Yup that’s it

This article correctly understands that the election turns entirely on who wins the statewide votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan. and Wisconsin. The very strong economy in these four states gives the president an extremely good chance of winning reelection while losing the national popular vote by a margin of millions. That would mean that in half of the elections of this century the loser of the popular vote nationally would become president. 

Still Another

Here is still another article that does not explain the meaning of presidential politics. The claim here is that President Trump is scuttling the China trade agreement (if there really was one in the offing) in order to improve his re-election prospects. The theory expounded is that by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports the president will get more votes, although it is also true that the Chinese will tariff their imports (our exports) of agricultural products, thus hurting American farmers.

What the article does not say is that the electoral college system makes the interests of American farmers irrelevant to the president. He is certain to obtain the electoral votes in the agricultural heartland of the country, say, Iowa, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska. He can ignore, and obviously is ignoring, the interests of farmers in these states, where evangelical Christians are sure to give Donald Trump their votes and a plurality that awards him all the electoral votes.

The reason that bashing China and hurting American farmers works as an election strategy is that, presumably, it is popular in the more manufacturing-intense states that by pure accident happen to be the only states truly relevant in determining the outcome of the election – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Florida, the lynchpin of the Trump election strategy, also is not impacted much by the Chinese tariffs on American agricultural products.

If the national popular vote were relevant to choosing the American president, farmers as a block of voters, regardless of where they live, would be important to the outcome. They number about 30 million and if their votes counted in a national tally no candidate for president in the general election could do without a coherent farm policy. Under the electoral college system such a policy is unimportant, and as farmers may have noticed the general election never features much discussion of farm policy.

Most of the 2020 Campaign Will Happen in Just Six Big States

Though defenders of the Electoral College often say that the institution is necessary to protect the interest of small states, in fact, the opposite is true.  A winning strategy for presidential candidates requires them to ignore small states and spend all their time and money on the few persuadable voters in large swing states.  

In 2016, 99% of campaign spending took place in only fourteen states, with half of that going to just four large states—Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  The rest of the United States was ignored.  And 2020 is shaping up to be even worse.  A pro-Trump Super PAC, America First Action, has stated that that just 13 states matter in the next election and plans to spend $250 million in just 6 large states—Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

 The result of the election may be dependent on an even smaller pool of voters: swing voters in Florida.

In Florida, for example, the starting Trumpworld assumption is that 10.5 million votes could be cast, which would represent record turnout in a fast-growing state. To be sure of a win, the president would need around 5.2 million to 5.3 million votes. At least 4.3 million Floridians, according to the campaign models, are already assured to come out for the president. The goal from there is straightforward: Find the 972,000-odd voters who would get the president to the win number.

The president isn’t wrong to commit to this strategy. The eventual Democratic candidate will certainly focus all of his or her energy, money, and time on these same few voters, taking the rest of the country for granted.  It is the system that forces candidates to spend all their time and money in large swing states.

A Look Back on a Bipartisan Effort to Reform the Electoral College

Recent polls have shown a sharp partisan divide in American’s opinions about Electoral College reform, though a majority still prefers a national popular vote.  But the national popular vote was not always an issue that split along partisan issue.  Polls from the 1960s and 1980s showed that large majorities of Republicans and Democrats both favored a national popular vote in nearly equal numbers.

During that era, there was a robust effort to reform the Electoral College by constitutional amendment spearheaded by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana.  As Jesse Wegman wrote in the New York Times:

In a remarkable speech on May 18, 1966, Mr. Bayh said the hearings had convinced him that the Electoral College was no longer compatible with the values of American democracy, if it had ever been. The founders who created it excluded everyone other than landowning white men from voting. But virtually every development in the two centuries since — giving the vote to African-Americans and women, switching to popular elections of senators and the establishment of the one-person-one-vote principle, to name a few — had moved the country in the opposite direction.

