If anything’s to blame, it’s the electoral college

Posted: November 17, 2016 in democracy, elections, United States
Tags: , , ,

I realise I haven’t yet done a breakdown of the US election, and given the quakes hitting New Zealand, this is probably a welcome distraction.

If the US ran its elections like any other country that votes on their President, Hillary Clinton would have won. This is the fifth time this has ever happened, and the President-elect had some oddly prescient feelings about the electoral college about four years ago. Of course now he’s totally respecting the result of the election because he won the most electoral votes and isn’t the United States’ system of government great?

This is not quite the nightmare scenario, as with a close result, Donald Trump effectively has no mandate, is the most unpopular President at the time of his election ever, with close to 60% unfavourables, and looks poised to screw things up massively in a way that could hand Democrats the mid-term elections in 2 years and possibly even the Presidency in 4.

The Electoral College is an interesting system that made a lot of sense in the in the era of America’s founding, back when the most practical way to send a message was to put a chap on a horse and have them ride to a recipient. In those days, there was little practical difference between simply having riders bring totals, and appointing riders to go to Washington DC and simply vote for whoever won their district or state.

While small states get an outsized share of the electoral college votes compared to their population, it’s not actually small states specifically that the Electoral College is biased towards. Why? Well because some of those small states already have very strong opinions on which party should control the federal government, and are considered “blue” or “red” states because they have recently supported Democratic or Republican candidates. Other states, however, have softer opinions or decide in ways that aren’t wholly contingent upon political party, and these states are called “purple” or “swing” states. As they typically decide the election, most campaign resources are spent on swing states, and US citizens who live in states like California or Texas or New York, despite having large electoral votes to distribute, effectively don’t count because everyone knows which way their votes are going to go in terms of the presidency. This generally takes the decision-making power on electing the president away from the northeast and west of the country, and giving the northern southern states a hugely disproportionate importance.

Now, in the age of phones and the internet, there’s no real positive reason to maintain an electoral college unless of course you live in a swing state. There have been attempts in the past to abolish the electoral college, but it’s rather hard to amend the US constitution, which mandates the electoral college choose the President. (whoops! Maybe it should have just mandated that a fair election be held and then left to Congress and the Supreme Court to decide what a fair election was)

A lot of Hillary supporters have been understandably upset with this result. Some have pointed out, with some reasonable basis, that the electors ought to vote for the person who won the popular vote. While I agree in principle, in practice electors are hardcore party faithful, and so-called “faithless electors” have never swung a US Presidential race in the past, so I can’t see it happening now. If you really want to stop this happening in the future, however, there’s a more practical way than an amendment. The states individually can simply pass a measure signing them up to the NPVIC, which is basically an agreement that once there are enough electoral votes signed up to the agreement to guarantee they all determine the President, then all the states who signed will instruct their electors to vote for the popular vote winner. Because the constitution and existing case law says that states get to determine how their electors vote, it’s a perfectly legal end-run around needing an amendment to abolish the Electoral College.

Other Hillary supporters have been less constructive, to whit, this Sesame Street-style garbage bin grouch masquerading as a journalist, who argues that Sanders caused Hillary to lose, drawing an analogy with Nader in the race between Bush and Gore. This again goes to how poor a system the electoral college is, as it results in 59 opportunities for near-ties that are likely to be decided through court battles, gerrymandering, and voter disenfranchisement rather than legitimate campaigning. It is also worth noting that it is Clinton’s responsibility to earn people’s votes, a fact that Gil Troy does not seem to get.

Back to Time’s “article.” Firstly, the analogy to Nader is a poor comparison, because if you ask anyone but the US Supreme Court, Gore actually won the 2000 election, and even if you do believe the Supreme Court was correct to halt the recounts, (in which case you don’t really believe in democracy, so why are you reading about election results?) not only were there multiple third party candidates in the race, each of which earned more votes than the margin between Bush and Gore, but there were also more registered Democrats that voted for Bush than the 560 vote margin as well.

