Fixing the Electoral Process

A meandering think-out-loud post.

In the aftermath of an election, it is easy to blame the system. However, the flaws in how the US Presidential system works really are appalling.

Attention is currently focused on the Electoral College. It is an almost indefensible system. Indeed one of the main defences offered simply ignores what actually happens in an election. That particular defence is that without the Electoral College presidential candidates could simply ignore the smaller states and concentrate on the big states. Practically, any system in which the popular vote mattered more would encourage campaigning in more states than currently occurs. The Democrats would benefit from votes in Texas or even Utah and Republicans would benefit from votes from California. As things stand, ‘safe’ states get little attention. Yet the key swing states would stay relevant. States like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or Pennsylvania which saw more campaigning would be important sources of votes in a national vote.

The rights or wrongs of state level representation are an argument worth having when devising a system of government and I can see the benefit in how the US Senate is organised but the Electoral College makes next to no sense.

The only other potential benefit is very much a double-edged sword. Yes, in theory, electors in the college can potentially vote for a different candidate. There are some who are campaigning for this to happen to prevent Trump being elected. Yet, that is a truly drastic measure which would shake people’s faith in the democratic process. It is hard to imagine how somebody could govern as President if they were elected in that way. Worth it to stop Trump? Not my call to make.

The EC can be reformed piecemeal at the State level. States can either choose to split their electoral college votes proportionately or subdivide their electors to districts. Alternatively, States can legislate for their electors to vote for whoever won the popular vote nationally.

However, the problem is deeper than the electoral college. In most Presidential elections the discrepancy between the popular vote proportions and the EC vote proportions are irrelevant. Typically the winner has a majority in both. The discrepancy arises when the election is relatively close and close elections have been rare. [Of course, two of the most notable ones have occurred this century and the EC gave the Republican candidate the Presidency…]

The all-or-nothing aspect of the Presidency is the deeper problem. Even if Clinton was elected on the strength of her popular vote margin, a substantial number of voters would, not unreasonably, feel they had been disenfranchised. Trump and his surrogates have argued that if the election was based on winning the popular vote than they would have campaigned differently and hence may have won the popular vote. That argument is both desperate and not without merit. Change the voting system and people’s voting behaviour will change to some degree also. Trump would have campaigned in California and Clinton would have campaigned in Texas – so we can’t know how the election would have turned out (although I suspect Clinton would have won).

Trump won over a lot of voters despite his obvious flaws. A future Trump-like candidate may well have fewer obvious flaws (or hide them better) and do even better. Reforming the EC won’t fix that even if it is a worthwhile move in itself.

There is also little point thinking about the advantages of a parliamentary system. The level of constitutional change needed to bring that about is too vast to contemplate. The comparison is almost not worth making. The US doesn’t have a parliamentary system and isn’t going to have one anytime soon.

Ideally, the electoral system should force on candidates in a close election a need to compromise and recognise their mutual lack of support. Given that President is a single position there is no capacity for a coalition government. Arguably, the role of Vice-President provides some balance to the presidential candidate but this is often in terms of age or experience.

Yet, the Presidency is a bigger role than one person. The Presidency is also a set of appointees – to the cabinet and other senior positions.

Trump’s proposed appointments have been an interesting bunch. Collectively they are a repudiation of much of his populist rhetoric. Others (e.g. General Petraeus) would have effectively neutralised conservative attacks on Clinton’s email use or Wall Street connections.

It seems odd that people vote without actual knowing who will be occupying these key role. While it is true that voters in a general election in a parliamentary system don’t know who will be ministers in the event of one part being elected, generally people have a better idea given the restricted space of either the existing ministers (if the party in government is re-elected) or the opposition shadow cabinet. [Another plus of the Westminster system is the rulers of the nation are opposed by a body nearly called ‘The Cabinet of Shadows’ ]

What would happen if POTUS candidates had to announce their cabinet before the election?

