Our Towns

Among the many evils of the electoral system is this: it divides the votes in small towns by partitioning them into 50 states. These towns' citizens are then outvoted by the citizens of the larger towns and cities in each state. 

But the interests of small towns are distinctly different. As explained here, small towns in the West have figured out how to have vibrant economies, to attract young people and immigrants, to balance opportunity with quality of life. In the Midwest, small towns have lagged behind. Federal policy should learn from successful small towns and try to repeat these successes elsewhere.

There are more than 18,000 small towns (population less than 25,000). They contain more than 30 million people. This huge voting block would be important to any party's nominee if only the national vote mattered. Instead, with the winner-take-all curse and the disregard of runner-up votes that are both part of the electoral system, the small town voting block isn't a block at all. It is just an outvoted minority in virtually every state.

Some defenders of the current system conjure up the notion that small towns and rural interests are advanced by the electoral college. The exact opposite is the case. 

Some also claim that presidential candidates would ignore small towns. That is what they do now. If every vote mattered, candidates in the presidential election would advertise in small town newspapers, on small town radio, and on the nearest broadcast TV station carried by the small town cable system. They would use email and social media to reach small town voters everywhere in the country. They might even have a bus tour through small towns a la Clinton-Gore in 1992. 

The importance of swing states in the existing system sucks attention from small towns. The pluralities in the swing states are won by urban and suburban turn-out. 

Nothing about the current system motivates candidates in the general election to pay attention to the 30 million small town voters. So they are angry with reason, and democracy is in their interest. Not that politicians are telling them that. This truth would threaten the political power structure in every state. 

Nor do commentators explain to small town citizens that the current system hurts them. 

Why not? Because historians and law professors do not understand the perniciousness of the existing system; political scientists since the death of Robert Dahl have burrowed into intellectual tunnels and left democracy poorly examined; and presidents and their media followers prioritize urban and suburban viewers over small town audiences.

No, California and New York would not be the only states that matter under a national popular vote

One of the most common criticisms of a national popular vote is that New York and California would decide every election, with candidates ignoring the rest of the country. But as conservative writer Robert Robb notes, “In 2016, California and New York cast 16 percent of all the votes for president.”

Sixteen percent of the electorate is not nearly enough to win a national election, even if everyone in those states voted the same way, which they never have and never would. In 2016, 7.3 million people in New York and California voted for the Republican candidate, and many more Republicans probably would have voted if they believed there was any chance their vote would count.

Under a national popular vote, a candidate who spends all of his or her time and resources in New York and California is a candidate who will lose by a landslide.

Think the National Popular Vote Would Always Help Democrats? Not So Fast

Conventional wisdom says that choosing the president by national popular vote would help Democrats and hurt Republicans.  But that is not necessarily the case.  MEVC’s own analysis shows that under the current, winner-take-all Electoral College system, a split between the winners of the Electoral College and the popular vote will happen about a third of the time in close elections—and neither party is likely to have a long-term advantage.

A growing number of Republicans have recognized that the national popular vote may be the best way to build winning coalitions going forward, and that any apparent benefit the current system has to Republicans may only be temporary. As Susan Crabtree explains in RealClearPolitics:

To [Republicans], the equation is clear: Defending the traditional system puts the GOP in the best position for President Trump to win a second term. But some Republicans wonder if the conventional wisdom is short-sighted. For starters, these contrarians are concerned with how the existing Electoral College dynamic has reduced civic engagement in whole areas of the country, from the deeply red South, rural Plains and mountain West to the millions of essentially disenfranchised Republicans in Democrat-dominated California. Such places are ignored every four years as the two major parties and their respective presidential tickets spend almost all of their time and treasure in roughly a dozen battleground states.

Of more pressing concern, these GOP contrarians also point out that the electoral map that currently favors them is not set in stone.

