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.

Friendly Canadian Input on the US Election

The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming. We are in a year that is divisible by four. I think we all know what that means. In a matter of months, our American friends will once again start hanging chads or whatever it is they do to hold a presidential election, and the entire world, as usual, will be watching.

I hope my southern neighbours (yes, we spell it with a “u” up here) will not take offence (with a “c”) if I offer a little advice. Barack Obama is without doubt a much better choice than Mitt Romney, but he is still far from ideal. For this reason, I recommend that American voters consider all their options in November and not hastily rule out third party candidates such as presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

This, of course, leads us to that perennial (or at least quadrennial) topic of political contention, strategic voting. In my quaint little Canadian elections, I have yet to fall victim to this temptation, for I question its long-term value. Yes, strategic voting can be a useful way to prevent the worst of the worst from taking power, but is that all we should aspire to? What incentive do Obamaesque moderates then have to take strong progressive stances without the pull of small third parties putting the fear of God in them and threatening to siphon off their votes? Even if the Greens and their ilk have no realistic shot at victory in the current election, they can have an excellent influence on those who do win.

So does that mean that strategic voting (or tactical voting, more accurately, keeping in mind the military distinction between tactics and strategies) is never justified? No. Sometimes there is so much at stake in a single election that the conscientious voter must temporarily abandon the long view.

So what is at stake in 2012?

One word (umm, give or take): health care.

With Obama’s health law no longer at risk of being tossed out by the Supreme Court, the fight is set to move onto centre stage of the election campaign. Mitt Romney has promised that if elected President, he will immediately kill Obamacare with an executive order, and while his constitutional ability to do so has been questioned, he probably does have at least some ways of sabotaging the young law with or without a compliant congress.

As I have argued in this space before, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, but it is a major step in the right direction. For the first time in American history, it is illegal for health insurance companies to deny someone coverage simply because he or she has a prior condition. Many an entertaining semantic tussle could be waged over whether or not this truly qualifies Obama’s law as “universal health care,” but whatever it is, this year’s election is the Republican Party’s last and best chance to destroy it. They know that if they don’t dispose of Obamacare before the benefits start to kick in over the next few years, they never will. Voters might discover that they actually like it.

So with the fate of tens of millions of uninsured Americans hanging in the balance, it is crucially important that Romney not be elected President. Does that mean that all progressives need to vote for Obama? Thankfully, no. The Electoral College is an archaic institution, but its one redeeming feature is that since only a few “swing states” decide presidential elections, most Americans can safely follow their hearts without risk of splitting the vote. Simply by browsing one of the web’s many electoral maps, progressive voters can devise informed voting strategies based on where they live.

But do not think that just because I wish to prevent the other guy’s election, Obama is off the hook. It is up to environmentalists, civil libertarians, and corporate accountability advocates (even if they live in swing states and wind up voting for Obama) to maintain — indeed, crank up — the pressure. From now until election day and beyond, the President must be lobbied, petitioned, and constructively protested until he agrees to make up for the shortfalls of his first term — chief among them the appalling lack of action on climate change. If Romney is the one to be sworn into the Oval Office, however, it will all have been for naught.

In summary: a vote for Obama in the swing states, a vote for Jill Stein in the safe states, and unrelenting pressure on all who wield power. That, my American readers, is a surefire formula for success. Now if only you would be so kind as to advise us on our own government problems.

Do you still do regime change?

Update 14/07/2012: This post has been republished here at backofthebook.ca.