National Public Vote: Close Elections

One of the nightmare scenarios sometimes brought up when arguing for the Electoral College and against the popular vote is, what happens in case of a really close election? There would have to be a nationwide recount. Think Florida 2000, times 50.

For instance, take the 1960 election, where Kennedy beat Nixon by 0.17% of the popular vote. He won by 84 Electoral Votes, a comfortable margin, but this seems to be the sort of thing that the close-race argument seeks to address.

For one thing, it seems to me that if the race is that close, that’s exactly when you want to count votes carefully, to make sure that the right person is put in the White House (assuming that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact passes).

But another argument is more pragmatic: elections are run at the state level, not the federal level, which means that the election would have to be contested in fifty separate jurisdictions. Fifty judges would have to be convinced that the case even has merit.

Furthermore, the vote might be close on the national level, but probably won’t be on the state or county level. See the county map of results for the oh-so-close election of 1960:

Map of results of the 1960 US presidential election, by county. Map by and Wikimedia Commons user Tilden76.

Let’s say a suit is brought in a state that isn’t a member of the Compact, where the vote isn’t close. Say, Utah. It’s easy to imagine a judge saying that the vote in Utah is clear enough; there’s no need to conduct a recount, because it’s clear which way Utah’s Electors will vote.

Given that each campaign has only a limited amount of money to pay for lawsuits, they’ll have to prioritize those suits that’ll give them the most bang for the buck. That suggests that the suits will have to be concentrated in states where the count is close (think Florida in 2000), or which are members of the Compact, or where for one reason or other, the suing campaign thinks it can win a significant number of votes. I think that means that small states are relatively immune from this, simply because barring significant shenanigans, there just aren’t a lot of votes to be gained in a state with a low population. That means that recounts are more likely in more populous states like California, Texas, New York, and, yes, Florida.

Remember that what matters is the total national vote: if, say, the Republican candidate’s campaign sues in California, its goal is not to flip the state blue; just to pick up votes. If it argues that 300,000 ballots were discarded improperly, and once they’re reinstated, it turns out that 100,000 of them were for the Democratic candidate and 200,000 for the Republican one, that doesn’t change the fact that a large majority of Californians voted Democratic. But it does mean that the Democrats pick up 100,000 votes while Republicans pickup 200,000, so Republicans win. You can do the same thing in North Dakota or Delaware, but the numbers will be smaller, so the same amount of effort yields smaller rewards.

So yeah, in the case of a close election, there would be a bigger recount than just one state as in 2000, but it probably wouldn’t involve all fifty states. But that’s probably what ought to happen anyway, in a close election.

Popular Vote: Majority Rule Is Disenfranchisement

Here’s a rather breathless letter to the editor of the Brattleboro (VT) Reformer, promising dire consequences if we start electing presidents the same way we elect governors, senators, mayors, and school board members:

The Los Angeles Times editorial (Feb. 17 in the Reformer) would like to disenfranchise more than half our nation by ending the electoral college, validating only “mob rule” elections dominated by metropolitan area voters and perhaps a portion of their rural allies. Vermont’s legislature endorsed the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” which would effectively disenfranchise a sizable portion of Vermont voters, as actually happened prior to that in the 2016 election when our three electors all voted for one popular candidate, even though the Vermont voters were divided 2 to 1. So one third of our voters were ignored entirely.

Dave Garrecht, Guilford, VT

Mr. Garrecht seems confused with worry. For one thing:

disfranchise [ dis-fran-chahyz ]:
verb (used with object), dis·fran·chised, dis·fran·chis·ing.
1. to deprive (a person) of a right of citizenship, as of the right to vote

No one is talking about taking away anyone’s right to vote. What he’s upset about is not getting his way, as he demonstrates in the rest of the sentence:

as actually happened prior to that in the 2016 election when our three electors all voted for one popular candidate, even though the Vermont voters were divided 2 to 1. So one third of our voters were ignored entirely.

No, no one ignored anyone. It’s just that the minority lost. That’s how it works in a democracy. Get used to it.

He mentions “mob rule”, as do a lot of other people, so that’s worth addressing. Wikipedia’s definition seems as good as any I’ve seen:

Ochlocracy […] or mob rule is the rule of government by mob or a mass of people, or, the intimidation of legitimate authorities. As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, meaning “the fickle crowd”, from which the English term “mob” originally was derived in the 1680s.