… Republicans who support shifting to greater reliance on the popular vote argue that in five to 10 years, their candidates may find themselves at a disadvantage even under the current system. That’s because demographics are changing palpably and Republicans might well lose their ability to win the important swing state of Florida, and possibly even the GOP anchor state of Texas.

We should not consider a national popular vote because of any perceived short-term gain to one party over another. Instead, consider the benefits that are lasting. A guarantee that all votes would count equally.  A truly national campaign.  And a promise that your federal disaster relief won’t be contingent on whether you live in a swing state. Sometimes the Democratic candidate would win; sometimes the Republican. But every voter would have a chance to weigh in on the decision.

Money Matters 

This article exploring what campaigns would look like under a national popular vote asks the right questions, but I think requires more knowledge of the cost of advertising and the cost on persuading voters. These are both challenging topics because decent information is not accessible.

But logic tells us that if it’s cheaper for either party to persuade a truly undecided voter in North Dakota than in New York City then North Dakota will get the marginal dollar of spending and New York City will not. 

Furthermore, if the Democratic Party can more cheaply collect 100,000 votes in South Dakota than in Los Angeles then it will head for the (Black) Hills. 

Similarly, if the Republican Party can pick up an extra million votes in California more readily than getting another million votes in Texas then it will focus for the first time in California.  

Economics matters. 

Doesn’t this strike you as weird?

This is from a Firehouse poll:

The voters who picked Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 in [Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin] will likely decide who wins in 2020....In Michigan, 84% of Obama-Trump voters choose Trump regardless of the Democratic opponent. In Pennsylvania, 70-79% support Trump depending on matchup (Biden fares the best, and Beto fares the worst). And even in Wisconsin, roughly two-thirds side with Trump over Democratic opponents.

So 20 months before the election we are all told that 47 states and the District of Columbia will be taken for granted and the pluralities in just three states will decide the next president.  Indeed, not just the voters in that trio but the views only of the tiny fraction of the people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who somehow managed to see their way to voting both for Obama and Trump (as opposite in every way is in the two presidents could be) will determine the next president.

This is how the Electoral College system works. How do you like them apples?

This means the preferences, opinions, cares, and needs of 90% of the population are going to be ignored. The wishes of most people don’t matter.  Heck of a system. 

Electoral College System Divides, Gives Unequal Voting Power to Native Americans

The Native American population is growing in size. From 200,000 self-identified in 1900 it is now 5.2 million. Native Americans are younger than the mode for Americans, increasingly enroll in college, and more than three-quarters live in urban areas. But they are divided, effectively partitioned, by many state lines. As a result, although they share a variety of common views, they cannot mass their votes in an effective way because in most states they choose the runner-up for president and receive zero electors in the Electoral College.

Rural power!

This article presumes that the Electoral College somehow advantages rural America. Nothing could be further from the truth. 60 million Americans live in rural communities. In most states they are outvoted in the presidential election by people in the cities and suburbs of their own states. The Electoral College doesn’t unite rural Americans. It divides them and marginalizes them.

As a result their interests, cares , preferences,  and concerns are routinely ignored by the candidates of both presidential parties. They get lipservice. They don’t get results. If the national popular vote picked the president then the eligible voters among the 60 million would represent a faction of tremendous significance. They would no longer be ignored.  

Believer War

Among its almost innumerable barbarisms, the Electoral College system pits evangelicals against non-church goers in an unasked-for struggle for the plurality in the three Midwestern states that decide the presidency in this century: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. 

Here's the people count on a national level as of now, according to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times:

White evangelicals, according to Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, now make up 18.6 percent of the population, 4.4 percentage points less than the 23 percent of the population who profess no religious commitment.

Among white evangelicals, Republicans outnumber Democrats 61.1 percent to 21.7 percent, according to Burge. Among those without religious affiliation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 53 percent to 21.5 percent.