Adopting a direct vote for president was the “logical, realistic and proper continuation of this nation’s tradition and history — a tradition of continuous expansion of the franchise and equality in voting,” he said.

He then explained how the Electoral College was continuing to harm the country. The winner-take-all method of allocating electors — used by every state at the time, and by all but two today — doesn’t simply risk putting the popular-vote loser in the White House. It also encourages candidates to concentrate their campaigns in a small number of battleground states and ignore a vast majority of Americans. It was no way to run a modern democracy.

Despite having the support of more than 80% of the population according to a 1968 Gallup poll, the effort to amend the Constitution failed, as nearly all proposed constitutional amendments do. 

Fortunately, with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an amendment isn’t required to make all votes matter.

Poll Shows Majority of Americans would Prefer a National Popular Vote

According to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll: “53 percent of Americans support a move to a popular vote, while 43 percent believe the country should continue to elect its presidents using the Electoral College.”

This poll shows that Americans favor the national popular vote by a landslide margin. But because it only asked about amending the Constitution, the poll actually understates support for the popular vote. Amending the Constitution is a radical move that would take years to accomplish, and the process has only rarely been successful.

Unfortunately, this poll did not ask about the much more conservative approach to requiring presidential candidates to seek the votes of all Americans, one that does not require a constitutional amendment: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Under the Compact, states agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once states with enough electoral votes to elect a president—270 votes—join the Compact. Right now, the Compact has 189 votes committed from fourteen states and the District of Columbia, with more states currently considering the bill.  The Compact is a constitutional exercise of the states’ authority to allocate their electoral votes as they see fit.  The Compact would not get rid of the Electoral College, but would make it work for all Americans instead of just those in swing states.

If the poll had asked about achieving a national popular vote without the need for a constitutional amendment, support would have been much higher.  Making Every Vote Count’s own polling shows that when asked the simple question “Do you think the person who wins the most votes nationwide should become the president?” 74% of all Americans say yes.

Electoral college shapes foreign policy

This would not be taking place if it were not likely to win votes in Florida. Without carrying Florida the president has precious little chance to win re-election. But for an important segment of Florida voters both Cuba and Venezuela are seen as enemy states. Hostility and intervention there wins votes, whereas these same voters may support, or at least not mind, the president’s withdrawal from Syria or his amicable attitude toward North Korea. 

Spanish-speaking voters in Texas or California are far more likely to react negatively to Donald Trump’s policies toward Mexico and Central America, from where they’ve come. But they are relatively indifferent to his Cuba or Venezuela policies, since most do not trace their origins from those areas. However, these voters are taken for granted or ignored in presidential politics because of the anti-democratic  electoral college system. 

This is another in a litany of bad aspects of the selection system. 

Our Election System Makes us Vulnerable to Foreign Hackers

 When we talk about the Electoral College and the national popular vote, we usually think about issues of fairness, democracy, history, and policy.  But there is another problem with the way that the Electoral College currently operates—with one candidate getting all the electoral votes from a state whether he or she wins that state by one vote or one million votes—that counsels strongly in favor of reform: election security.

As national popular vote activist Bunnie Keen writes, our current system makes it much too easy for a malevolent foreign power to hack an election:

The Mueller report documents that, in 2016, at least one county computer system in Florida was successfully hacked by Russian operatives. The vote margin for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton was just over 100,000 votes in that state. That was approximately .07% of the total votes cast nationwide (136 million) in our last presidential election.

It’s not known at this time which Florida county suffered the intrusion, but if the results were sufficient to flip the state’s total electoral votes from one candidate to the other, does it matter at this point?

The critically urgent question that must be addressed before 2020 is: Who do we want to have the greatest influence on our next presidential election: the American people, or a foreign government?

When elections can turn on just a few hundred votes in one state, as it did in 2000 and easily could again, even a small or relatively contained hack could make a universe of difference.  If all votes counted equally, the system would be much more difficult if not impossible to hack.

