Electoral College Misinformation

Joe Biden, under the guidance of the Democratic Party, won the battle of the swing states, most likely due to ballot harvesting in urban districts in the states of PA, WI, MI, GA, AZ and NV.  This strategy was legitimized by the electoral boards of these states and enabled by relaxed mail-in ballot rules blamed on a pandemic. Thus, it was a legal, if cynical, electoral strategy. We should expect no less from our political parties.

But now there is a concerted effort to solidify urban liberal gains under Biden by changing the electoral system and also the operation of the Senate. Here we will discuss the selective misinformation propagating across the urban media concerning the Electoral College system.

Specific counter-arguments in red.

Why Getting the Most Votes Matters

(Actually, it doesn’t matter as much as this author thinks.)

December 13, 2020

As the 538 members of the Electoral College gather on Monday to carry out their constitutional duty and officially elect Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as his vice president, we are confronted again with the jarring reminder that it could easily have gone the other way. We came within a hairbreadth of re-electing a man who finished more than seven million votes behind his opponent — and we nearly repeated the shock of 2016, when Donald Trump took office after coming in a distant second in the balloting. (Sorry, it was not a distant second, nor was it even second. See voting data analysis here.)

No other election in the country is run like this. But why not? (Because it is a national election across a large diverse population spread over a large land mass consisting of a compact of semi-sovereign states. At local and state levels we can and do use simple majority voting.) That question has been nagging at me for the past few years, particularly in the weeks since Election Day, as I’ve watched with morbid fascination the ludicrous effort by Mr. Trump and his allies to use the Electoral College to subvert the will of the majority of American voters and overturn an election that he lost. (A POTUS election is won or lost in the Electoral College and the popular vote does NOT confirm the common will of the people by definition.) 

The obvious answer is that, for the most part, we abide by the principle of majority rule. From the time we are old enough to count, we are taught that the bigger number beats the smaller number. It is the essence of fairness. (If this were true we would not need a Bill of Rights amended to our Constitution.) It dictates outcomes in all areas of life, from politics to sports to cattle auctions. It’s decisive even in institutions whose purpose is to serve as a buffer against the majority. (And that would include the Electoral College and the Senate.)

“Take the Supreme Court,” said Akhil Amar, a constitutional scholar at Yale Law School. “No one thinks that when it’s 5 to 4, the four win and the five lose. Everyone understands that five beats four. It goes without saying.” (Absurd reductionist argument – the SCOTUS process involves 9 votes, not 150+ million.)

But the principle is especially important in elections. Why? Boil it down to three pillars of democratic self-governance: equality, legitimacy and accountability. We ignore them at our peril. And yet they are being ignored right now by millions of Americans, not to mention hundreds of high-ranking elected officials of one of our two major political parties. (Another false assumption. A voting system is merely an imperfect inference of the common will. All voting systems are biased, so the electoral rules try to minimize these bias errors.)

It occurred to me that in this moment, a defense of the concept of majority rule can no longer go without saying. (If it was an honest defense.)

First, and most fundamental: Majority rule is the only rule that treats all people as political equals. (False. Majority rule merely allows the majority to dominate the minority. Whether that is acceptable or not depends on other factors.) “That’s actually enormously important,” said Richard Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan law school. Any other rule inevitably treats certain votes as worth more than others. Sometimes that’s what we want, as when we require criminal juries to be unanimous in voting to convict. In that case, “there is one error that we prefer to the other error,” Mr. Primus said. “We want to make false convictions very difficult, much more rare than false acquittals.” (But this idea that all votes are not equal is specious. One cannot apply a national population weighting to the EC and then claim it is unequal. All votes for POTUS have equal weight within the states they are cast. That is how our Republic works because we are not “one nation” like France, we are a union of 50 semi-sovereign states and the national governing system is designed to balance large populous states with small less populous states. That’s why we have a bicameral national legislature and rejected simple majority voting for our national leader. Also, in reality, due to winner-take-all rules a minority of voters in large states like CA, NY and TX wield a disproportionate influence over the national outcome. That should be corrected by considering proportional representation of state electors. In other words, only 60% of CA, TX and NY EC votes should be cast for the winner of those states. Let’s see how the parties like that.) 

But in an election for the president, he said, there is no “morally relevant criterion” for departing from majority rule. Voters in one part of the country are no wiser or more worthy than voters in another. And yet the votes of those in certain states always matter more. “What could possibly justify that?” Mr. Primus asked. (Again, the geographic distribution of voting preferences is highly relevant to the process. If one takes a look at this distribution across the history of our national elections, the differences are obvious and significant for national politics. We ignore this to our great misunderstanding of our politics today. We are a sea of red dotted with islands of blue. We cannot let one or the other dominate by design.)