Religion and party, it seems, correlate closely. In the trio of battlegrounds, the politics is especially fraught because the size of the two factions, believers and mere ethicists, is about the same. This is an invitation for politicians to promote political divisiveness in pursuit of turn-out. As you may have noticed, you-know-who, the vindicated one, does tend to stoke that on occasion, despite the incongruity of himself as an evangelical apostle, not to mention the flock of epigones in his crowd of courtiers. 

Still another virtue of the national vote as a means of eliminating state battlegrounds is that it would tend to lower the stakes in localized, religiously grounded, factional conflicts and let the large consensus about religion that is in the First Amendment and in the hearts of most Americans provide ample freedom for everyone to follow their own beliefs without the aid (or interference) of state power. 

Let All the People Pick the President

Numerous Democratic presidential candidates want to get rid of the Electoral College. On the other hand, the only Republican candidate says that the system is “brilliant” because if all citizens in a single national vote chose the president then he and his rival Democratic nominee would pay no attention to anyone living in a small state or the Midwest.

Everyone can see that the Democrats believe their nominee would win the national popular vote, and President Trump, having said he could have won in 2016, might not be confident that he could pull that off in 2020. Nothing is surprising about politicians wanting rules of the game that help them win.

But neither Republicans nor Democrats are mentioning the three sins of the current system. Regardless of which candidates a national popular vote would favor, these clearly call for abandonment of an 18th century system designed to protect slavery and solve the logistical problems of travel in a pre-telegraph era.

First, because the pluralities in more than 40 states are predictable in these tribal times, in the general election the two major party campaigns ignore those states in which more than 80% of Americans live. Their indifference to turn-out in those states causes total voter participation to fall between 20 and 80 million votes short of the levels that would be reached if every vote counted in picking the president. Disinterest and disgust come from voter indifference – people who know they are ignored justly harbor resentment that undermines trust in government. 

Second, because the general election presidential campaigns don’t pay much attention to four out of five Americans, the parties and their nominees do not offer promises, platforms or policies that most Americans want. Huge majorities register their desire for sensible compromises and good legislation on immigration, infrastructure, clean power, better support for child care and a host of other common-sense measures. The candidates don’t need votes from most people, so they don’t pay attention to most people during the election cycle and then when in office.   

Third, because the result in presidential election is dictated by small margins in perhaps only four states – currently, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – billions of dollars are spent by the two parties in badgering voters and wooing political leaders in these states. The politicians might enjoy the attention. The people in those states do not. They get little or nothing out of robocalls, door knocks, and Facebookery that mark over-intensive campaigning. In Iowa or New Hampshire in the primaries voters actually get to meet the candidates. From September to November every four years the proverbial swing voters just get digitally bludgeoned.

To build some trust between the people and the politically powerful, to give most people what most people want out of government, and to spread the pain of political campaigns fairly and more bearably over the whole country, it is time to let the people pick the president.

Losing Argument

This piece admits that none of the arguments for the Electoral College are valid. It doesn’t protect small states. It doesn’t force candidates to go everywhere. Instead, Ross Douthat claims, the one merit of the system is that it allows a regional minority to elect a president against the wishes of the whole country.

This is the ultimate condemnation of the system. The great—or I should say horrible—example of history is that the electoral college perpetuated white supremacy for more than two centuries. That was what a regional minority wanted and thanks to the electoral college was able to keep in place. Even now the views of a regional minority distort politics on ethnic grounds. I won’t go into this more because it is too depressing.

The point is that in a fair system, what most people want as policy is what politics should give most people—except to the degree that the individual rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights must be protected. 

The current electoral system frustrates most people and that includes most people in the Midwest. A poll MEVC did last week showed a large majority of people in Ohio think the country is on the wrong track. This is a state that voted for Donald Trump by a huge margin. According to the people in that state his victory has not given them a good future. Time for a change of the system. Let every American participate equally in picking the president. 

