Contra Mozilla

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Electoral College

I read two interesting reactions to the election of Donald Trump this morning: the first is a reaction to the Left's non-violent reaction, the other is actually a less common reaction from the Left. Suffice it to say, I think that the former is basically correct as far as it goes, and that the latter basically draws the wrong conclusion to this election. I will look at the former now, and the latter in a future post.

First: a defense of the electoral college, by Mr. Jason Willick of the American Interest. He brings up four points in defense of the electoral college:

Presidential election 2016 results by county and vote share. Source.
  1. Changing the rules of an election also changes both the impetus for voting and the strategy pursued by the candidates. Thus, Mr. Trump would have spent more time and effort campaigning in rural and blue-collar California, Illinois, and even New York if only the popular vote mattered, whereas Clinton might have made more visits to Houston, Atlanta, etc. Indeed, I suspect that Trump would have actually done more to advertise earlier in this scenario (for example, Hillary Clinton's ads were frequently heard on the radio where I live about two months before the election; I don't think I ever heard a Trump ad).
  2. Attempting to scrap the electoral college is a waste of energy that could be used to reform it instead. I actually don't think this is a good argument for why the college shouldn't be eliminated, but it is a decent argument from a practical standpoint for why people shouldn't try to remove it. The gist is that there are too many states with too much to lose if the college goes away, with only a few large-population (and largely blue) states gaining anything, so it is difficult to imagine getting the requisite 38 states to sign off on this Constitutional amendment. Again, I think that this is not a very good argument because it is less a defense of the college than a plea against the difficulty in removing is, and it may not even really dissuade people from trying (which is the main point of the argument).
  3. The electoral college is what makes the presidential election an actual national election. At this point, the shift is from left vs right to nationalist vs cosmopolitan/internationalist (or so his argument goes). More importantly, the divide is largely between highly populated (but geographically concentrated) urban areas and large but sparsely populated rural areas. Thus, in a popular election, the impetus might be for the Democrat/urban candidate to focus exclusively in getting high turnout in their mega-cities. The rest of the country--including large swatch of "not-flyover" states, would be ignored. Having grown up in the rural part of a blue states whose policies were almost always dictated by the population of the one large city and maybe two or three medium-sized towns), this especially resonated with me. On a national scale, the problem is even worse, since a coalition of  very few large urban areas (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Twin Cities, Detroit, Houston, Atlanta, Miami) could very rapidly supply a majority (or plurality) of the population. Indeed, this is a majority which is completely out of touch with smaller metro areas like Montgomery, Topeka, Boise, Amarillo, and even Kansas City or Pittsburgh, let alone the truly rural areas.
  4. The electoral college is one way of forcing coalition-building. This is a sort of continuation of the previous point, but it also gets into the fact that under a winner-take-all poplar election, some third-party candidates would actually maybe be stronger (they no longer have to win states). Indeed, one possible outcome is that we could regularly see people elected by winning 30-35% of the popular vote--a point which again feeds into the third point above. To quote from Mr. Willick's article,
    The winner-take-all Electoral College system creates major obstacles to third-party presidential candidacies. Scrapping it would lead to stronger third-parties vying for the presidency, as these parties wouldn’t need to win any states to register on the electoral scoreboard. As a result, it’s possible that no candidate would come close to getting a majority of the popular vote. America could then regularly end up with plurality presidents with support from thirty percent (or less) of the voting public. Parliamentary systems manage this problem by requiring coalitions to form a government. The party that wins the most votes in the first round doesn’t immediately win power; it must create a coalition with other parties so that together, they represent a majority. (In a number of European countries, far-right parties are kept out of power despite having a plurality of popular support because the governing coalition excludes them). In America, there is no such mechanism. Popular vote champions looking to avoid minor plurality presidencies (the legitimacy of which might also be challenged on democratic grounds) would need to also seek to implement a runoff election or else scrap the entire U.S. Constitutional structure.
     I actually think that strengthening the third parties and weakening the two major parties is not a bad thing. However, I also think that Mr. Willick's prediction may be the opposite of what actually happens. To whit, look at the vote totals for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein (and the "others") in "safe" states vs "swing" states. A voter who does not expect his vote to influence the election one way or another is more likely to vote for his favorite candidate (even if said candidate is in a third party) than the one whom he considers be the lesser of t two evils who is likely to actually win. I suspect that in a close election year, the third parties would actually win fewer popular votes, thus adding a false sense of popular mandate to the eventual winner.
Presidential election 2016 results by county and vote share. Source.

    Three of these four points argue that abolishing the electoral college could have either bad or at best unpredictable results. Certainly, the party establishment types living in the heart of a major metropolitan area will disagree with me there, at least if they favor gut reaction to prudence. Certainly, the New York or DC elite would be perfectly content to rule over the people in the hinterlands--right up until those people decide that they are no longer interesting in playing by the rules of a system which seems rigged against them by people who disdain them and who seem actively wish to destroy their ways of life. This is, by and large, the reason why enough electors have ultimately supported Trump rather than Clinton.

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