Posts Tagged ‘Electoral college’

The Thinker

Preventing future presidents Nixon and Trump

In my sixty-one years I have watched two disastrous presidencies implode. Nixon’s ended in an abrupt resignation following the Watergate scandal. Trump’s implosion is currently underway. It’s unclear how it’s going to end, but I’m reasonably confident he won’t survive a first term. It’s also unclear if our nation will too, at least in its form where branches of government keep a check on each other, which is already not happening.

Both Nixon’s and Trump’s presidencies qualify as national crises. Over the decades too much power has shifted toward the Executive and Congress has largely failed in its role to check the Executive’s power. Moreover, because the presidency has become so powerful, it attracts people drawn to power including people who should really not be president. Trump is the obvious poster child.

Given that about forty years spanned Nixon and Trump, it’s not too hard to predict that if nothing changes we’ll endure another disastrous presidency within a few decades.

One way of checking executive power has already been enacted: we passed the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to no more than two terms. Unfortunately, eight years gives presidents plenty of time to muck of the mechanics of government.

Time is revealing some flaws in our constitutional system. How do we fix things? These suggestions range from the idealistic and unlikely to the practical. They don’t necessarily guarantee another Nixon or Trump but make them less likely. Of course I am hardly the first one to suggest some of these solutions.

Elect a national attorney general. Many states do this already. It allows the people to decide who should impartially administer our laws. Being a constitutional office, this person could not be fired by the president but would take an oath to impartially administer the laws of the United States and would be in charge of managing the Justice Department. Because presidential election years are too consequential, I propose we elect an attorney general during midterm election years. The term would be for four years. Nixon and Trump demonstrate that you can’t count on a president to ensure that justice is fairly administered, particularly when the Justice Department has to look into the executive branch. The executive needs its hands constitutionally tied from managing the impartial administration of justice.

Get rid of the Electoral College. Presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Of course, twice recently it didn’t happen. Had Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who won the popular votes) become president, it’s unlikely that we would have invaded Iraq or had to worry about a lawless chief executive. Obviously a constitutional amendment is a steep climb given that it’s not in red states’ interests. Still, initiatives like the National Popular Vote would guarantee electoral votes to the popular vote winner nationwide by committing a state to assign all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. These state laws are written to take effect only when enough states that comprise a majority of the electoral votes pass state laws. 12 states are currently onboard representing 172 electoral votes. We need states comprising 98 more electoral votes to make this a reality. No, it’s not unconstitutional because the constitution empowers states on how they wish to apportion their Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner take all system.

Require presidential candidates release their tax returns to get on the ballot. The constitutionality of some proposed state efforts has been questioned, which is probably while this has been introduced in a few state legislatures it hasn’t passed in any. However, Congress could pass such a law with no issues. Obviously, this has been a problem with Trump, who still claims the IRS is auditing his returns, which is false. Even if it were true, there is no law prohibiting a candidate from releasing his tax returns while being under audit.

Split the presidency into two positions: head of state and chief executive. Arguably the U.S. president has too much power, as he/she is both the head of state and the chief executive. As a practical matter, doing both competently is virtually impossible. Most other democracies split these duties. For example, Israel elects a president that represents the nation but has few powers, but can speak for the nation. Its prime minister is the chief executive. Great Britain has the Queen as its head of state. Presidents tend to be politicians, not statesmen. We need both, not one or the other. The head of state should be the moral voice of the country. They too could be elected in “off” years.

Decentralize first-use of nuclear weapons. It’s quite frightening that Donald Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons against any country he wants at any time, given his impulsive nature documented in Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear. In general, this is a dangerous power with massive implications for the nation. Congress should pass a law that prohibits the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States without the consent of Congress. Since such a decision might clue in potential adversaries, such a decision should require agreement by the president, Speaker of the House and both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.

Reinstate the full Voting Rights Act. We need a law that explicitly overturns Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The case removed constrains on certain mostly southern states with a history of suppressing minority votes from enacting voter laws without a preclearance from the Justice Department. If we want to be non-discriminatory, make all states get preclearances. When a day after this decision, Alabama passed a Voter ID law you know this will be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Obviously I am against political or racial gerrymandering. I would like to see federal voting districts drawn impartially by federal judges, as is true in most republican forms of government. This effects the composition of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, so it’s off topic here. It has no effect on the national popular vote for president.

 
The Thinker

The tyranny of the minority

I’ve written so much about our gun problem in the nearly fifteen years my blog has been around that I pretty much have said it all. In a sense this week’s rampage that killed 59 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas was fated to happen.

