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.