The Travesty of the Electoral College

File:Trump speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire.jpg

Of the myriad outrages that define last week’s United States presidential election — namely, the elevation of scandal over policy, of demagoguery over competence, of unabashed sexism and racism and conspiratorial paranoia over reasoned debate — perhaps the most egregious is the fact that the winner of the popular vote will not be the one occupying the Oval Office.

Votes are still being counted. As of this writing, however, Hillary Clinton appears set to win approximately two million votes more than President-elect Donald Trump, which gives lie to the all-too-common characterization of Trump supporters as a “silent majority” — a blatant numerical (not to mention auditory) falsehood if ever there was one.

The culprit responsible for this anti-democratic upset is an arcane body known as the Electoral College, which owing to Clinton’s landslide victories in California and New York and her razor-thin losses in Rust Belt swing states, cooked the books in favour of Trump. Historically speaking, Republicans do not have anything like a permanent Electoral College advantage, but given the still painful memory of Bush v. Gore in 2000, as well as other splits between the electoral and popular votes that benefited the GOP in 1876 and 1888, don’t expect the party of Trump to see the light and embrace reform anytime soon.

The rules for changing the Constitution are practically insurmountable. To formally abolish the Electoral College, proponents would need the support of two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress plus three-quarters of the states. Only slightly less improbable is the workaround known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would have signatory states pledge their electors to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote.

The compact has so far been signed by ten states and the District of Columbia, which together represent 61 per cent of the 270 electoral votes needed for it to come into effect. The only problem is that all the states to have officially signed on are blue ones. The agreement will never reach the requisite 270 without swing states, which are understandably reluctant to give up their disproportionate power, or red states, which must be blisteringly aware, even after this month’s election, of the Republican Party’s growing popularity problem.

From 1992 onwards, there have been seven presidential elections. A Republican candidate has won the popular vote only once in those 24 years. As the GOP continues to alienate women, people of colour, Millennials, and those with higher educations, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Electoral College represents their only shot at victory. Far from negating this trend, last week’s results further corroborate it.

So get used to hearing Republican operatives sing the praises of a system that distorts election results and subverts the will of the people. Get used to hearing them profess their solidarity with smaller, more rural states — currently over-represented in the Electoral College — against the large urban centres that threaten to overpower them come election time. As if people aren’t just people no matter where they live. As if voters should not all be counted equally.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country, which according to one recent survey wants to eliminate this 18th century anomaly by a margin of 55 per cent to 27 per cent, will go on echoing the luminary who famously described the Electoral College as “a disaster for a democracy.”

That luminary? Donald J. Trump.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Obama, Romney, and the Electoral College

2008 Electoral College

2008 Electoral College

With opinion polls ahead of next week’s election showing the two candidates for President approximately tied but giving Barack Obama a slight edge in the Electoral College, there now exists the real possibility that the latter could be reelected despite losing the popular vote. In other words, we could have a reversal of 2000.

Now perhaps this occurrence is less likely than it appears to be, but in some ways, it could be an ideal outcome. First, Mitt Romney would not be President, so yay! Second, the sight of an Obama win despite his second-place finish in popular support might be just the infuriating kick in the crotch Republicans need to align themselves with efforts to get rid of the Electoral College. And with Democrats still fuming over George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in 2000, this kind of reform might actually have a chance.

The Electoral College is the archaic institution that — despite all the symbolic hoopla of a one-person-one-vote national election — is solely responsible for selecting the President of the United States. Its members are chosen by state governments on the basis of state-by-state results of the national vote. In other words, whichever Presidential candidate wins in a state gets all of that state’s Electoral votes (except in Maine and Nebraska where Electoral votes are distributed by Congressional district).

The problem with this method of indirectly electing a President is threefold. First, there is the aforementioned chance that the popular vote winner might lose the election, an anti-democratic travesty that has already occurred in 1876, 1888, and — most famously — 2000. Second, states with small populations are overrepresented in the Electoral College (be afraid, dear Republicans, this sounds suspiciously like redistribution!) — with one Electoral vote being worth 478,000 eligible voters in Pennsylvania, but only 139,000 in Wyoming. And third, it is thanks to the Electoral College that Americans must put up with the absurd spectacle of virtually all the campaigning in a supposedly national election occurring exclusively in ten to fifteen “swing states.” Taken individually, the majority of American voters who live in “safe states” — red or blue — have virtually no impact on who wins the Presidency.