Why Conservatives Should Support the National Popular Vote

From Republican activist Brian Laurens in the Washington Times:

If you a conservative residing in the deeply red and rural South, you’re taken for granted every four years while the Republican ticket pours almost all of its time and money into 12 so-called “battleground” states. There’s basically no reason to even bother to vote.

All together in 2016, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana delivered 5,971,583 popular votes and 45 electoral votes to the TrumpPence ticket — exactly one-sixth of the 270 electoral votes necessary to elect a president. Yet, just four of the 151 major Republican general election events held across the country took place in those five deeply red states.

It’s easy to understand why campaigns treat their most solid supporters so offhandedly. Why, they reason, should we waste precious resources in states where we are so far ahead we can’t possibly lose? (Or, for that matter, in states where they are so far behind they can’t possibly win.) So, while 38 states sit on the political sidelines, the real campaign takes place in 12 battleground states with big blocks of electoral votes, and a propensity to swing them back and forth between red and blue every four years.

As a result, Americans don’t elect a president of the United States of America. Rather, they elect a president of the Battleground States of America.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which has already passed 14 states and the District of Columbia with a current 186 electoral votes, would change that situation dramatically.

Knowing they need to win the popular vote in order to be awarded 270 electoral votes and the White House, candidates would be compelled to conduct truly national campaigns, seeking out every voter in every nook and cranny of the nation. The Democratic ticket kissing babies in rural red Kansas, while the Republican ticket mines for conservatives in blue Oregon. Just imagine that.

The Winner-Take-All Electoral College Benefits Big Battlegrounds, Not Small States

One of the most prominent argument in favor of keeping our current electoral system in place is that it keeps small states from becoming ignored. But in reality, the Electoral College is not doing much to promote the relevance of small states. From the New York Times:

The Electoral College’s small-state bias had essentially nothing to do with Donald J. Trump’s victory. In fact, he won seven of the 10 largest states, and Hillary Clinton won seven of the 12 smallest states.

Over all, the Electoral College’s bias toward small states probably cost her a net of four votes — essentially nothing.

If there is a benefit to protecting small states, the Electoral College is not doing a great job of providing it. Big states can dominate small ones under the system, and they have done so at times.

The National Popular Vote is Bigger than Any One Candidate

Jamelle Bouie for the New York Times admirably explains that the national popular vote is about more than partisan fighting or the outcome of any one election and succinctly lays out the arguments in favor of reforming our current system, including:

  • The Electoral College undermines the principle of one person, one vote.

  • The Electoral College means that candidates can (and do) ignore rural voters in big and mid-size states like California, New York, Illinois, Alabama, and South Carolina because those states are taken for granted by one party or the other.

  • As a matter of math, California and New York could not dominate elections under the national popular vote.

    • In 2016, only about a quarter of all votes cast came from New York, California, Texas, and Florida in total.

    • Even if everyone in those states somehow voted unanimously, candidates would need to campaign elsewhere to win.

  • On the other hand, under the Electoral College, the 11 biggest states could decide election by bare majority in each state.

  • Under the national popular vote, people with similar interests across state lines can band together to make their voices heard.

  • Framers feared "pure democracy," but the real concern was there was greater suffrage in the north than the south because of slavery.

  • The Electoral College makes it possible for the House to decide the president, which would be chaotic and destabilizing. 

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.

The Electoral College is a Security Risk

From NPR:

Swing states, and even individual precincts within those states, present a significant point of vulnerability when it comes to the threat of election interference because of their potential to impact the result in a presidential race, the current secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and one of her key predecessors both told senators Wednesday.

[L]ocal jurisdictions in places that can have an outsized effect on the outcome of national races — like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — will be forced to defend against cyber-threats posed by entire nation-state adversaries like Russia.

“The reality is: Given our Electoral College and our current politics, national elections are decided in this country in a few precincts, in a few key swing states," former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, who served under President Obama during the 2016 presidential election cycle, told members of the Senate intelligence committee. "The outcome, therefore, may dance on the head of a pin.”

