The Electoral College Exposes Businesses Outside Swing States to Punishment

This is from Bill Bishop whose newsletter requires a subscription:

“It’s also worth noting that talk is going around DC that the US and China may keep the original $50B in tariffs, but that the Trump Administration has asked the Chinese to move theirs away from targeting the GOP base to less politically sensitive sectors, even proposing alternative industries to the Chinese side.”

What makes a business sector “politically sensitive”?

Campaign donations is one answer, but since Citizens United individual donations by the mega-wealthy have become far more important than corporate donations. Businesses generally balance donations between both parties and want to avoid alienating customers or hurting their brand by being labelled to the left or right on the political dial.

What matters is location. A business with many employees that is headquartered in a swing state is “politically sensitive” because its managers and employees matter to the close-run pluralities that define a state as a battleground.

Or did you think it was just an accident that Chrysler was twice bailed out by the United States government?

The Electoral College system exposes businesses headquartered on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts to the alleged conduct described by Bishop.

It’s in the interest of all businesses to have the presidency determined by national campaigns, with the winner always being the person who gets the most votes. Only under these circumstances will presidents seeking their second term have to regard all businesses with many employees as “politically sensitive.” 

Slight Modification

In this article the excellent Tom Edsall speculates that rapid and recent job growth in Republican-leaning states may boost the president's chances for re-election.

But the job growth in the 20 or so states certain to return Republican pluralities is irrelevant.

All that matters with the crazy system by which the United States chooses presidents is the situation in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

Of course it is true that job growth and wage growth—particularly among volatile segments, such as less educated people ages 22 to 60—has a huge impact on whether they vote and how they vote. But this consideration affects the outcome only as it applies to the handful of swing states.

If the United States used the national popular vote to pick the president, then the selection of the president would not turn on the fact that swing states by chance are located in a region of the country that lags in an economic recovery.

Should a poorly performing region have the tremendous clout that comes from picking the president?

There are three reasons the answer is no.

First, it is a mere accident that the few swing states currently are in the lagging Midwest. Suppose most people were suffering a sluggish economic recovery, but the swing states happened to be the booming Southwest. Then the well-off would be picking the president, leaving most people relatively ignored by the chief executive. The random selection of some states as swing states should not be the factor that causes the denizens of those states to get attention from candidates for president. 

Second, there are enough people in the Midwest—70 million!—to make it crucial in deciding who wins the national popular vote. Having a decisive role in the electoral college is not necessary for attention to be paid to the citizens of that region. It would be impossible for anyone seeking a national popular vote victory to ignore the Midwest, or to win without doing reasonably well in getting votes there. 

Third, many millions of Americans are underpaid or underemployed because they are less educated than necessary in the modern economy. They deserve to be treated as a voting block critical to choosing the president, regardless of where they live. Very affordable education, personal savings along the lines of Cory Booker's baby bonds, and very cheap health care costs are very important policies for all in this segment. But the focus only on this segment's representation in certain states tilts political promises toward hiring by local companies or hostility toward inbound migration, neither of which is as useful to address the fundamental problem. 

Battlegrounds divide country by tribal politics

As the chart below shows, race and religion are attributes that are highly divisive.

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White evangelicals compose between a quarter and a third of the voting population in the Midwest battleground states. These states (stochastically) determine the presidency. Therefore candidates in the general election, such as the incumbent, adopt views appealing to evangelicals that are not necessarily held by the candidate personally and are anathema to the rest of the country.  In this way the electoral college educes hypocrisy, plays on division,  and intensifies hostility among Americans. 

Does anyone think that battles among people based on religion and race are good for an open and tolerant democracy?  Yet that is what the electoral college fosters. 

A "Flourishing Effort to Advance Democracy"

From The Progressive:

Though billed as a nationwide election, presidential elections are, in reality, decided by, at most, fourteen states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The reason? Virtually all states allocate electoral votes in a winner-take-all format—if a candidate wins the majority of votes in a state, that candidate receives 100 percent of the electoral votes. As such, there is no incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in states dominated by one party, even if millions of supporters live there.

In 2016, 95 percent of candidate appearances and 99 percent of campaign spending went to these swing states. Worse still, these states are unrepresentative of the broader population; they are older and whiter and their economic interests—especially relating to energy production—are anomalous. National priorities are subsequently skewed and federal funds get disproportionately allocated to serve swing state needs.

Despite these facts, Electoral College reform efforts, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact or proportional allocation of electoral votes, are virtually never discussed in the media. Warren, by taking a stand for a democracy solution, broke the silence, sparked a much-needed debate about the Electoral College, and spread the word about a concrete policy solution that Americans could immediately act on.

What if 

One speculation about the national popular vote is that it could permit someone to win the presidency without gaining a large fraction of the popular vote.

Another way to say this is that the national popular vote could give a third-party a chance to be more than a spoiler like Nader in 2000 or Perot arguably in 1992. 

Therefore, arguably, the Electoral College is useful because it creates a majority by the terms of the Constitution.  If there is no majority in the Electoral College the selection process moves to method number two, which is choice in the House of Representatives. If no one obtains a majority of delegation votes there, then the Senate picks the president. 

So goes the claim. 

Let’s unpack it. 

First, the supposition is that a majority in the Electoral College creates legitimacy even if underlying it there is no majority in the popular vote. Indeed, the loser of the popular vote can garner that majority. 

It is difficult to know what to say about an argument premised on the view that a loser of the popular vote gains legitimacy through a selection system that ignores the popular vote. Isn’t this dread circularity? And who is supposed to concede that legitimacy? Certainly not the voters and yet aren’t they the only relevant audience? Remember, under our current system, it is possible for a candidate to win a two-party race while getting as little as 23% of the popular vote.

Second, if we assume that instead of two major parties, three or four or five or six each gain meaningful shares of the total, then it is unlikely any candidate wins a majority of electors, and so the House selects the president on a state by state vote. But if multiple significant parties exist then the House has already divided into multiple blocks akin to many parliaments. The likely outcome is that no candidate wins 26 delegations as required. 

Then the Senate decides. There disproportionality rules. States with tiny fractions of the populace can play the deciding role. Legitimacy is not the outcome. 

Third, this speculation presupposes that major third parties and fourth parties and fifth parties would come out of nowhere to nominate viable presidential candidates. That’s crazy. 

History indeed shows that and political parties do not last forever. Famously the Republican party once was a new thing competing for preeminence. 

But the job of winning the presidency through the national popular vote in big America requires resources of vast scale. The barriers to entry for a spoiler party with the electoral college system are trivial. But the threshold cost for a serious third-party candidate to win the necessary minimum of 34% of the vote in a three-person contest is so high that in fact the national popular vote system would not permit the existence of more than two or three viable major parties, and it would require any or all of these parties to create big tents containing multiple factions. Compromises would have to be reached within the parties for them to achieve national scale. It would be impossible for a winning party to be mostly a one race, one language, one ethnicity, dominantly single gender, nativist block. Not saying that exists, but doesn’t the electoral system enable that option?

Victims of the Electoral College

Farmers have been doubly hit this year by a trade war with China and extreme flooding. All the states afflicted by this catastrophe are taken for granted in the general election because of the Electoral College. There are 60 million Americans in rural counties. They would have real clout if all their votes were added together in a national tally.  

Because they are not, the trade war and the lack of investment in infrastructure are a pair of punches in the gut. 

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.