So what can be done? Even with considerable bipartisan support, there is little chance of a Constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College. Such a reform would require two-thirds support in both houses of Congress, plus the approval of three-quarters of the states — an almost prohibitive level of consensus. Thankfully, there exists an alternative in the form of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

According to this voluntary agreement, state governments pledge to distribute all their Electoral votes to whichever Presidential candidate wins the national popular vote, regardless of in-state results. Once the agreement comes into effect with states representing more than fifty percent of Electoral votes signing on, it would, in effect, allow the Electoral College to be bypassed without having to bother with a Constitutional amendment. And with eight states and the District of Columbia already having agreed, advocates of this plan are nearly halfway to their target.

So now it is only a matter of finding the other half. If Mitt Romney wins the popular vote next week while Barack Obama wins the Electoral College, it is conceivable that more than a few red states might climb aboard the popular vote bandwagon, and the United States could be one giant step closer to this strange idea that in a democracy, you vote for your leader directly.

On Polarization in America

Tea Party protest

Tea Party protest

Every four years, the American airwaves are saturated with pundits claiming that the upcoming Presidential election is the most important in the nation’s history. Partisans — official and unofficial — paint dire pictures of apocalyptic disaster should the wrong candidate be voted in. Ever-escalating stakes seem an indelible feature of the American electoral game.

This framing has always struck me as somewhat silly, especially since everyone knows that Republicans and Democrats are one and the same. Yes, there is the “polarization” people have long complained of, but this seemed more a matter of tone and symbolism and rhetoric than of substantive disagreement. A bipartisan consensus came about decades ago that favoured neoliberalism and military misadventure, resulting in a much narrower scope of policy debate in the United States than in almost any other democracy.

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel.

Yesterday, I filled out a questionnaire set up on the Wall Street Journal website by Vote Compass, the Canadian organization that tries to situate participants on the political map next to the candidates and parties they have the most in common with. I have filled out Vote Compass surveys many times before in the context of Canadian federal and provincial elections, but I was surprised to find that when dealing with American issues, my answers were much more extreme than usual. In this latest questionnaire, I was more likely to “strongly” agree or disagree with a statement than to “somewhat” agree or disagree.

Something new has happened in recent years. America’s infamous Tweedledum/Tweedledee political system, as Ralph Nader described it, has suddenly become interesting.

I believe that this change, which has come to define Barack Obama’s entire first term as President, originated in the 2008 financial crisis. Now, for the first time in as long as I can remember, there is a battle of ideas being waged in the United States — specifically, over the role of government in the economy. In a country so often dismissed as having become an anti-intellectual wasteland, the ideas of thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes and Ayn Rand have forced their way into mainstream discussion. Grassroots(ish) movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street popped up and shifted the national debate. Politicians and regular people alike are having something that looks eerily similar to a grown-up conversation about taxes, regulation, and government programs. Obama, while hardly a leftist dreamboat, has to some extent picked a side in this fight by implementing a stimulus package and calling for a slightly higher tax rate on the rich in the face of ridiculous class warfare accusations from his rivals.

But for all the excitement of substantive, intellectually stimulating debate, there are undoubtedly risks too. While Obama is the first sitting President in decades to embrace quasi-Keynesian policies, the vast majority of recent polarization comes courtesy of an increasingly extreme Republican Party. Mitt Romney may be playing to the centre now that the Presidential campaign is winding down, but he made too many promises to his party’s right-wing base during primary season to be able to govern the country as moderately as he did Massachusetts. The Tea Party, while perhaps less reflective of public opinion than Occupy Wall Street, has been much more successful at worming its way into the party structure and influencing political elites.

So this time around, American voters do indeed face a real choice, as well as at least some of the urgency and alarmism being propagated by the nation’s characteristically hyperbolic talking heads.

All this being said, even in this brave new era of open debate and expanded possibilities, there are still some vitally important issues that Democrats will not touch. I would give anything to see Obama put himself on the line on climate change — the globe’s foremost challenge at the moment — in the same way he did for health care. Instead, he brags about oil production having gone up during his Presidency.