Sensible people wonder why we can’t seem to do anything about it, given that sensible gun control legislation is supported by a majority of Americans. It’s easy to say it’s because the NRA owns enough legislators to keep it from happening. In reality it’s a symptom of a much larger and possibly intractable problem: the tyranny of the minority.

It’s so big a problem that it is hard to see. I confess I did not fully understand its dimensions until I read this op-ed in the Washington Post by E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. While the op-ed talks about gun control, its implications are staggering. It explains why according to a recent poll only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. In this country the tail wags the dog.

The tail in this case is rural states. Remember that in the Senate all states are equal. So Montana with roughly one million people in it has the same clout in the Senate as California, which has 39 million people. Ending the Senate’s filibuster rule would likely make the tyranny of the minority even worse. As the author’s point out:

Ending the filibuster would not solve the problem; in some cases, it might aggravate it. As The Post’s Philip Bump has noted, if all 50 senators from the 25 smallest states voted for a bill and Vice President Pence cast his lot with them, senators representing just 16 percent of Americans could overrule those representing 84 percent.

We have a federalist system. In theory each state within our union is an independent nation. Each state has voluntarily ceded some of its sovereignty to the federal government. The Senate is the institution that recognizes this sovereignty by making each state equal within the body. In short, the Senate has a rural bias. In the beginning the difference did not mean too much. But as new states emerged the implications became clear. For example, at one time there was to be a state called Dakota. The people living there realized though that they could double their impact by applying for recognition as two states: North Dakota and South Dakota even though the two states are very homogenous.

The depressing part is that there is almost nothing we can do to change the Senate. It would take a constitutional convention. It’s hard to see why rural states would voluntarily relinquish more of their power to make the system more “fair” so a majority could actually govern. It takes two-thirds of states to call for a constitutional convention (34 states). Twenty-eight states have already called for such a convention. Since most states represent rural populations, a constitutional convention would likely rewrite the constitution to give rural states even more power, furthering the tyranny of the minority.

Gerrymandering is the other aspect of the tyranny of the minority. Gerrymandering though is a bit different. It empowers pluralities rather than minorities within a state. For example, Texas is a conservative state in general. By creating highly partisan voting districts, Texas has created districts where a plurality of conservatives in the district are more conservative than normal, and minority districts are more liberal than normal.

Those most affected by gerrymandering are not necessarily minorities, although onerous voter ID laws certainly depress minority participation in elections. As I pointed out before, moderates are the biggest losers in gerrymandered states.

The impact of gerrymandering is easy to see in Congress but also in state legislatures. It is feeding partisanship in these chambers because there are so few moderates to form a sensible center, making compromise increasingly unlikely. This more than anything else probably explains why only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. Essentially we’ve “elected” legislators that vote against the interests of a majority of their citizens. Curiously, it is this frustration at not being heard that fed the rise of Donald Trump. Citizens seem to want someone to change the status quo and shake things up. Trump is certainly making waves, but he cannot change these fundamental mistakes in our system of government.

And that’s what they amount to: mistakes. If the decks were not already stacked against the majority, the Electoral College makes it worse, leading to presidents who lose the popular vote by three million votes (Trump).

The irony of all this is that those calling for a constitutional convention amount to rural states that want more power. They already have the nation by its scrotum. They don’t have complete control. The president is generally elected by a majority of its citizens, but recent elections in 2000 and 2016 suggest an emerging trend of presidents losing the popular vote but still winning the election.

Some states like Texas sound like they want to secede from the Union. In reality rural and southern states have it good. Overall they consume more federal revenue than they contribute, a product of many decades of these states having disproportionate power in Congress. Secession would actually be a huge problem for them, as they would have to live within their own means. Right now red states are sucking blue states for their wealth and prosperity.

If states are going to secede, logically it should be blue states with large populations and thriving economies, states like California and New York. A couple red and purple states also meet these criteria. Texas has a large population and is thriving. Florida and Virginia also likely apply. More minor states like New Jersey, Ohio and Minnesota would also meet these criteria. I do have to wonder how long supposedly sovereign states like California will put up with this system where they are handicapped and bled dry, with much of their wealth going to other less prosperous states.

Imagine if states like California and New York when on strike, refusing to pay federal taxes until the system is fairer to the majority. Maybe something would change, but most likely it would cause massive national disharmony. And that’s the real problem here: our constitutional framework largely keeps the majority from wielding its clout. That’s why 59 people died and over were 500 injured in Las Vegas by a crazed shooter on the 38th floor of a hotel and nothing will change: because the minority has the nation by the scrotum.