The Electoral College Distorts the Primary Process

The Electoral College system has a tremendous impact on candidates’ campaigns and policies.  But it also dictates who the candidates are in the first place.

The 2020 Democratic primary is in full swing, and voters have a staggering number of candidates to evaluate. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 49% of Democratic voters think it’s more important that a candidate is more likely to win compared to only 35% who think it’s more important that a candidate’s position on the issues is closest to their own.  A focus on electability in itself is not terribly surprising—any primary voter should be concerned about a candidate’s appeal to the broader electorate.  But under the Electoral College, primary voters can’t just evaluate which candidate they think will do the best across the nation as a whole.  Instead, they think about electability in terms of a fraction of a fraction of voters—that is, swing voters in swing states. As Ed Kilgore explains:

“Without question, the most popular contestants for key swing voters next year are the Rust Belt white working-class voters — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 — who helped Trump win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and thus, the presidency in 2016.”

The problem is, voters tend not to be very good at determining electability. So the primary system forces voters to make a decision based on the perceived preferences of just a tiny sliver of the population, a double distortion that leads candidates even further away from the policies that most Americans actually want.

Four arguments in defense of the Electoral College--And Why They're Wrong

This article tackles four common defenses of the Electoral College: 1) it filter the passions of the people; 2) it forces candidates to campaign in rural areas; 3) it prohibits a couple of states or cities from picking the winner; and 4) it prevents the chaos of a contested election—and explains why each of them is factually incorrect.

More democracy means more money

According to this study, democracy improved GDP per capita by 10%. As everyone knows, the United States does not choose the president through a democratic process—or more precisely, it is democratic voting separately in a handful of states that determine who becomes president. If the candidates had to win a national democratic vote, each person getting equal weight in the voting regardless of state of residence, then we can guess that the American GDP would be nearly $2 trillion higher. 

The causation would run through many pathways, including more efficient advertising of policy positions, more efficient delivery of government services, more responsiveness to felt needs of most people, and more confidence in the future of the country. 

Both Candidates Will Continue to Fight for the Same Few States—While Ignoring Most of the Country

The manager of President Trump’s 2020 campaign said that Trump thinks he can win a few states that Hilary Clinton carried in 2016, while repeating his victories in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  The Democratic candidate will, of course, have to win some of the states that Clinton lost in order to win in 2020.

The problem is that both parties are continuing to fight for the same handful of states, with hardly a thought for the rest of the nation. While the states that are up for grabs may slowly change over time, the overall number of competitive states has decreased.  This means that more and more of the country is left out of the presidential election conversation entirely.  Presidential candidates rarely or never visit most states.  Worse, they tailor their policy positions to the needs of swing states alone—with serious consequences.

Until every vote matters equally, the system will force candidates to spend almost all of their time and money on winning the votes of the small percentage of the country that live in big swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania, ignoring most of the small states. That is not the system that our founders envisioned, and is not one that is working today.

Interviewed by an Educated Martian About our Country's Presidential Selection System

The Maine legislature is deliberating over a bill to become the 16th state to enter the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and the fourth state to do so in the past few months.  Under that bill, once states with a majority of electoral college votes (270) adopt the Compact legislation, they will direct their electors to cast their ballots for the presidential candidate who earns the most votes, nationwide.  At that point, every vote in the country, including in those states that have not joined the Compact, will count equally.  Accordingly, Maine’s consideration of this legislation has attracted national, international, and now even Solar System attention.

A Martian visitor here in our small town outside of Augusta, Maine, the state capital, who conscientiously studied American government from the red planet before coming here, sought me out to inquire how our government works in practice in order to complement his research back at the University of Mars.  This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

EM:  So let’s start at the top, because how you select your national leader is almost impossible to figure out from the documents available to us on Mars.  You consider your country a democracy but the people don’t vote for the President.

Me:  They do vote for the president.  Officially they vote for the electors in their states.  But the electors are pledged to a specific presidential candidate, and then the electors vote for that candidate.  It is that second step in the process that determines who becomes president.  In other words, the people elect the president indirectly through the electors.

