Blast from Past

Below is the electoral map from 1960, the famous Nixon-Kennedy contest. The irrelevant popular vote was very close, 34.2 million to 34.1 million. But Kennedy won the Electoral College by 303 to 219:

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This big margin concealed numerous close statewide races. Labelling a state as a swing state if the popular margin statewide was 3% or less, we see that Kennedy won these swing states: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Nixon won these swing states: Alaska, California, Florida, Montana, and Washington.

Obviously there were so many swing states that the election felt like a national election. Moreover, the swing states were so different demographically that the candidates each had to appeal to big, complex coalitions of factions in order to prevail.

The Electoral College system did not appear to contribute to divisiveness, despite the extreme closeness of the outcomes in so many states and the indicative if meaningless closeness of the national popular vote.

Obscured somewhat by Kennedy’s large electoral victory was the untenable nature of the Democrats’ Electoral College block. Kennedy won New York, the state with the most electors at 45, by a 5% margin. This result marked a giant reversal from Eisenhower’s victory there in 1956 with 60% of the votes. The Democratic coalition in urban and suburban areas was racially, ethnically and religiously mixed. This coalition plainly was the base for Democrats to depend upon in future elections, given population gains in the former free states. Its composition, however, differed radically with the party’s southern base, from where 81 Kennedy electors came. That explained Lyndon Johnson’s presence on the ticket. But it foreshadowed the Republican choice to align its party with white voters in the south while relinquishing its historic Lincolnian alignment with African-Americans. New York’s results in 1960 taught the Republicans to look south for winning in the future. By 1968 Nixon’s southern strategy was in place.

With the popular vote virtually evenly divided, the parties could have taken different paths toward political victory if the national popular vote selected the president. The Electoral College system, however, made the southern electors, chosen almost exclusively by white votes, so critical that the Republican Party could not resist reshaping its policies, programs, and promises to take the pluralities in these states. The divisiveness of American politics today stems not from the popular vote in 1960 and thereafter, but instead from the pernicious electoral system.

The Midwest May Not Love the Wall

This chart from Gallup shows that twice as many Republicans as independents think immigration is the country’s top problem:

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Because there is no way the incumbent president can be elected without a big share of independent votes, the natural question is why he has elevated the wall to such political attention.

But the chart shows national averages. The results in the states that determined the 2016 election – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – are now shaping President Trump’s policies.

At least in Michigan, whose electoral votes are critical to both parties’ nominees, independents do not agree with Trump’s insistence on a wall.

These independent Michiganders should support the move to have the national popular vote pick the president. They share the views of other independents in other states, and in numbers there is strength.

Institutions Matter

In “How Democracies Die,” the authors inveigh against the use of impeachment to defeat the incumbent, of whom they plainly disapprove. Instead, they say “If Trump is defeated via democratic institutions, it will strengthen those institutions.” As one of these institutions they list elections. Page 218.

But the most important of all elections, the only one that directly relates to their goal of defeating the incumbent, is not democratic.

If a Democrat were to defeat Trump in 2020 by winning the electoral college without prevailing in the national popular vote, the Electoral College would certainly neither be strengthened nor would it be considered a democratic institution.

Indeed, it is easily possible to imagine the outrage among Trump supporters if they delivered him in 2020 a national popular vote plurality or majority and yet the swing states swung back to the Democrats, denying the incumbent a second term. Those Trump backers in this hypothetical would deserve support from everyone who believes in democracy.

One thing the incumbent is right about is this: he supports the idea that the winner of the national popular vote should always be president.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

North Carolina Officials Warned of Election Fraud in January 2017

From the Washington Post:

“North Carolina state election officials told federal prosecutors in January 2017 that they found evidence of efforts to manipulate the absentee ballot vote in rural Bladen County in the 2016 election and warned that such activities ‘will likely continue for future elections’ if not addressed…”

Former Senators Argue that the Senate Must Stand in Defense of Democracy

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, a bipartisan group of former senators “urge current and future senators to be steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy by ensuring that partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest” in this difficult time in our history.