Now, no one is condoning, or even suggesting, intimidating anyone. So really, the biggest fear worth addressing is that the majority might vote to take away the rights of the minority, as in the old quotation about how “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch.” It’s worth reading the context, in Marvin Simkin’s article in the Los Angeles Times:

Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken, not even by a 99% vote. Those rights are spelled out in the Bill of Rights and in our California Constitution. Voters and politicians alike would do well to take a look at the rights we each hold, which must never be chipped away by the whim of the majority.

This problem has been recognized for a long time, and that’s why the first ten amendments to the US Constitution spell out a list of rights that can’t be taken away by a simple vote. And nobody’s trying to take that away here.

In short, Mr. Garrecht is upset over nothing. No one’s taking away anyone’s vote. If anything, the popular vote would make more people’s vote significant. And really, if you’re supporting an unfair system for fear of what other people might do to you if their vote counts the same as yours, what does that say about you?

Counting Every Vote Will Nullify Your Vote

An editorial at warns of dire consequences if the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact passes:

The House of Delegates voted to have the Old Dominion join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement that would force Virginia’s 13 electors to vote for the candidate chosen by the national popular vote.

Joining this compact would have nullified Virginia’s voice in this most important of all elections, enabled the tyranny of the majority, and upended a system that has worked well for 233 years.

This is an argument I’ve seen elsewhere; particularly the “nullify” part of it. As I see it, it’s just seizing on the more eyebrow-raising part of the NPVIC–the idea that a state’s Electoral Votes will sometimes be given to a candidate who didn’t win that state’s popular vote–and presenting it as though it were a new idea.

The word “nullified” makes it sound as though Virginia’s voters would be deprived of their chance to participate in the election. In fact, if this situation were to arise, it would simply mean that the majority of Virginia’s voters would have lost the election, something that has happened any number of times.

In fact, a popular vote would achieve the reverse of what the author fears. Let’s say that the Compact passes, with states totaling 270 Electoral Votes signing on, but Virginia holds out and doesn’t sign on.

In the next election, the winning strategy changes: instead of looking at states as blocks and assuming that California will vote Democratic and Texas will vote Republican, candidates will have to appeal to broad swaths of people: suddenly the Republicans in California and the Democrats in Texas are worth reaching out to. And so are the voters in Virginia, be they Democrat, Republican, third-party, or independent. Unlike the present system, every one of those votes will move the dial a little bit to the left or to the right.

So far from nullifying anyone’s vote, the popular vote would make everyone’s vote count.

Silly Objections to the Popular Vote

Of late, I’ve been taking an interest in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. For those who haven’t heard about it, the basic idea is that the US’s system of electing presidents through the Electoral College is archaic and convoluted, and too often doesn’t elect the person who won the most people’s votes.

Since the Electoral College is in the Constitution, it would take a constitutional amendment to get rid of it, and that’s notoriously difficult. However, there’s a workaround: have states allocate their Electoral Votes not to the candidate who won the state’s popular vote, but to the one who won the national popular vote. Yes, it means that if most people in a state vote for candidate A, but candidate B wins the vote nationwide, then that state will allocate its Electoral votes to candidate B. Naturally, it would be crazy for a state to go it alone in this. So this would only kick in once enough states signed up to determine the outcome of the election, i.e., states with 270 Electoral Votes between them.

It sounds weird at first, but it could work. And it’s because it sounds crazy that I’ve started following the issue. But one thing that struck me is just how few good arguments there are against it.

Take, for instance, this letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

As far as presidential elections go, contenders should learn some things from sports. Know the rules. More importantly, play by the rules. They should broaden their support and try to win more states. They know what the rules are. A contender should need to win more than 11 states (the most populous of which total 270 electoral votes), potentially negating the other 78% (39 states).

For starters, presidential candidates and their campaign managers do know the rules, and do play by them; that’s why they only really campaign in a handful of swing states: everyone knows that, say, New Jersey will vote Democratic no matter what, so the Republicans can just write it off and spend their campaign money elsewhere, where it’ll do more good (i.e., where advertising is likely to get them some more Electoral Votes). The Democrats, meanwhile, can take New Jersey pretty much for granted, and spend their campaign money elsewhere, where it’ll do more good.