You have to look hard for signs of hope. The Supreme Court is considering a case of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. In the past the court has been hands-off. Is the gerrymandering in Wisconsin so egregious that they will take action? If they do (and it’s unlikely) it will be around the edges of the problem. If political gerrymandering can be ruled unconstitutional then there is hope that at least in the House and in state assemblies will generally represent their constituents again.

What the op-ed suggested to me is that as bad as our dysfunctional government is at the moment, it’s likely to get a lot worse. The tensions are there for a lot more Las Vegas-like shootings. It’s hard to see but the fabric of our democracy is shredding. Moreover there are few ways we can come together and solve the problem because there are so few people willing to admit there is even a problem, or that it’s in the interest of the minority to cede some of its power to the majority.

If civil war is in our future, it might well come from blue states. They, not red states, are the ones getting shafted.

 
The Thinker

Mitt Romney for president

Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential candidate, was in my dreams last night, and in a good way. Dreams are all about fantasy, and in my dreamy dreamland Mitt became of 45th president and I was ecstatic. I was ecstatic not because I am particularly happy with the idea of Mitt being our next president. I just like the idea of Mitt being president a whole lot more than Donald Trump.

But you are thinking: didn’t we just elect Donald Trump to be our 45th president? That is horribly true unless a number of highly improbable events occur on or before December 19.

In the first scenario, Trump inconveniently dies or gets assassinated before inauguration. Given that he is obese and over 70, it’s not impossible some medical issue will unexpectedly fell him.

In the second scenario, it’s possible that those recounts underway in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania will succeed. If Clinton somehow wins these states after all, she becomes our 45th president. This would be fine with the 65.5 million people who voted for her, currently 2.7 million more than voted for Donald Trump (and rising).

In the third scenario, 37 electors pledged to Donald Trump defect and vote for someone else instead. This would give Donald Trump 269 electoral votes, not enough to win, but throwing the decision on who would be the next president to the U.S. House of Representatives. That would not work because each state gets one vote and they would have to choose from the top three vote getters. And since most states are Republican, it’s pretty clear Trump would still win.

Then there’s the Hamilton electors scenario where disgruntled Republican and Democratic electors collude and pick a compromise candidate. This would have to be done before December 19, when the electors meet in their state capitals. In this scenario, admittedly very wacky, Mitt Romney might be their compromise choice. If they hang together and wield their 270 (or more) votes, Mitt would be #45. These faithless electors might face prosecution in many states, but free legal help has been pledged for those electors that put the good of the country first. A handful of electors have already openly stated they will be faithless. (Unfortunately, a number are pledged to Hillary Clinton.)

Obviously all these scenarios are pretty far fetched (to say the least) but they at least had me feeling better at 4 a.m. this morning when I could not get back to sleep after another Trump-as-president nightmare woke me up. In my dreams I kept seeing Mitt’s clean-shaven face and Reaganesque hair. I also kept hearing his calm voice and grammatically correct sentences. The nice thing about Mitt though is he both looks and acts presidential. And he’s a white male, which is very important to Trump’s supporters. You just can’t see Mitt flying off the handle or sending out 3 a.m. tweets. You know that in spite of his prejudices that he’s a sober and respectful guy.

As president, Romney would follow the rule of law probably with obsessive faithfulness. He would make sound judgments. He would consult with politicians and other governments before making any major decisions and probably try to govern by consensus. Yes, he might appoint conservative jurists. But when it came to things like Obamacare, he would be mindful of the implications of getting rid of it. After all it’s based on Romney-care here in Massachusetts. In short, Mitt has a brain, a conscience and is driven by forces greater than simply his own ego like, say, God, with whom Trump has but passing interest.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen. As we watch Trump put together his administration, it’s pretty much a horror show. His own supporters should be appalled, given that he is appointing masters of Wall Street to many key positions. It’s mostly a cabinet of white guys with undertones of racism, but he managed to convince Ben Carson to be his Housing and Urban Development secretary, quite a stretch for a guy whose only qualification for the job is that he lived in public housing as a child. His proposed administration is rife with not just bad, but catastrophically bad choices. His national security adviser tweets fake news stories. His choice for U.N. ambassador is a woman (good) but right now is the governor of South Carolina whose foreign policy experience might consist of greeting visiting trade delegations to the state (bad). His EPA choice is explicitly hostile to the agency’s mission (WTF?)

And where is Mitt in all this? Mitt has met with Trump a number of times, and is being considered as Secretary of State. If he gets this nomination, he would be one of Trump’s few good choices. It’s not that he has much foreign policy experience, other than helping to manage the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. But he has a good grasp of foreign policy, as he demonstrated in the 2012 campaign.