This is not just an abstract numerical concern. When people’s votes are treated as unequal, it’s a short jump to treating people as unequal. Put another way, it’s not enough to say that we’re all equal before the law; we also must be able to have an equal say in the choice of the representatives who make and enforce the laws. (False assumptions lead to false conclusions.)

There is a second reason majority rule is critical: It bestows legitimacy on the system. A representative government only works when its citizens see the electoral process as fair. When that legitimacy is absent, when people perceive — often accurately — that their vote doesn’t matter, they will eventually reject the system. (There’s nothing legitimate about it. Legitimacy is conferred by a social compact and social contract as stipulated in our national Constitution. It is not conferred by what the majority think they want.)

“If we’re going to rule ourselves, we’re going to be ruled by majorities,” said Astra Taylor, an author and democracy activist. “There’s a stability in that idea. There’s a sense of the people deciding for themselves and buying in. That stability is incredibly valuable. The alternative is one in which we’re being ruled by something which is outside of us, whether a dictator or a technocracy or an algorithm.” (No. We decide according to a national compromise. Simple majority violates that national compromise to favor one particular constituency.)

Finally, majority rule ensures electoral accountability. As the economist Amartya Sen put it, democracies don’t have famines. A government that doesn’t have to earn the support of a majority of its citizens, or at least a plurality, is not truly accountable to them, and has no incentive to represent their interests or provide for their needs. This opens the door to neglect, corruption and abuse of power. (Talk to the millions of Californians ignored by President Trump during wildfire season.) “If someone has to run for re-election, they have to put attention into running things well,” Mr. Amar said. “If they don’t, they will lose elections.” (Simple majority rule would mean that the government is only accountable to that majority and no one else. The Bill of Rights be damned?)

The benefits of majority rule aren’t just a preoccupation for liberals like me, still stewing over the elections of 2000 and 2016. On election night 2012, when it appeared briefly that Mitt Romney might win the national popular vote but not the Electoral College, Donald Trump tweeted, “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.” A little while later, he tweeted, “More votes equals a loss … revolution!”

He deleted that second one, but he needn’t have. He was only expressing a gut feeling everyone can recognize: The person who gets the most votes should win. If you doubt that, consider that the essence of the case Mr. Trump and his backers are making in every state where they are challenging the result is that the president won more votes than Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump made the same argument in 2016, when he lost the popular vote by nearly three million, yet insisted that he had actually won it “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

That both claims are laughably false is beside the point. Mr. Trump knows that in a democracy, real legitimacy comes from winning more votes than the other guy (or woman).

(What President Trump thinks is irrelevant. He is a politician and all politicians favor what serves their political ambitions.)

Of course, everyone is a fan of majority rule until they realize they can win without it. (Which is exactly why we need a more defensible principled position on social choice, not one that favors one group/party over another.) In the last 20 years, Republicans have been gifted the White House while losing the popular vote twice, and it came distressingly close to happening for a third time this year. So it’s no surprise that in that period, the commitment of Republicans to majority rule, along with other democratic norms, has plummeted. A report by an international team of political scientists found a steep drop in Republican support for things like free and fair elections, and the respectful treatment of political opponents. The party’s rhetoric “is closer to authoritarian parties” in Eastern Europe, the report found. (Here, again, Mr. Wegman tries to make this a partisan issue. In 1960 Republicans opposed the EC, since 2000, Democrats have opposed it. Both are speaking to their electoral interests, not principle.)

For modern Republicans, democracy has become a foreign language. “We’re not a democracy,” Senator Mike Lee of Utah tweeted in October, in what has become a disturbingly common refrain among conservatives. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” (In spite of his word choice, Rep. Lee is correct. Simple majority democracy is the proper term.)

Notice how, in Mr. Lee’s telling, “democracy” morphs into “rank democracy.” What does he mean by “rank democracy”? Presumably, what James Madison referred to as direct or “pure” democracy, the form of self-rule in which people vote directly on the laws that govern them. But there is no such thing as “rank democracy” when it comes to elections. The term is nothing more than a modern Republican euphemism for majority rule. (More partisan bias.)

Speaking of the founders, Republicans love to invoke them in support of their stiff-arming of democracy. Perhaps they forgot what those founders actually said.

“The fundamental maxim of republican government,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 22, “requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.”

(The Founders were not fools. Mr. Wegman tries to interpret their meaning to serve his own. Hamilton’s “sense of the majority” refers to the need for a national mandate to lead the nation – not a voting rule. Madison refers specifically to “republican government,” which is exactly what the EC serves.)