Secondly, the author makes a mistake that many opponents of the NPVIC make: that of thinking in terms of states instead of people: states don’t vote; individual voters do. Under a popular vote system, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “how New Jersey voted”, except as a broad trend. The more important question is, how many people in New Jersey voted for each candidate?

Note, too, that the 11 most populous states (also the ones with the most Electoral Votes) are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, and New Jersey. The author’s fear lies on the premise of everyone in those 11 states voting the same way. I can’t imagine an election in which everyone in California votes the same way, let alone one where everyone in Texas votes the same way as everyone in California. If a candidate comes along who’s such a uniter that they can get a majority of the vote in those 11 states, then I think that person deserves the presidency.

Furthermore, while those 11 states add up to 270 Electoral Votes, they also have 52% of the population. So what this person is arguing against is the idea of majority rule.

But the biggest mistake this writer makes, in my opinion, is the one I mentioned first: it’s in part because of the Electoral College that presidential candidates only try to win a handful of states and ignore the rest. If he wants them to reach out to, say, Republicans in rural California and New York, or Democrats in Austin and Salt Lake City, then a popular-vote approach is the way to go.

Democracy Is Not Football

One of the many things that annoyed me in the wake of Trump’s upset victory was that for so many people on the winning side, this boiled down to “delicious librul tears“. And even a lot of Trump’s executive actions have been less about advancing his own plan, as about tearing down Obama’s legacy. We’ve also seen this with the ACA, where the GOP has been quite intent on repealing Obamacare, but has no idea what to replace it with, or how to get health care to everyone.

On the other side, I see people like the organizers of the March for Our Lives, and before them a thousand newly-hatched activists, whom Trump and the GOP awakened to the fact that government isn’t Them; it’s Us. You don’t have to choose among the two candidates that the major parties provide; you can run for office yourself. And if you can’t run and can’t vote, you can still write your representatives, and raise a fuss and bloody well make people care about the issues that you care about.

This is of a piece with the rise of prayer-shaming: a lot of the response to shootings like Parkland has been that offering “thoughts and prayers” is the same as not doing anything at all, and by now you are expected to know this. The young generation is the least-religious one yet in recent American history, and they know that praying doesn’t fix problems. Sitting down and fixing problems fixes problems.

This may turn out to be the silver lining of the Trump era: that so much stuff broke, that it woke people up to the fact that democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

(Originally started as a comment at chez Hemant.)

Hell Is a School, Apparently

By now, you’ve all seen this T-shirt, which began circulating approximately several years before 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida:

T-shirt: "Dear God, why do you allow violence in schools?" "I'm not allowed in schools. -- God"

As many people have pointed out, the implication is that, against all theology, God—or at least the God of sanctimonious T-shirt wearers—is not omnipresent. That a simple legislative measure is sufficient to banish God from a place.

But if you point this out, or indeed dare to make fun of a religious idea, institution, or person in a public forum, you’ll see veiled threats of hell:

godly comments

I’ve found that Christians far prefer veiled threats over overt ones. I think they’re uncomfortable with their own beliefs, and prefer to skate around them. Or maybe what they believe deep down isn’t what they believe in public. At any rate, the usual response I get is that Hell, in the afterlife, is simply an absence of God.

So, it’s like a school, I guess.

I’ve attended public school, and I still go there, for special events. I’ve never seen a pitchfork or smelled a lake of molten sulfur (and if there were, I’m sure there’d be railings so you didn’t fall in accidentally).

But really, if The Bad Afterlife is like being in an American public school, then sure, I’ll take that. It sounds an awful lot like ordinary life right now.

A Republican Drama

Via @Billy, Just Billy, who saved screenshots:

I understand that the reason his insurance claim was denied is that he was using his own car for his job (delivering pizza), but had a personal insurance policy, not a professional one, which costs more but covers job-related accidents.

So now he’s running a GoFundMe campaign to pay his bills. As of this writing, he’s raised $2,225 of his $15,000 goal.

In a book or movie, this would be the point where Our Hero has an epiphany: that accidents can happen to anyone, even the young and healthy. That medical care is fucking expensive (and replacement cars ain’t cheap either). That having to ask people for money while you’re busy getting your spine, your car, and your job back together is another pain in the ass.

