As the Number of Competitive States Decline, So Does the Number of Votes that Matter

In the 1960 election, there were 32 states where the margin of victory was within 9%. In recent elections, that number has dropped by half or more:


In addition, the margins of victory have gotten wider in most states, leading to the vast majority of Americans—from big and small states, at all points on the political spectrum—being ignored in presidential politics:


Fortunately, there is a solution.  If enough states agree to give their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote, then presidential candidates will have to compete nationwide, not just in the small number of states that are likely to be close.

2016 Conclusion Misdescribed

The authors of “How Democracies Dies” say, on page 71, that because Republican leaders did not oppose Trump “the election was normalized. The race narrowed. And Trump won.”

The opinions of party leaders did not matter much, if at all. The presidential selection system favored Trump, the Russians obviously helped, and he blithely ignored the preferences, ethics, values and votes of a majority of Americans. He won an election that, like all others in presidential history, gave short shrift to the concept of a national democracy. In that respect only was this election “normal.”

The Electoral College Makes Hacking Elections Possible

Christian Caryl for the Washington Post writes:

“Given just how narrow Trump’s margin of victory was — less than 80,000 votes in three key swing states — it stands to reason that any help he received from Moscow could have helped him to win.”

In other words, the 2016 election was decided by 0.05% of all votes cast.  When the margin is that small and that localized in key swing states, our system is vulnerable to abuse from outside forces. If the candidates had to compete for every vote across the country, it would be much more difficult if not impossible for outside forces to skew the results. 

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.

Missing the Explanation

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

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

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

Small not beautiful in presidential selection system

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

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

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

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

Electoral College Prolongs Shutdown

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

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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. 

2016 Misdescribed

On page 71 of “How Democracies Die”, Levitsky and Ziblatt write that the 2016 election “was essentially a toss-up [because of] partisan polarization…the uneven state of the economy and President Obama’s middling approval ratings.” 

It was not a toss-up. At all times Clinton was highly likely to win a national victory. But that mattered not at all. At all times Trump was likely to win an electoral college victory, because he had the freedom, as a wild card candidate, to craft a message exclusively designed for the swing states.

Also, Obama had good approval ratings.

Congress Considers Major Electoral Reforms

Nicholas Stephanopoulos for Election Law Blog examines a House bill that addresses partisan gerrymandering:

 “[H.R. 1 marks] the first time that proposals like automatic voter registration, redistricting commissions, and multiple-match public financing have been endorsed by a majority of that body. If Democrats win unified control of Washington in 2020, it’s also likely that some or all of H.R. 1 will become law. If that happens, it would be a development of earthshaking significance, at least as important as the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 or the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974.”

Florida Disaster Relief Contingent on Electoral Votes? Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Votes Count for More than Others

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



1968 Misunderstood

Levitsky and Ziblatt assert that the political parties usefully blocked George Wallace from mounting a seriously threatening presidential campaign in 1968, page 47. But they neglect to point out that Wallace cost Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey the chance to carry previously Democratic states in the Deep South and some critical northern states where Wallace captured a large share of blue-collar voters. The election was very close. Wallace arguably cost Humphrey the election. The presidential selection system allowed Wallace to capture all electors from certain states. It always invites spoiler third-party candidates, of which Wallace and Ralph Nader are two notorious examples.

The President Doesn't Have to Care What the American People Think

The majority of Americans blame President Trump for the government shutdown. In an interview with the BBC, Stephen J. Yates, former Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice President to Dick Cheney, explained that our presidential selection system means that the people’s opinion does not matter (6:50).

Founders Misinterpreted Again

Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that the founders “sought…an elected president…reflecting the will of the people,” but they wanted “some kind of built-in screening device.” So, they invented the Electoral College. Pages 39-40. Made up of “locally prominent men in each state” it would be the “original gatekeeper.”

As historians have amply shown, this version of history is, to put a word for it, wrong. Some among the drafters strongly preferred direct election of the president. The slave and small state alliance had won inequitable, anti-democratic power in both the House and Senate, and they did not want anything short of this unfairness to be on their side when it came to choosing the president. No one thought that the electors would “screen.” Instead they would negotiate compromises among the different states, probably fail to produce a majority of electors for anyone, and then kick the process to the House.

This good book’s description of the history of the Electoral College is not one of the authors’ best moments.

Florida Governor-Elect Seeks to Delay Implementation of Voting Rights Restoration

In November 2018, Florida voted to re-enfranchise more than 1.4 million people who had completed felony sentences. However:

“Opponents, including Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, say before the amendment can be implemented, the legislature needs to pass a bill to clarify its terms and fulfill its intent. Supporters say it should be implemented immediately. The disagreement is generating confusion and the threat of lawsuits.”

—Wall Street Journal

An Authoritarian Streak

Levitsky and Ziblatt claim on page 36-7 of “How Democracies Die” that “Americans have long had an authoritarian streak [comprising] a sizable minority – 30 or even 40 percent – of the country.”  This frightens them, with reason.

But they utterly neglect to point out that a minority of this size can elect a president solely, exclusively, only, for no other reason than that the presidential selection system creates this possibility. 

The Founders never had in mind rule by the minority. Indeed, they specifically required majorities and even super-majorities for all important action.

He Played by the Rules

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

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

Gatekeepers of a Small Tent

Harvard Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt write in “How Democracies Die”: “Although mass responses to extremist appeals matter, what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.” Page 20.

First, when it comes to democracy, better to trust the people rather than the professionals who occupy powerful positions in political parties. Asking the foxes to guard the chicken house is a bad idea.

Second, if parties are to be gatekeepers, then they should both insist that the president must win a national popular plurality. Only then will the parties need to build big tents that include the many factions necessary to win a national vote. If they are going to guard a gate, for the sake of democracy it needs to be a gate to a big tent.

Polarization and the Electoral College

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

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