Monday, November 14, 2016

Fixing the Electoral College

The US election results have shown—once again—what an utter disgrace the Electoral College system is. In the USA, the person who is supported by the largest number of people can still lose, as happened this year. The calls to abolish the Electoral College are great, but pointless: It’ll be impossible to do that for decades to come. Fortunately, there are ways to fix it.

So far this century, there have been five presidential elections, and Democrats have won the popular vote in four of them—but the presidency only twice. This is a travesty and makes a mockery of the USA’s claim to be a democracy. But, it’s also not going away.

The reason it can’t be abolished is that it would require a Constitutional Amendment, something that the Founders deliberately made difficult to do. Under Article V of the US Constitution, the main way amendments come about is by approval by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, then ratification by three-quarters (currently 38) state legislatures. That’s a very high hurdle.

Going into this year’s election, Republicans completely controlled 30 state legislatures, and Democrats controlled 12, and 7 were split between the two parties. The 50th state, Nebraska, is unicameral (only one house) and officially non-partisan, though the reality is that the state’s electorate is heavily Republican. For total seats, Republicans controlled 68 chambers and Democrats controlled 30 chambers.

The partisan makeup of state legislatures—and the fact that Republicans control both houses of Congress—matters because the Electoral College favours Republicans (as for example, those three out of five elections since 2000), and that’s something that will become their only hope of winning the presidency as the electorate becomes less and less white. They’re not about to willingly eliminate their one path to power, so abolishing the Electoral College can’t happen, and it won’t happen.

There’s one reform proposal I absolutely reject because of its partisanship: Awarding Electoral Votes by Congressional District. This is an awful idea because Republicans have gerrymandered states to ensure they have majorities in as many Congressional Districts as possible, and that means not just that they’re over-represented in the US House, it also means they’d get too many Electoral Votes. As I wrote back in 2013, “Put bluntly, Republicans are interested only in guaranteeing power for Republicans and the elite special interests they represent—the people be damned.” It’s worth noting that if Democrats were in control of the process, they’d be over-represented, too. So, this idea is just plain nuts, and merely a way to ensure that the Republicans win almost all the time.

In light of all that, there are two main proposals that could help make the Electoral College more democratic until there's enough support for amending the Constitution to abolish it altogether. One is good, the other better.

The first is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which would give all a state’s Electoral Vote to whichever candidate wins the nationwide popular vote. So far, ten states and the District of Columbia have adopted the compact, and together represent around 60% of the 270 Electoral Votes needed to become president. The Compact doesn’t come into effect until the states participating account for the winning number of 270 Electoral Votes.

This compact would have an effect similar to what would happen if the Electoral College was abolished: The popular vote nationwide would determine the winner, not majorities in any particular state, as happens now. Some would argue—as, indeed, I have—that it would encourage candidates to focus their campaigns in major media markets, but that would also be true of abolishing the Electoral College and is true right now of the current system: In the modern media age, which is increasingly online as newspapers die and local TV news withers away, there’s no incentive to campaign in small media markets. The election system used won’t change that.

It would, however, take away the power of the handful of “swing states” to get all the attention—and campaign money—since their Electoral Votes would go to the national winner, not who won their state. This would be a VERY good thing for democracy as well as other states (because candidates would have to campaign in many states), the lost campaign money is why those swing states won’t pass the NPVIC.

My biggest criticism of the NPVIC is that it does absolutely nothing to reduce the stranglehold of the two-party system, and could, in fact, reduce the appeal of third parties and independent candidates even more because there’s no way any of the current third parties could ever win the nationwide popular vote. This would help cement the two parties in power. On the other hand, people who don’t like both major party candidates (like this year) might feel safe voting for a third party candidate precisely because they can’t win, however, just like now, doing so could cause the “least worst” candidate to lose the worst. Strategic voting demanded by the First Past The Post electoral system would still be a necessity.

On balance, the NPVIC has good points, but it would do nothing to improve the partisanship of US politics or reduce the dominance of the two existing parties. There’s a better alternative.

A second, better alternative would be for states to change the way presidential elections are done to the Alternative Vote (also called Instant Run-off Voting or Fair Vote; see also the video below from CGP Grey). Under this system, people would rank their choices for president/vice president. This system ensures that the eventual winner of the state has majority support, it doesn’t penalise those who choose minor parties for their first choice, it also doesn’t allow those third party candidates to be spoilers, and it removes the need for strategic voting (voting for the candidate one dislikes the least).

One drawback is that it would require changes in some federal policies, like qualifying for campaign finance. Would the Federal Government use the first-round popular vote, or the final round? And, how would they handle some states using AV and others using the old system?

Another drawback is that people would have to be taught how to use the system, and there would be some who would use fearmongering to suggest it was all some sort of Democratic/Liberal/New World Order plot to form a dictatorship run by shapeshifting lizard-people aliens. Or, something. I use that bizarre conspiracy theory to drive home the point that because US politics is so polarised, and the Right is so paranoid, in many states adopting this system would be a VERY difficult thing to sell, and impossible in some.

Nevertheless, it is the best single alternative for democratising the Electoral College until it can be abolished altogether. It could also even make the Electoral College worth keeping if it encourages the emergence of strong third parties. But either Alternative Vote or NPVIC would be light-years better than the current anti-democratic 18th Century relic the USA is STILL burdened with.

Let the people decide!

Related: A few days ago I talked about the efforts to petition members of the Electoral College to change their votes, and why it won’t happen or change anything.


rogerogreen said...

I wonder which of Arthur's many great political posts I should highlight in my fortnightly list? Hmmm.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Ha! And I'm not done yet! Maybe you should do a "Political Notebook" sort of link collection, too (I think mine will continue).

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I can definitely relate.

rogerogreen said...

I'm fried. Already have a bunch. But I gots me a royal funk. I can churn out one post maybe every three days. when I start posting LOcats, you'll know I've used up the reserve posts.

geeman6181 said...

I understand the purpose of the Electoral College was to prevent certain population areas from controlling the election. Is this not what it has accomplished in these past elections?

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

No, that was never the intent. The Eelctoral College was created as a brake on the popular vote, to keep a demagogue, or someone controlled by a foreign power, from becoming president. It was intended, in other words, to PREVENT democracy.

As you're probably aware, a particular conservative narrative popular at the moment is that if the Electoral College was abolished, then New York and California would choose the president. This is utter nonsense. As I discussed in the post, the reality right now is that candidates spend nearly all of their time in the handful of “swing states” that right now determine most elections (and were important in 2016). So, the counterpoint to that narrative is that the current system allows a handful of unrepresentative states to pick the president, and that's unfair and undemocratic.

The fact is, PEOPLE live in those big states and cities, and they are just as American as the people who live in small towns and rural areas. Democracy is based on the will of the majority, not the majority of square miles, so abolisinbg the Eelctoral College, or adopting the reforms I mentioned, would ensure that the will of the people is done, making that by far the preferable choice to the current undemocratic—actually, anti-democracy—Electoral College system.