James Madison, who is often cited for his warnings about the threats of popular majorities, changed his tune after spending several decades watching the American system of government he designed play out in practice. “No government of human device and human administration can be perfect,” Madison wrote in 1834. But republican government is “the best of all governments, because the least imperfect,” and “the vital principle of republican government is … the will of the majority.”

Thomas Jefferson, in his first Inaugural Address, said the “sacred principle” is that “the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail.” In the same breath he emphasized that political minorities also have rights that require protection. Those protections exist in the design of our government and in the guarantees of the Constitution, as applied by the courts. The point is that minorities can be protected at the same time that majorities elect leaders to represent us in the first place.

(Again, Jefferson refers to the “will of the majority” but the popular vote does not necessarily indicate that ‘will’ as it applies across the national compact of states. The common will is inferred by the voting system, not defined by it. In our system we balance the depth of support (concentrated in population centers) with the breadth of that support across 50 states (the EC tally).)

Joe Biden will be the next president because he won the Electoral College. But he should really have the job because he won the most votes.

On the larger scales of history and justice, I find the arguments presented here rather odd. The settlement and development of the vast plains of the midwest are what made the USA the most powerful and richest national experiment in history. Compare this to the experience of Argentina. The USA and Argentina were similarly blessed with geography and natural resources, settled by Europeans, and were quite similar in endowments. Yet Argentinian policies did not open up the land to the larger population through homesteading and transportation networks, so the wealth became concentrated among a few privileged large landowners. No vibrant middle class was created. In contrast, the policies pursued by our national development created a middle class and an interdependent market economy that has become the envy of the world. China today is deliberately trying to engineer the same. Yet, our urban sophisticates want to discount the political preferences of “flyover country” and denigrate those preferences as the ignorance of the “deplorables.” I can imagine nothing so dangerous to our national unity.

I also find it bizarre that urban political advocates extoll the protection of minority rights, but then disregard such when addressing the national electoral system. Imagine, if you can, that the entire majority white population lived in the urban metro areas of the country while the non-white population was scattered across the rest of the country’s land mass. Would urban liberals be content to allow the urban white majority to dominate national democratic politics merely because they outnumbered the others? Would this be a blatant case of “white privilege”? Yet, when we simply classify people as urban vs. non-urban–which happens to correlate highly with how they vote, whether black, white, male or female–suddenly the tyranny of an urban majority is perfectly acceptable? That rationalization directly violates our understanding of liberty and justice.

No, the National Popular Vote does not define a free and just democracy.

A more circumspect analysis of our national politics would reveal that our current dysfunction is not the fault of the electoral system, but caused by our partisan polarization by geography and population density. This is a battle between urban blues and non-urban reds that cannot be won by either side without threatening the unity of the whole. We should sober up and keep that in mind. Our national media does us no service by distorting this fact.

Why I Shorted Hillary Clinton

Six months before the election.

In the six odd weeks since the Nov. 8 election, the news media has presented a chaotic post-mortem of what exactly happened in this election. Mostly, they are focused on the unfathomable: how did Hillary Clinton lose? Sexism? Comey? Russian hackers? Putin?

But a number of election analysts saw the problems of a Clinton candidacy from afar. In the spring of 2015, I personally told a group of Silicon Valley liberals that Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could choose in the current anti-establishment political climate. Democrats and Republicans alike were openly lamenting even the idea of another Bush-Clinton election.

More damning was the hard electoral evidence already out there on the Democratic agenda under Obama: the loss of the House and Senate, and more than a dozen governorships and state legislatures. How could these facts be ignored? I have discovered in our polarized politics that people don’t really listen to reason, they merely believe. And then they are faced with disbelief at the outcomes. (Scott Adams calls it cognitive dissonance.)

For most of 2015, the primary season was unclear, though most expected the party choices of Clinton vs. Rubio, Walker, Christie, or Bush would play out. Certainly very few–neither myself nor anybody I know–gave Trump even a remote chance of gaining the nomination. The GOP field of intended candidates became a parlor joke of seventeen dwarves crowding the stage. Liberals could not believe any of these could match up to Hillary on the national stage. They reverted to praising her extended political resume, as if that mattered. (Obama, for instance, probably had the shortest resume in modern presidential history.)

I maintained that Hillary had the highest negatives of any possible Democratic nominee and that after this became apparent following the DNC in August, panic would set in. I was off by a month because of someone nobody saw coming: Donald Trump.