It might also lead one to wonder: what if he didn’t have 30,000 Twitter followers who could chip in? Or if he didn’t happen to be young and photogenic? How long would it take him to pay his medical bills on a pizza delivery guy’s salary?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some way to have something like a GoFundMe that scales? Maybe something where people pay in while they’re healthy and able to draw a salary, and can then get help paying unexpected bills so they don’t go broke from being sick or in an accident? What if, in short, there were such a thing as medical insurance?

However, we don’t live in a movie, and as of this writing, Sassy Gay Republican still seems to equate universal healthcare insurance with tyranny or some similar right-wing talking point. But while he may be cutting off his nose to spite his face, the rest of us can use him as an object lesson.

Satire Is Officially Broken

Here are two items from recent media:

Sean Spicer Walking Around White House In Sunglasses And Baseball Cap To Avoid Press

“After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged. ‘Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,’ he ordered.

Quiz time: which of these is from the Washington Post, and which is from the Onion?

Answers: the first is from The Onion. The second piece is from The Washington Post.

Triggered by the Right Side of History

There’s a bit of controversy going on at Yorktown High School in Virginia, where teachers have put up signs:

Screen capture of controversial sign at Yorktown High School

Patriots Know:

Facts are not political
Diversity stengthens [sic] us
Science is real
Women’s rights are human rights
Justice is for all
We’re all immigrants
Kindness is everything
We are Yorktown

I gather that “Patriots” is the name of the school’s sports team, and by extension refers to the student body, not simply people who love their country.

What’s odd here is that conservatives have complained about these signs being overly-political. TV personality Tucker Carlson is quoted as saying,

Carlson called the signs “the sneakiest type of propaganda… propaganda passing itself off as obvious observations.” He asked [senior student John] Piper if anyone at the school thinks that science “is not real.”

Oh, I’m sure you could find some Juggalos to tell you that

Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

but I’ll concede Carlson’s point: pretty much everyone thinks that science is real, or at least supports that notion. But of course not everyone knows that science isn’t a body of knowledge, but a method for figuring out what’s true. Not only that, but a lot of people are very selective about which scientific findings they accept. And, well, not to put too fine a point on it, one major US party (hint: it rhymes with “Reschmuglican”) has turned into an anti-science party.

And therein lies the problem: as long time reader Fez pointed out, if the statements on the signs are seen as political — and specifically leftist — it’s only because the political right has rejected much that should be uncontroversial. Like the reality of climate change, and it doesn’t matter how many jobs you save if New York is under water and Nebraska is too arid for anything to grow.

Likewise, even though it’s obvious that women’s rights are human rights, since the eighties the Republican party has been running on the idea that imply, even if it’s rarely made explicit, that women take a back seat to men, and that their rights rank below those of a pre-sentient (not merely pre-sapient) bundle of cells.

Likewise diversity, justice for all, and tolerance of immigrants. The American political right is on the wrong side on all of these issue, and I think they know it and feel defensive about it.

This all reminds me of something Patton Oswalt wrote a little while ago:

But when I Tweet something POSITIVE, or HOPEFUL, in support of a group that’s been made to fear or doubt because of Trump and his ghoul brigade’s actions? A helpful link for peaceful action? Praising someone who speaks up eloquently against the smirking racism of Trump’s parking lot carnival of an administration?

THAT’S when the responses get violent, and threatening, and ominous. As if the language itself — the grammar of thoughtfulness — lands in their guts like glass shards. Empathy and understanding literally feel like an attack to them.

I don’t think he’s quite right about this, but I have to say that the Yorktown HS kerfuffle is data in his favor.

So if positive ideas bother you, or the implications of those ideas (e.g., if we’re all immigrants, then maybe someone who looks and speaks differently from you, whose cooking smells weird, and whose accent you can’t decipher, might move in next door to you), perhaps it would be a good idea to think about what it is that bothers you, and whether your fears are justified. Or, for that matter, whether you’re on the right side of history.


Now What?

So we’ve survived the first week of Trump’s presidency. Have some cake. If you were one of the many people who took part in activism, pat yourself on the back. If you weren’t, it’s not too late to start.