My suspicion though is that Mitt is being toyed with. Trump is notorious for holding grudges, and Mitt was particularly outspoken against Trump when he was running for the GOP nomination. Trump likes to, well, trump other people: show his power and superiority and then find a way to humiliate someone as thoroughly as possible. Getting Mitt’s hopes up and making him think he’s in the running when he is not would be much more true to his modus operandi. But we’ll see.

Still, I dream of Mitt in the Oval Office, and I find it curiously calming. When it comes to it, all I really want is a grownup in charge of the country and this means I’ve had to lower my standards tremendously. It’s abundantly clear that Trump does not qualify as a grownup, but he will sadistically enjoy shaking down and terrifying America as much as he can for as long as we are unwise enough to give him the reigns.

 
The Thinker

Election 2016 postmortem, part two

Now that the shock of Donald Trump’s election is some three weeks behind us it’s time for a second look at this astounding election. There has been misinformation about this election that time now allows us to clear up. Submitted for your consideration:

  • Trump has no mandate. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and it looks like it will be by about 2.5 percentage points and 2.5 million votes. Assuming no states flip as a result of recounts starting in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump wins the Electoral College 306 to 232. This was achieved by narrow wins in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan by 70,000, 70,000 and 17,000 votes respectively. Had Clinton won these states, she would have won 297 to 243. Trump won by turning out more people in states that mattered, but just barely. In voting terms, he just barely squeaked by. Even if there are no voting irregularities, his election is tainted. He is not the people’s choice. He is the Electoral College’s choice, which has a built in bias that favors rural states. Trump and Republicans should not read too much into this win. This would normally suggest that governing should be done through accommodation and finding middle ground. Of course, the opposite is likely to happen, so most Americans will greet his government with hostility when it dramatically overreaches because of its lack of mandate.
  • Democrats picked up seats. While Democrats failed to win majority in either the House or the Senate, they did pick up 2 or 3 Senate seats (depending on the outcome of a Louisiana runoff). In the House, Democrats picked up 6 seats. When Republicans try to ram through their agenda because they have “united” government they are likely to find that it will breed the sort of resentment that Obama and Democrats experienced after their wins in 2008. Moreover, Trump will not have a filibuster-proof Senate.
  • Republicans picked up just two governorships. Only two states (New Hampshire and Missouri) flipped from Democratic to Republican governors. The North Carolina race has still not been called, but Democrat Roy Cooper has a narrow lead that is unlikely to go away. Considering there were 8 Democratic seats and 4 Republican seats up for grabs, this is not too bad for Democrats.
  • Democrats netted 1 state chamber. Republicans took Iowa and Minnesota’s senates and Kentucky’s house. Democrats shut Republicans out of both houses in Nevada, turning it into a blue state, and flipped New Mexico and Alaska’s house chambers.
  • Republicans made modest pickups in state house and senate races. Across our fifty states, Republicans added 40 state seats and Democrats lost 41 seats. While that sounds like a lot, there are 7383 seat altogether. That’s an overall change of about .55% nationwide.

So by any standard except for the Electoral College, this was not a Republican wave election. So when you hear this pervasive line, challenge it because it is wrong. Republican gains were largely a result of doing a better job of turning out voters than Democrats did, but the result was marginal at best.

The big win (and really the only big win) that Republicans can celebrate is winning the presidency. No doubt this is a huge win and worthy of celebrating if you are a Republican. And that came from squeaking by in a number of states. This win was due entirely to the Electoral College. The wide variance in this election between the popular and the electoral vote points to what is becoming a pervasive failing of the Electoral College. It used to be highly unusual when the electoral vote was at variance with the popular vote. Now it’s becoming almost routine, given Gore’s narrow loss to Bush in 2000.

Both the U.S. House and Senate remained in Republican hands, but by somewhat diminished margins. Republicans maintain a huge lead in control of statehouses and governorships, but the margins did not change significantly in this election.

The reality is that except for the change in the party and the character of our next president, the 2016 election netted out to be very much a status quo election.

 
The Thinker

The folly of voting third-party for president

It’s post Labor Day and it’s a presidential election year. You know what that means. According to our press, it means people are now starting to seriously pay attention to the upcoming election.

I find this hard to believe. Granted that I am something of a political junkie but it must be a very, very remote corner of Appalachia that hasn’t heard the endless thoughts spewing from the mouth and Twitter feed of Donald J. Trump. He’s the mouth that has roared for over a year now. And Hillary Clinton has spent decades in the public spotlight. We all have firmly baked opinions about her.