After the first few primaries, Trump’s success gave new life to the fantasies Democrats were spinning. After all, Trump had the highest negatives of any candidate in modern history. At the time I tended to agree that a face-off between Clinton and Trump was a bit of a wild card and that by conventional politics, Clinton would seem to be favored. On the Republican side, opinion pollsters and media pundits all discounted Trump’s chances, but his primary wins rolled on. It was about March when I had the epiphany that past history was no guide to the future – this time was different. The anti-establishment wave that had been building since 2000 had finally begun to crest over “politics as usual.”

Ignoring this anomaly, liberals actually began to desire Trump to be the Republican nominee and conservatives secretly wondered if he wasn’t a Clinton shill. But still, I suspected none of what Trump did would accrue to Clinton’s benefit in this election cycle. It was in March, after observing the odd traction of Bernie Sanders, that I laid some wagers betting against a Clinton presidency (note, not FOR Trump or any other nominee, but solely against Clinton for the Democrats). Part of the reason was I felt the confidence of Clinton supporters was emotionally driven, so I got incredible odds that made the bet a no-brainer: 10 to 1, when the betting lines were closer to 4 to 1. I could have laid off this bet on the other side and enjoyed a riskless arbitrage, but I was fairly convinced, as a political scientist who had studied the data on the last 4 presidential elections, that any Clinton-Trump contest would be pretty much a toss-up and I liked the risk-return payoff.

When Trump’s support seemed to be bleeding working-class union voters from the Rust Belt, I was more convinced. But not my liberal Democrat friends. They cited endless poll numbers to support their beliefs, trusting in data from 538. I merely asked that since the polls, including those by 538, had been wrong for almost 9 months, why exactly should they be accurate now? Then they resorted to Electoral College math, but I replied that swing states with slim margins can flip rather easily. A month to two weeks before the election, with Clinton enjoying a 3-6 point lead in the polls I offered to double-down on my wagers against Clinton but got no takers. Apparently, confidence was growing a bit shaky. Trump support never seemed to go away despite the bashing he received in the media.

On Nov. 7, a friend who trusted my objectivity asked me who I thought would win. I said, although traditional measures point to a narrow Clinton win, traditional measures have failed and thus the outcome was still a 50-50 toss-up in my mind. I definitely liked my bet. On Nov. 9, we woke up to a new political reality, but the point is that we should all have seen it coming.

Here is a quote from the Economist assessing the election:

Republicans have long held the edge in America’s wide-open spaces, but never has the gap been this profound: a whopping 80% of voters who have over one square mile (2.6 square km) of land to enjoy to themselves backed Mr Trump. As the scatter plot below demonstrates, as counties become increasingly densely populated, fewer and fewer vote Republican. American politics appear to be realigning along a cleavage between inward-looking countryfolk and urban globalists.

The problem here (see italics) is that this tension in American politics is nothing new. In fact, it’s more than 200 years old. Regional differences have always existed but have become acute at certain times in our history. The urban-rural polarization is particularly sharp today because the parties have divvied up the polity with targeted policies: Democrats target identity groups that mostly live in urban areas and Republicans target everybody else (see this 2006 op-ed on the 2000/04 elections). The divide is compounded by urban media that targets political biases to its main audience: urban liberals. So urban media elites told their liberal urban audiences what they wanted to hear, rather than objective truth. I’m sure liberal reporters like E.J. Dionne, Juan Williams, Meet The Press, the NY Times op-ed page, etc., believed it themselves.

So, now the disillusioned are catching up with reality. Here’s Conan O’Brien stating the obvious:

“I really believe nobody knows anything right now,” says Conan O’Brien. “I really think the whole mantra that everyone must have, not just in this medium but in the world in general, is that no one knows anything.” Trump’s victory has landed a blow to the country’s notions of certainty. “I would say we’re not seeing the death of certainty,” O’Brien said. “But certainty has taken a holiday right now.” Plenty of certainty, now discarded, was generated in 2016. Our cozy silos of belief and customized group assumptions gave us our most brutal campaign in years. “Everyone has their own street corner,” O’Brien said.

As I stated above, partisan preferences have become less about reasoned policies and compromises and more about pure belief systems. Facts that don’t fit beliefs get tossed aside. If you believe Hillary lost because of Putin, or Comey, or sexism, or racism, or Electoral College math, you’re sinking into quicksand of your own making. Winning a majority of almost 85% of the 3141 counties across the nation is a significant statistical feat that can’t be explained by any single factor. From where I sat it had little to do with Trump, who merely road the wave. Rural and suburban America can never be dismissed by either party. Hillary Clinton was the weakest candidate in the post-war era, by far. If I could see it, so could you.*

*BTW, I’m not clairvoyant or particularly gifted with political genius. Using traditional electoral measures I bet on Romney over Obama for an easy win in 2012. But we can learn from our mistakes.