Dispatch from the Land of the Ignored

As everyone probably knows, in seeking the 270 electoral votes, both parties' candidates in the general election take for granted more than 40 states, where more than 80% of Americans live.

Nevertheless, some people assert that this skewed game makes candidates pay attention to small states and the Midwest. That was demolished succinctly last night by a respected Republican strategist:

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In just the last day numerous presidential candidates have inveighed against the current system. They all grasp that no one in the country really wants the presidential election in 2020 to be determined by the two parties spending two or $3 billion on trying to persuade voters in just five or six states. 

Well, there is an exception. One presidential candidate tweeted that if every vote in the country mattered, and were counted equally to pick the president, then the candidates would ignore all small states and all states in the Midwest.

The idea that with a national popular vote system the parties would pay no attention to voters in the Midwest or Great Plains is about as logical as saying that Amazon doesn’t deliver products outside big cities or cell phones don’t connect to people everywhere in the country. Everyone in business knows how to reach everyone in the country, and in the business of politics with the national popular vote the candidates would do what businesses do: try to get every single customer. 

More than visiting, advertising, opening get-out-the-vote offices, going on radio, supporting small town newspapers, polling and calling people in small population states, the candidates would actually have to listen to people in every state. When every vote counts, every person gets attention.

Politicians who like the status quo might well dislike national campaigns by the presidential candidates. Republicans would have the incentive to rebuild their party in Vermont; Democrats would seek voters in the Dakotas. Two party contests would occur in most states, and some incumbents would lose their seats. Voters would have choices to make. Elections would not be foregone conclusions and mere coronations. The political parties would have to be big tents, where compromise was required to bond factions together. Small market newspapers and broadcast stations would be invigorated by advertising and news about candidate visits. Things would change. Democracy does that.

For those who think the country’s politics are heading in the wrong direction—and rural areas have high percentages of people who feel this way—the best possible antidote for the troubles of today is the election of the president by the people.

When I was the chairman of the FCC one of the reasons we wanted the Internet to touch everyone was precisely because we thought that if the political parties could reach everyone cheaply and efficiently through digital technology they would do so. The only reason that doesn’t happen now is the electoral college system makes 40 states and 80% of the people functionally irrelevant (taken for granted as) to the outcome of the presidential election.  

No Matter Where you Live, Your Vote Should Count

Here is Representative Seth Moulton on the national popular vote:

People often defend the electoral college by arguing that without it, presidential candidates would pay attention to only a few states. But that’s already the case because of the electoral college: Two-thirds of general-election presidential campaign events in 2016 were held in just six states, and 94 percent were held in just 12 states. In a winner-take-all-electoral-votes system, candidates campaign only in the states that are a toss-up.

But if we abolish the electoral college — either through a constitutional amendment or a national popular-vote compact— presidential candidates could earn votes anywhere, making them far more likely to campaign everywhere. Then, no matter where you live or how your neighbors vote, your vote would matter. As it should.

Demography and Democracy

In “No Property in Man,” historian Sean Wilentz explains that the southern representatives to the constitutional convention were disappointed to see rather quickly that the “widely expected movement of population to favor the south and southwest never occurred, as settlement of migrants and new immigrants disproportionately favored the North.” Page 187.

In 1800, free states had 76 members of Congress, and slave states had 65. But by 1820 the margin was 122 to 90.

Southerners had hoped that the three-fifths compromise coupled with a swelling slave population would give them a slaveholding majority in the House. In that event, the Electoral College would always produce a pro-slavery president, even while slaves could not vote.

But demography is destiny. The burgeoning population of the North rapidly gave the House more free state representatives despite the three-fifths compromise.

Now again, as in first decades of the Republic, the demographic trends of the country are rapidly filling the House with members who root out and oppose racism in all its many manifestations, whether blatant or insidious.

These same trends have not yet changed the method of selecting the president. This is the reason that racially divisive candidacies for that high office are still possible.