On the subject of the United States’ bloated military budget, there is disconcertingly little distinguishing Democrats from Republicans. Perhaps the President could go beyond mere lip service in promoting worldwide nuclear disarmament.

And I would love (maybe once the economy gets stronger) to see the beginnings of a national discussion on revenue that would include the possibility of raising corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, and perhaps even the income taxes of the much-pandered-to middle class. America needs to get over this foolish impression it has that taxes are only a cost. If well spent, they benefit everyone.

The sad truth is that any American readers who agree with me on the above issues cannot realistically expect much from either of the two major parties. Instead, the enterprising voter is advised to look into that dark, most cavernous place where few have ventured before: third-party candidates. In particular, I recommend Green Party Presidential nominee Jill Stein. Granted, her party does not have ballot access in all fifty states, and I can understand if some swing state progressives are reluctant to vote in any way that might hand Romney an unearned victory. However, the majority of American voters whom these considerations do not apply to should seriously consider Stein as a positive choice for their country — not to mention as a means of gently prodding the Democrats in a more productive direction.

Yes, there may now be political choice in the United States of a kind that did not exist a few years ago, but there could always be more. Polarization is not all bad. Diversity is necessary for a healthy society no less than for a healthy ecosystem.

So please, America, why don’t you give those talking heads something to really talk about?

The Three Obamas

Barack Obama on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

One of the most fascinating things about the race for the Presidency currently underway down south is the dearth of enthusiasm shown both Obama and Romney by their respective supporters. Nobody is excited about their guy; rather, what motivates them is how horrible the other guy is.

Perhaps I am deceived by the political amnesia we all fall victim to from time to time, or by my relatively young age. (Yes, I may be thirty now, but I’ve only lived through seven Presidential elections. “Just a pup,” as I was recently told.) Perhaps this lack of hopey-changey passion is precisely what happens every time a first-term President runs for reelection. The practical experience of governing has sapped the incumbent’s supporters of optimism while providing ammunition to the challenger.

Yet somehow, I cannot resist the arrogance of the present with respect to past and future. This time, I insist, is different. Brace yourselves, Republicans, for there now exist in America no less than three distinct President Obamas.

The first is a fictional character crafted by Romney supporters. They have constructed a fantasy world — “Bullshit Mountain” in the parlance of Jon Stewart — in which Barack Hussein Obama is a socialist, black nationalist, anti-colonial, Kenyan, Islamic fundamentalist atheist hell bent on providing solace to America’s enemies abroad while waging a class war at home that will radically transform the country we all know and love into a leftist dystopia that not even a million Reagans could fix.

The second and third Obamas come courtesy of his supporters, who fall broadly into two categories. The first, more-or-less mainstream wing sees their candidate as neither the messiah (as they did four years ago) nor the spawn of Satan (as Republicans do today), but as a somewhat moderate and competent administrator who may not be as perfect as everyone would like but is at least better than the other guy. “A modicum of progress is possible with a second term,” they maintain.

The second grouping sees their candidate as quite a bit more problematic. This camp of downright hostile supporters will attempt to reelect the President with fingers pinched firmly to nose, because for all his faults, they fear Mitt Romney would be infinitely worse. “Obama doesn’t go far enough,” they complain. “He compromises too readily on taxes and health care without demanding anything in return. His stimulus plan was too small to be truly effective. He has done next to nothing to solve the problem of climate change or close down Guantanamo Bay. It’s nice that he came out in favour of gay marriage, but why did he have to take so long? And let’s not forget the countless drone strikes halfway around the world — attacks that we would be out in the streets demonstrating against if George W. had launched them (which he did and we were).”

(Ahem. I haven’t betrayed my biases, have I?)

So the question is: whose mass of unenthused, lukewarm supporters will be sufficiently motivated by hatred of the other guy to win an election? I fear that Romney may have an edge here due to his base’s seemingly unprecedented conspiratorial fervour and flight from reality. The only way for the President to recapture the momentum — especially after losing last week’s much hyped debate to a less-cardboard-than-usual Mitt Romney — is to experiment with an innovative new campaign strategy: giving the people something to vote for rather than against.

I know that 2008 magic hasn’t run out yet. Come on, America. Get excited again.