Friday, November 18, 2016

In Defense of the Electoral College

In politics, most debates over procedure are dishonest.

For example, when Senate Democrats filibuster, Republicans everywhere decry this quaint parliamentary trick.  But when the GOP has a senate majority, they suddenly sing the praises of our Founders, and applaud the filibuster as a check against the tyranny of the majority.  And vice-versa*.

So too with the Electoral College.  Usually, we give as much thought to this somewhat funky voting edifice as we do to figuring out the duties of the Minority Whip.  But as you might have heard, this year for the 5th time in 228 years and the 2nd time in 16, the popular vote winner lost the Electoral College.

So: Barbara Boxer is proposing legislation to abolish the electoral college.  Democrats are taking to op-ed pages and Facebook feeds and tiny little blogs nobody reads (ahem) because they, quite suddenly, are appalled at the way the system works.

And obviously, if the reverse had happened - if President Clinton lost the popular vote and won the electoral college - well, does anyone think Trump or his supporters would take that well?  Anyone?

When You Assume...

Before I put myself in the dubious position of defending this archaic - and by American standards, ancient - voting body, let me make a point that has been widely ignored since Election Day.

Everybody assumes that if we chose our Presidents by popular vote, Hillary Clinton would be President.  Makes sense, right?  She got a million more votes, ergo, President Clinton the Second.  

But wait a second...presumably, if we changed our voting rules, the candidates would have been notified of those changes...and would have run dramatically different campaigns.  Hillary Clinton would have been flying back and forth from New York City to Los Angeles and San Francisco, trying to run up the score in these large Democratic strongholds.  Trump would have set up campaigns headquarters in Texas or the South.   The rest of America would have had to watch as many campaign commercials as our friends in the battleground states. 

Or maybe not.  Maybe entirely different tactics would have been deployed.  Maybe they would have gone all Ross Perot on us and bought hour-long blocks on major networks.  Campaigns would throw out the rule books, write new ones, and learn things on the fly.  

Voters would act differently too.  I live in a "disenfranchised" state.  Not only was Clinton predicted at a 99.7% chance to win New York, but my 79 year old Congressional Representative had as little chance of losing her seat as my dogs do of not barking the next time the doorbell rings.  Senator Chuck Schumer ran for reelection against...I have absolutely no idea. Nobody in New York does, with the possible exception of the candidate and his family.  (And my Dad.  I bet he knows).  How many voters in non-battleground states didn't vote because they didn't think their vote mattered?  How many voters in battleground states had an extra incentive to vote because they knew their votes mattered more?

Here's the most telling data point: Hillary Clinton won California alone by 2.5 million votes.  This accounts for more than double her popular vote margin of victory.  Donald Trump did not campaign, nor spend a single dollar, in California.  California has had a Republican governor for 24 of the past 34 years, so there were votes to be had - just not enough to have any shot at a single electoral vote. (by the way, this also means Trump won the other 49 states by over a million votes).

Point is - the candidates, the campaigns, and the voters would have all acted differently than we actually did if we went by popular vote.  I don't what the final score would have been, and who would have won (neither do you) - but I'd bet everything in my pocket against everything in yours that it would not have been 62,409,031 to 61,283,176.

An Argument in Favor of the Electoral College

We know the argument in favor of a Popular Vote:  all votes count the same.  It's pretty much the only argument - but it's a pretty damn powerful one.

And there are numerous practical arguments against.  The difficulty of a recount, for example - which is much easier in this system (imagine Florida 2000 - writ large across 50 states!)

But the biggest argument in favor of the Electoral College - or at least, against the Popular Vote - is it would make Elections even more (if you can possibly believe it!) divisive than they are now.

Under our current system, Candidate Trump and Candidate Clinton didn't have to spend time in the liberal and conservative states they already had in the bag.  They didn't even have to spend time with the extremists in the battleground states (though some, to be sure, to drive turnout).  They had to moderate their positions.

Moderate, you scoff!  That was their moderate positions?!  Well, yeah.  Let's look at Trump's position on Muslim immigration, to take arguably his most controversial policy:

December 2015
 “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  Trump press release

May 2016
 “It’s a temporary ban. It hasn’t been called for yet, nobody’s done it. This is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on.”  Trump on Fox Radio

June 2016
“We must suspend immigration from regions linked with terrorism until a proven vetting method is in place.”  Trump on Twitter

You may hate all 3 positions, but they move from an opening position that is indisputably unconstitutional to one that isn't entirely different from Jimmy Carter's ban on Iranians during the hostage crisis.

What happened in May that might have caused this to occur?  Oh yeah, he effectively clinched the nomination.


The most tried-and-true national campaign strategy in American politics is:  tack to the left and right to win the nomination, then back to the center to win the election.  If you want Presidential campaigns that are about non-stop red meat thrown to the radical wings of the parties, you should sign one of those futile online petitions.

If not, well, you should consider the possibility that the Framers of the Constitution had reasons for doing what they did, and stick with this imperfect but effective system. A better one might come along, but it is not a Popular Vote.

* Harry Reid is the shameless King of the Filibuster Flip-Flop.   

As Senate Minority Leader in 2005, he said (of a GOP attempt to abolish filibuster): 

"The Senate was set up to be different, that was the genius, the vision of our Founding Fathers. … That's why you have the ability to filibuster, and to terminate filibuster. They wanted to get rid of all of that...That is a black chapter in the history of the Senate. I hope we never ever get to that again because I really do believe it will ruin our country."

Well, we got to it again, thanks to...Harry Reid!  In 2013, as Senate Majority Leader, he literally proposed the very rule he was attacking:  

"The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change, as it has over the history of this great country. To the average American, adapting the rules to make the Senate work again is just common sense. This is not about Democrats versus Republicans. This is about making Washington work — regardless of who is in the White House or who controls the Senate.

You almost have to admire the chutzpah.

Update 12/5:
Not surprisingly, Democrats are reversing course again on the filibuster.  (Many predicted at the time that the Dems would regret this move the moment the Republicans had the White House and the Senate again).  Here is Senator Chris Coons of Delaware (D), on CNN on 11/19 with CNN anchor Kate Bolduan:

BOLDUAN: But Senator, also a rules change the Democrats put in place could also come back to bite you. I mean, I don't get into the weeds, but Democrats made it much easier than a simple majority can push through presidential nominees. Democrats did it for themselves and now Republicans can do it as well.

COONS: That's exactly right. The filibuster no longer acts as emergency brake on the nomination --

BOLDUAN: So do you regret that?

COONS: I do regret that. I frankly think many of us will regret that in this Congress because it would have been a terrific speed bump, potential emergency brake, to have in our system to slow down the confirmation of extreme nominees. We're instead going to have to depend on the American people, on thorough hearings and/or persuading a number of Republicans in those cases where President-elect Trump might nominate someone, who is just too extreme to the American people.

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