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 www.nhgis.org 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.

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.

Followup on Faithless Electors

Four months ago, I wondered whether there would be faithless electors in this election. And as it turned out, there were. Nine of them, in fact, of whom six were successful. That seems like a lot: according to Wikipedia, these days there are usually zero or one faithless elector. There were 8 in 1912, and 27 in 1896.

When I wrote that article, I expected to be surprised, and I was. But I stand by my comment about the dumpster fire consuming the GOP.

Will There Be Faithless Electors in 2016?

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Trump’s hairpiece in the wild. Photo by Valerie G. Bugh.

You may remember that during the run-in to the 2016 Republican convention, the #NeverTrump people were trying desperately to come up with some way, short of dynamite, to put out the dumpster fire that the conservative movement has been feeding lo these past three decades, and is now threatening to consume the GOP.

At the same time, it was pointed out that the Democrats didn’t have the same problem, in part because they had nominated a human being rather than a Monster From the Id, and partly because of superdelegates, party officials whose vote counts way way more than that of regular delegates from your state.

As universally-reviled as superdelegates are, at least they act as a firewall: if the ordinary people had nominated an obviously unacceptable candidate, like a bowl of granola, for instance, the superdelegates could have overridden the will of the people.

Which brings me to the general election: the way presidential elections were originally set up in the US constitution, we don’t actually vote for president: we vote for a guy who’ll go over to Washington, find out who the best candidate is, and vote on our behalf. In many states, electors are not bound by the popular vote and can, in principle, vote against whomever the people chose: so-called faithless electors. Apparently there have been two of them since 2000.

But this election feels different. Trump is not your run-of-the-mill Bad Candidate. Even high-profile Republican insiders consider him not just suboptimal, but unacceptable, even dangerous. So I wonder whether we’ll see any faithless electors in January.

In practice, it probably (hopefully!) won’t be necessary: if Clinton wins in the standard way, the electors will be able to go about their voting as usual, in relative obscurity and irrelevance. But if Trump wins, there’s that safety valve. It’s also possible that he’ll lose, and throw an epic temper tantrum such that not even the electors will want anything to do with him, and might change their votes in protest.

As usual, when dealing with predictions, I expect to be proven wrong about a lot of this. I’m not psychic, you know.

Massachusetts Passes Electoral Reform; Right Wing Freaks Out

Yesterday, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law changing the way its electoral votes will be allotted. This is part of a movement to switch to direct election of US presidents by popular vote.

The idea is that each state’s electors will vote for whichever candidate wins the popular vote. But this law will not take effect until enough other states have passed similar laws. So far, five states have done so: Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, and Washington.

Makes sense, right? One person, one vote is how we elect senators and representatives, school board members, and so forth, and it seems to work fairly well.

But, of course, there may be arguments against it. The Boston Globe quotes an opponent of the measure as saying,

“The thing about this that bothers me the most is it’s so sneaky. This is the way that liberals do things a lot of times, very sneaky,” he said. “This is sort of an end run around the Constitution.”

Cogent, well thought out, and well articulated. All except the part between quotation marks.

Okay, maybe the bit about “end run around the Constitution” carries some weight. The most obvious way to change the way presidents are elected would be to amend the constitution. But that would require two thirds of the states to ratify it, and this project seeks to achieve substantively the same effect without as much trouble, one state at a time.

A glance at the comments at Free Republic elaborates on why this law is a bad idea. Apparently the main argument is that it happened in Massachusetts and other states that went for Obama in the last election, and since liberals sank the Titanic, killed Davy Crockett at the Alamo, and tempted Eve in the garden of Eden, everything they do is automatically tainted with evil.

Another argument is that Massachusetts is foolish for passing this law, since it means that if a majority of Massachusettsans vote one way, but a majority of the rest of the country votes another, then Massachusetts’s electors will vote differently from the people in their state.

Um, yeah. That’s pretty much the idea. But apparently some people have a hard time wrapping their head around this. Some of the people making this argument show signs of not having read enough of the article to realize that this law will only kick in if states with a total of 270 electoral votes all do the same thing. These people are also often under the impression that Sarah Palin can get a majority of votes in 2012.

Others appear to be under the impression that if this passes, only the populous states will matter, and that smaller states will be taken completely out of play. I’m guessing that this arises from some idea that since California and New York reliably vote Democratic, that everyone in those states votes the same way. In fact, a look at a county-by-county map of the 2008 election shows what I thought everyone already knew: that every state has both Democratic and Republican voters.

In fact, this plan would make states like California and yes, even Massachusetts worth campaigning in for Republicans. Maryland is solidly Democratic, but that’s mainly because of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Outside of that area, people are a lot more conservative. (Of course, by the same token, Democrats would want to campaign in Austin and Little Rock.)

Under the present system, my vote is taken for granted by both major parties: the Republicans don’t want to tailor their platform to win my vote because they know they won’t get Maryland. And the Democrats can afford to take Maryland for granted because it’s not like it’s going to suddenly turn red. The end result is that elections are settled by a handful of swing states.

If the president were elected by popular vote, then a hundred votes in downtown Baltimore would be just as valuable as a hundred votes in rural Kansas, so all fifty states would be in play. (Actually, I’ve heard enough horror stories from friends in Missouri and other battleground states that I might come to regret what I just wrote. I think the saying “be careful what you wish for” applies here.)

One nightmare scenario I saw mentioned was that one-person-one-vote would lead to “mob rule”. Meaning, presumably, that if a majority of people wanted a certain person to be president, that’s who would be chosen. Of course, these are the same people who defended California’s decision to strip millions of people of their right to marry the one they love by calling it “the will of the people”.

I suppose that popular elections could skew toward city residents. On one hand, this is perfectly fair, given that there are more people living in urban than in rural areas. But there might be concern that only cities would be worth campaigning in, and both parties would ignore rural areas.

Of course, as I mentioned before, a vote in the city would still be worth as much as a vote in the country, and the fact that there might be as many people in a Manhattan block as in a hundred square miles in Nebraska doesn’t change that. This is reflected in the fact that advertising space and time (and other dimensions that advertisers may have discovered) are more expensive in more densely-populated areas. If the market is efficient, then reaching a hundred Manhattanites costs as much as reaching a hundred Kansans. Then again, my gut feeling (I don’t have any numbers to back this up) is that advertising is cheaper per person in Manhattan than in rural Kansas. Population density does come with economies; for instance, you don’t need a car to stuff leaflets under a hundred doors in Manhattan. Of course, if this makes cities more attractive to political parties, then advertisers will notice, and the market can sort things out.

But all in all, I get the impression that a lot of conservatives have a hard time distinguishing “what’s good for me” from “what’s good for the country”. That, and a fetishistic attachment to having things be the way they were in the olden days, back when travel and communications were difficult, and women and brown people couldn’t vote.

Minimal Electoral Map

During a discussion on whether the electoral college is still a good idea, someone brought up the point that it’s possible to win the electoral vote but lose the popular vote, and pretty badly at that.

So I wrote a Perl script that used evolutionary computation to try to produce the most skewed electoral map possible. Here’s what it came up with:

Electoral Vote

(click to embiggen)

Continue reading “Minimal Electoral Map”