Monday, November 28, 2016

The Electoral College Fallout

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election there has been a lot of noise coming from both traditional and social media about the fact that Clinton won the popular vote. When I first considered writing this post Clinton's popular vote margin lead was somewhere between 1 and 2 million votes. Now her popular vote victory margin is above 2 million votes. There are a lot of stories, gifs and memes being passed around about this news. I think about half the people on my Facebook feed have posted something about this information. I guess they wanted to make sure that I knew about it. The obvious implications are (1) that Clinton really won the election (2) that the Electoral College is unfair (3) Trump will be illegitimate as President. Some people are calling for the electors to change their votes because they see Donald Trump as uniquely dangerous and unqualified. Other people are threatening some electors with violence if the electors don't do the right thing and vote Clinton. I've been clear that I don't like Trump. But the implication that Trump is illegitimate because he lost the popular vote is not correct. In 1992 Bill Clinton was elected with only 43% of the popular vote, not a majority. Bill Clinton had more support than each of the other candidates but it's also true that most voters chose someone else. But that's irrelevant. Hillary Clinton and her supporters knew the rules of the contest before November 8th. We have 51 separate popular vote elections which then determine electors. It's not as if we were going to use the national popular vote to decide but Trump changed the rules at the last minute. Ironically before the election it was Trump who was petulantly making noises about the election being rigged and Clinton bannermen who were responding with scorn. We talked about the "faithless elector" issue here.

We don't choose the President by the national popular vote. We choose the President by who receives the most electoral votes. The popular vote and electoral vote normally line up together (just like points scored and total yards in a football game) but when they don't it's the electoral vote which is key.

Now there are ways short of changing the constitution by which we could ensure that the popular vote and electoral vote agree but these changes would require every state and both major political parties to agree. That is unlikely. States could agree to allocate electoral votes proportionally instead of winner take all. So if that were the case in states where Clinton won by huge margins, like California or New York her share of electoral votes wouldn't lessen drastically but in states like Michigan or Wisconsin where she barely lost, her share of electoral votes could have gone up just enough to help her win the election. The problem is that California Democrats, knowing they probably have that state in the win column for the foreseeable future might oppose a plan which would give their candidate fewer electoral votes. And the same calculation would be true for Republicans in say Alabama. And who's to say that a political party wouldn't agitate for proportional electoral allocation in states they are likely to lose but attempt to keep winner take all electoral allocation in states they are likely to win?


We could scrap the Electoral College completely and choose solely by national popular vote but that is definitely not what the Founders have in mind. Of course just because the Founders didn't like that idea doesn't mean very much. They were odious in many ways. But choosing the President by national popular vote would mean that California, New York, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio would decide national elections for everyone. For ever. No thanks. And the Electoral College is part of our system's fabric. If you get rid of it then there's no real reason to have states. And if there are no states then why have a Senate? Why have governors? It's a slightly different discussion but we do have a federalist system. Some people don't like that states like Wyoming or South Dakota get the same Senate representation as California or New York but that is how our system is set up. There has to be a balance between majority rule and mob rule. We live in a republic not a democracy. None of the more sparsely populated states would have any incentive to change the system to allow Presidential elections by popular vote. And there is no way to make them do so. A certain level of states rights is baked into the system. Like it or not the Electoral College is here to stay. If we start pulling too hard on that string then the whole fabric unravels. 

Maybe we should blow everything up but Democrats didn't say much about dropping the Electoral College before they lost the election. The Democrats must appeal to more people across the US-not just in the Northeast and urbanized areas. Or perhaps some brave pioneer Democrats need to move to some "red" states with smaller populations and change those state's voting patterns. Democrats are really really good at snark and outrage. But continuing to obsess over the popular vote when Democrats control exactly nothing in the Federal government and very little among the states is not a productive exercise. It isn't going to help Democrats focus their attention on winning the future.

It's ironic that the key tool by which Democrats can short-circuit the Republican legislative agenda, the Senate filibuster, is one which some Democrats were only too eager to eliminate a few weeks ago when they thought that Clinton would win and Democrats would retake the Senate. What a difference a day makes. Democrats need to find a way to take their case to the American people for 2018. This will require less lecturing or preaching and more listening. I have no doubt that Democrats will win again, perhaps more quickly than they think. That's just the way our political system is set up. Republicans will overreach and upset some people. But the sooner the Democrats stop focusing on how popular they were in California and start asking why that popularity didn't translate into enough votes in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania the better off they will be.
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