It’s great that everyone’s riled up. And while we’re pumped up and paying attention to government, it might be worth figuring out what our long-term plans should be. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

Gerrymandering reform

In case you forgot, gerrymandering is the practice of drawing legislative districts to favor one party (see, for instance, this map of Maryland). Gerrymandering is one of the factors pushing divisions between the left and right: Representatives can be attacked for being insufficiently ideologically pure, which pushes them away from the center, and have no real incentive to compromise.

For me, as a Marylander, it means that the Republicans have written me off, and the Democrats take me for granted. I’d like both parties to court my vote, and for the biyearly congressional elections to be a meaningful referendum on Representatives’ job performance.

Electoral College reform

I think everyone agrees that while the Electoral College may have been useful at one time, it’s not the XVIII century anymore. Time to get with the times and implement majority vote.

Since the Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution, there’s no way to eliminate it without an amendment, which is difficult. But there’s a hack: each state can pass its own laws about how its Electors vote. And in most states, they have to vote the way a majority of that state’s voters voted, which makes perfect sense. But what if each state had a law saying that its Electors will vote whichever way the entire US voting population voted?

Obviously, people in Massachusetts will be upset if a Republican gets all of their Electoral votes just because he won a majority of the US vote, just as Oklahomans won’t like their Electoral votes going to a Democrat. But this already happens, in effect, in that people get a president they don’t want.

Of course, you don’t want your state to be the only one that apportions its Electors this way. This only makes sense if there are enough states doing this, that they can decide the outcome of the election — that is, if there’s a group of states that adds up to 270 Electoral votes or more.

Thankfully, there’s a project to do exactly that. Contact your state legislators and encourage them to join in.

Ranked voting

This one’s more of a long shot than the others, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. In our current system, you can only vote for one candidate, and whoever gets the most votes wins. This leads to a problem with third-party supporters. In 2000, if you were liberal, maybe you liked Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, could tolerate Democrat Al Gore, and disliked Republican George Bush. So do you vote for Nader, knowing that he can’t win, and that you’re taking away a vote for Gore (and against Bush)? Or do you hold your nose, vote for Gore against Bush, and help confirm the idea that third parties don’t stand a chance?

Under ranked voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, you vote for multiple candidates, ranking them in order of preference. Our hypothetical voter, above, might vote

  1. Ralph Nader
  2. Al Gore
  3. George Bush

meaning “I like Nader, but I’ll settle for Gore.”

Yes, there are problems with ranked voting, and there are situations where it fails. But its problems are rarer and less severe, I believe, than those with our present system.

Campaign finance reform

This is related to the previous item, in that the current systems helps perpetuate a system where only the major players have a chance. If candidates were treated equally, say all given $100 million to make their case, then it would make it more likely that candidates are judged by their experience and policies, rather than their ability to raise money.

On the other hand, there’s a danger that extremist whackjobs might appear reasonable by virtue of being treated as equals with sane-party candidates. But then again, given who’s living in the (Oh So Very) White House right now, we may be past that point already.

While I don’t have a firm opinion on this topic and am open to being educated, I do think the Citizens United SCOTUS decision needs to be overturned. In case you forgot, that’s the one that said that donating money to a campaign is political speech, and since you can’t abridge free speech, you can have unlimited amounts of money pouring into politics.

Education, education, education

This one is fundamental. We need better education, and more of it.

People complain about American jobs being shipped overseas. But most of those are unskilled jobs. It’s never going to be cheaper to hire an American than a Bangladeshi, or a robot. So let’s prepare our population for better jobs.

For starters, we can fund elementary and high schools properly. I’m ashamed for my country every time I hear of a teacher having to buy supplies out of her own pocket. Federal funds can help with this: when I pick up the phone to talk to tech support, I might get someone who went to school in Arkansas or Oregon, so it’s in my benefit to help education in other states.

College is crazy expensive. The University of Maryland, a state university, estimates that it’ll cost $25,000 per year to send your child there. $47,000 if you’re not a Maryland resident. That’s mortgage-level expensive.

Why can’t we bring the costs down? One simple approach would be an education tax. Raise taxes on everyone by a bit, and bring tuition costs down a lot for those going to college. This would have all sorts of knock-on effects: more people getting educated; more people inventing new things, or writing books, or starting businesses; more people making a better living; more people hiring other people.

And I think that’ll do it for now.