EM:  Well, that answer is somewhat helpful.  But a state’s voters are voting only for their state’s electors.  There is nothing national in that first step of the election process.  Moreover, we Martians know that, in the second step the votes of each state’s electors in 48 out of 50 states are aggregated on a winner-take-all basis.  As a result up to 49% of the votes in that state have no relevance or weight in the actual election of the President.

Me:  I can’t argue with that, but the reality is that almost every American voter thinks he or she is voting for the president.

EM:  Back on Mars, we researched the litigation that Harvard Professor Lessig has brought in several states challenging, under the equal protection provision of the Constitution, how they allocate their electoral college votes.  In one of those cases, the State of Texas defended its winner-take-all system on the grounds that the so-called presidential election is, as a legal matter, an election among competing slates of electors, not among presidential candidates. 

Me:  Well, put that way, the legal processes does seem to be inconsistent with the view of nearly every American that he or she is voting for the president.

EM:  Even more difficult to understand is that Texas, like many other states we researched, has a law forbidding the state from identifying the names of electors on their ballots.  How do you justify that?

Me:  I can’t.  All I can say is that our country’s founders were very smart men, and what was good enough for them is good enough for me and for most Americans.

EM:  Now I am really concerned.  We Martians also admire your founders, but our research shows that the system of state electors that the founders had in mind bears no resemblance to the election system that your country has in place now.  The founders expected that electors would be venerable “wise men” from each state who would join with their counterparts from other states in Washington DC to deliberate over who should be elected president.  When a state’s electors were selected in the early years of the country (and the states used several different ways to select electors), they were not pledged to any particular candidate – as they are today.  Under your current system, electors are virtually unknown to the public and serve as passive message-carriers like the U.S. mail or an ISP.  Many states have even enacted faithless elector laws that prohibit them from voting for anybody other than the candidate to whom they pledged their votes.  To make my point, have you ever knowingly met an elector?

Me:  No.  It never seemed to matter.

EM (interrupting):  See.  That’s what I mean.  When we Martians study the American Constitution, we admire the fact that the founders gave to the states the authority and responsibility to change how they allocate their electoral college votes as they gained experience with the process and determined what changes were needed.  One of your most famous judges, also from New England, wrote an important book explaining that American law is distinctively based not on abstract logic, but on experience.  And yet your states adhere to a system that experience has shown to be unfair, undemocratic, as a practical matter disenfranchises 80% of American voters and is causing rapidly escalating damage to your country.

Me:  Instead of my explaining how our presidential election system works to you, I am embarrassed to confess you have explained it to me.  But you have also explained to me that the states have the right under the Constitution to allocate their electoral college votes in the manner they choose.  Maine is considering a bill to direct its electors to cast their votes for the winner of the national popular vote through the Compact, and I will support that bill.

EM:  Now you sound like the kind of American Martians admire, one who when he or she sees a problem goes about the business of fixing it.

Impact Estimated

According to one estimate the decision to ask about citizenship may cause nearly 6 million people not to be counted, and thus not to be represented in the House and Electoral College. 

The current Electoral College system makes irrelevant campaigning in the general election in 40 states. This lowers turn-out by between 17 and 77 million. 

What 2020 will be like

The map below, from NationalPopularVote.com, totals general election campaign events by the nominees of the two major parties in 2016.

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This is by no means the most useful measuring stick for how the Electoral College skews the importance of voters toward only those in a few states. A candidate goes to a state in order to obtain local media coverage and to bolster enthusiasm among loyalists. But there's no particular reason for a candidate to go to a critical state every day for a week, even if the state were absolutely critical, like Florida. A much better measurement of a state's electoral importance is advertising spending and a secondary measurement is money spent on the ground building field offices and installing the many mechanisms to drive turn-out. Nevertheless, the map of visits reveals what everyone in presidential politics know: the vast majority of American voters are taken for granted in the presidential election