Perhaps to stir up some excitement, the press is agog about tightening polls showing Hillary Clinton’s lead dropping. It’s still a rare poll that shows her numbers below Trump’s, at least nationally but polls are generally showing her numbers moving to within margin of error numbers. It’s clear that large majorities of Americans don’t particularly like either Clinton or Trump and wants someone else to vote for. Unsurprisingly some are looking at third party candidates instead: Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Those voters who follow through seem to want to make a statement.

And they will make a statement if they don’t mind shooting themselves in the foot. This happened to me in 1980 when I voted for John Anderson for president. I hate to say our electoral system is rigged but when it comes to the presidential vote it certain is and it’s by design. This is because an Electoral College actually votes a president into office and because 48 of the fifty states have laws that whichever candidate wins a plurality of the votes in the presidential race gets all of the state’s electoral delegates.

This means the system is rigged so as to make it virtually impossible for any candidate not in a major party to win. But it also means that if you are voting third party, you are throwing away your vote. The only exception is if your third party candidate wins a plurality of the votes in your state. And while that may garner some electoral votes for your third party candidate, a whole lot of other states have to do the same for your candidate to actually win. In short, you have to bet that both the Democratic and Republican party candidates are so dysfunctional that a wholesale national voting rebellion is going to happen, something that has never happened in our country as best I can tell and probably can’t happen now in our polarized political environment.

In practical terms, this means to a Massachusetts resident like me that if I would have otherwise voted for Hillary Clinton and I vote for Jill Stein instead, I am effectively voting for Donald Trump since it will bump up his share of the votes as a percent of the state’s votes. And if I am a non-racist Alabaman that normally votes Republican but I am so disgusted by Trump’s racism that I vote for Gary Johnson instead, I am helping elect Hillary Clinton.

In my case in 1980 as a 23-year-old voting for third party candidate John Anderson, I was effectively voting for Ronald Reagan, the last candidate I would have voted for. Fortunately in the blue-state of Maryland, it didn’t matter as Maryland’s electoral votes went for Jimmy Carter. Nationwide though John Anderson took 6.6% of the popular vote. Conceivably had Anderson not run and those votes had gone to Carter instead (as research suggests) then that election would at least have been a lot closer. Carter lost by nearly 10% of the popular vote but where it matters, he received only 49 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Reagan’s election was a landslide by any standards, thanks probably to John Anderson’s spoiler effect. As bad as that was the 1984 election was worse. Walter Mondale garnered only 13 electoral votes (his home state of Minnesota and Washington D.C.) Reagan got the rest (525) and that was with no serious third party opposition. For a more recent event that shows the folly of voting third party, look at the 2000 election. Had the Green Party votes in Florida gone to Al Gore, there would have been no President George W. Bush.

Trump is right that the presidential voting system is rigged, but it’s always been that way. The Electoral College mess was designed by our founding fathers to get a commitment from southern states at the time the constitution was ratified. Without it, southern states would have probably never been able to elect a president. With slaves counting as 2/3 of a free person for a state’s share of electoral votes, with a few exceptions (like John Adams) for decades it made it virtually impossible for a non-southerner to become president.

So hopefully I’ve convinced you not to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. If still not convinced, consider that the Green Party and Libertarian Party are minority parties because their views are simply not mainstream views. I find a lot to admire about the Green Party but it’s a party of ideologues, not a party of pragmatists. For example, GMO foods are not going away and it’s folly at this time to try. Libertarians are easy to dismiss because it is wholly unworkable. Imagine selling all our roads, sewers and schools. Imagine no laws against pollution. It would be an unmanageable nightmare.

Which leaves you dear voter ultimately holding your nose while you vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. (I realize there are some voters, particularly Trump voters who are actually enthusiastic about their candidate. Weird.) The other option is not to vote, but not voting is effectively the same as voting third party. You will effectively give more power to those that do vote.

So suck it up for democracy. Democracy ain’t pretty sometimes and it won’t be in this election. However, you have a duty to perform so do it mindful that the system is not perfect and your candidate won’t be either. If you really want the Green or Libertarian parties to grow, you have to do it the hard way by getting local and state candidates elected. With enough of them they may become a majority party in your state. Then you will have leverage, at least on the state level. Or you can work for a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College and make it based on actual votes.

Oh, and those polls? I’m still not worried. I think Clinton is still going to win based on state polls, which are the only ones that matter. With a majority of Americans saying they will never vote for Trump, the only way that Trump wins is if a lot of those voters stay home or vote third party instead of voting for Hillary. It’s unlikely but it can happen, and it could happen this year if you don’t vote with the left side of your brain instead of the right side.

I’ll be using the left side and voting for the imperfect Hillary Clinton.

 

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