow put an end to the threat posed to white Democrats by the black Republican vote in the south. That much is undeniable.

But the authors fail to note that the presidential selection system effectively rendered black votes in the old Confederacy meaningless after the 1876 election, which led to the end of Reconstruction. As the map below shows, in the 1880 presidential election the south was solidly held by white Democrats:


And for that matter, even in 1876 only three states in the South went Republican:


The problem then and now is that the winner-take-all allocation of electors in a state effectively ignores all votes cast for the runners-up. This is biased against black voters in the south. Under a national vote system, all their votes would matter. Under the current system, because African-Americans are concentrated regionally in the old south, their votes are effectively meaningless in the general election for president.

Not Quite

“To entrench themselves in power, however, governments must…change the rules of the game,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write on page 87 of “How Democracies Die.” This is not correct as applied to the presidential selection system. No incumbent running for re-election has to change the rules. The rules are anti-democratic. The incumbent simply has to play by the real rules: award favors to voters in swing states, dedicate Twitter messages to the likely pro-incumbent voters in swing states, pay no attention in governing to the voters in more than 40 states. The playbook is clear.

Yes, Elections Matter

“He was elected by the American people as president to carry out border security and build a wall,” Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. “It was part of the national debate. I know some people on your side don’t even want to recognize that that election occurred and the result. But it happened.” 

Not to be picky, but presidents are not really elected by “the American people.” They are elected by a tiny fraction of the American people who by accident happen to live in swing states.  

Presidential candidates ignore more than 80% of the people. These happen to live where the statewide plurality winner in the general election is certain in advance of the vote. 

Donald Trump supports the principle that the winner of the national popular vote should always be president. That is because the consent of all the governed is necessary if the president is going to stand tall on an issue like, in his case, the wall. 

Trump supporters should agree with the president that the national popular vote ought to lead to the election of the president precisely because they should want their president to be empowered by that vote to take stands against a fractured Congress.

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

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“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.