But even ignoring that, Gore suffered from the same problem that John Kerry, who actually lost to Bush, and Hillary Clinton both suffer from. And that is that he wasn’t particularly good at connecting to voters. In Gore’s case he was able to squeak out a bare win in the electoral college, had the vote been counted fairly, and in Clinton’s she managed to hang on to the popular vote, but all three candidates were not good picks. (and this is an excellent argument against primaries, btw. It would actually be much better to use a voting system that allows people to pick between multiple Democrats and multiple Republicans without a spoiler effect) Gore was a technocrat who’s much better at making people think than making them feel, which makes him a great part of a leadership team, and arguably very good at governing, but a terrible Presidential candidate. Obama got things right in 2008 when he showed that you can make the public both think and feel, when he captured the progressive spirit of the US and won in a landslide. The Democrats unfortunately didn’t learn the lesson of 2012, where his support eroded significantly after it was revealed that Obama wasn’t a progressive, he just knew how to campaign like one.

Hillary didn’t campaign like Obama, she tried to pick up moderate Republicans, and effectively kicked the actual left aside. That done, it was actually suprising that many of the most progressive demographics worked out well for Clinton, (the BBC has an excellent article covering the demographics of the 2016 presidential race, the only thing it’s missing is a split of the “independent” vote, ie. people who weren’t registered as Democrats or Republicans, as I imagine they probably showed for Republicans and not Democrats a lot more than in 2008 or 2012) if not necessarily as well as they did for Obama. For that to happen, some of the new voters Sanders brought in to the fold must have come over, however she likely bled a huge amount of soft support from people who viewed her as emblematic of corruption, as a phony career politician, from people who dislike the idea of political dynasties, and of course from sexists and even racists who don’t like her strong ties to voters of colour.

Clinton’s vaunted electoral college “advantage” didn’t show up because the advantage was actually contingent on her popular vote performance being four to five percent above Trump’s like it was when his campaign was imploding, when it was instead bare fractions of a percent above his vote in the general election.

Arguably Sanders was less successful in bringing his supporters over with him when he endorsed Clinton than previous primary losers have been, but this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding much of the US establishment has had about both the Trump and Sanders campaigns. They were populist campaigns about two different visions of how to make the United States work for the working classes again. Sanders had a bold vision with further progress on healthcare, education, opposing pro-corporate trade deals, ending Wall Street fraud and misconduct, and fair taxation that refocuses on the wealthy instead of the middle class, who bear a disproportionate burden in terms of total taxation in the US, and of course, reforming the campaign rules so that candidates like him would stand a real chance again in future races, amending the constitution to get money out of politics. Clinton could never have kept all of Sanders voters no matter how he tried to bring them over without adopting those policies, and even then, some of them wouldn’t have trusted her to carry them out anyway. We saw this in action when she came out as against the TPP- her previous stance had poisoned the well for her in taking a populist position on trade, so all it did was limit the damage against her for that issue.

The one area where Clinton’s supporters are correct in apportioning a share of her blame is in directing their ire at James Comey for turning some additional emails uncovered in an investigation of Anthony Wiener into a political football against Ms Clinton. The re-appearance of email-related stories close to the election absolutely would have hurt her in some crucial states, although we can’t know by how much. I personally suspect she probably may have lost the Electoral College anyway, but we can’t know for sure. Ironically, this issue of emails is also a great counter-punch to Time’s stupid think-piece of pro-estabilshment propaganda: Sanders ran such a kind, issues-based campaign in the Primary that he deliberately refused to discuss her emails, because he actually wanted to talk about issues that mattered to the US people. If he managed to “hurt” Clinton in that primary enough to lose her the election, despite running such a positive campaign, she was obviously too fragile a candidate to ever be a serious contender for the Presidency. Any candidate that is hurt by more democracy doesn’t deserve to win anyway.


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