In many scenarios, I doubt it would make much difference. It might depersonalise the election a little but not by much. It might even help a Trump-like candidate appear more palatable by surrounding themselves with less scary, more level-headed people. Would Trump have done that though? Yes – maybe, Trump is now finding some people who are less intent on chewing the scenery but would many of them signed up before the election? Trump’s choice of surrogates during the election suggests that he would have struggled to surround himself with more moderate picks. Consequently, he may have had to pick electoral liabilities (e.g. Chris Christie) and/or people that would have undermined either his own image or his own arguments against Clinton.

Would this require a change in the constitution? I’ve no idea but I assume if a single state made it a requirement of appearing on the ballot that the candidate had to nominate a cabinet as well, that might do the trick.

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9 comments

  1. David Brain

    I agree that it might have made some difference, but probably not that much because it would still be all about the “President”. The people who would be interested are probably already invested enough in the background for it not to matter to them (as in “anyone my side appoints is fine, anyone their side appoints is terrible”.) The people who are only focused on the headline act don’t really care who gets appointed.

    I still think the Electoral College was a brilliant concept for a nation that was actually a continent but without good intercontinental communication systems (and even once railways and telegraph arrived it was still fairly lacking.) In the same way that the UK ended up with a “House of Lords” as our second chamber, because it was the best system we had at the time, and changes like that only really happen after major wars or revolutions. The political systems US and the UK weren’t forced to enter the 20th century after WWII, unlike most of continental Europe, and are still stuck with ones that are now horribly broken because they assume a state of affairs that no longer holds.

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  2. Aaron

    A state could impose a requirement that a Presidential candidate announce his Cabinet picks in order to be placed on the ballot under the authority granted by Article II, Section 1, Clause 2, but it probably wouldn’t mean much. Cabinet secretaries serve “at the pleasure of the President”, and a candidate could nominally select some people for the purpose of qualifying for the ballot, and then change his mind afterwards.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      Yes, it would be easy for the Prez to change picks later but they’d have to campaign with the first set of picks. For a Romney-like candidate that wouldn’t be a big problem but for a Trump they’d have to use people who were OK with being associated with the campaign b4 he got elected. Trump would probably have to have offered Chris Christie something for example.

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  3. greghullender

    The EC provides a useful firewall against election tampering in one-party states like Texas. When one party has overwhelming control in a state, it’s hard for agents from the other party to marshal enough election observers to guard against fraud. However, under the EC, there’s no advantage to running up the victory margin, since 51% of the vote and 90% of the vote both earn the same number of electors.

    But if the election is decided by popular vote, things change. Then it would be worthwhile to stuff the ballots anywhere in the country. To prevent that, we’d need to federalize the election process. A naive change, e.g. where most states agree to just trust the popular vote figures, would result in Republican presidents from that point forward.

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  4. KR

    My sense is that there is no incentive to fix it because it is not broken – that is to say, it’s working the way it was intended. It’s an elitist, paternalistic, oligarchic system designed to ensure the inverted economic and social substructures remain intact. And, as with everything in the US, there is a heavy dose of racism throughout. The US and Brazil were the biggest slave-owning states and they are both experiencing similar reactionary political hostile takeovers of government after a decade of moderate racial and social reformism (Obama, Lula/Dilma). It’s not a coincidence; it’s a concerted movement.
    http://time.com/4558510/electoral-college-history-slavery/

    In the past century, there was a basic consensus around the rules of the game, making the elite behavioral spectrum not so wide and the systemic flaws not so evident – but that quaint philanthropic rich-person model of the 19th c and the Gilded Age has been devoured by a greed-soaked, power-mad, hyper-corporate and militarized oligarchy. They no longer share the gentlemanly, charitable, proto-democratic impulse that characterized previous President-millionaire regimes who felt at least some moral impulse to nod toward the well-being of lesser folk. Now that the mask is off, it’s clear that it’s just about raw power and unimaginable corporate greed. The racist, anti-feminist backlash that gained strength with de-segregation and the Civil Rights Movement just adds to the toxicity.

    Fascists typically break a system while pointing to the other guys as the cause of the failure, then they promise to fix the system and, once inside, they reconfigure the system to ensure their permanent control. It would appear we are now at stage four, so I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the short- to medium-term. We have a generation’s long, hard work of grass-roots organizing and significant personal risk-taking ahead of us. Sorry kids, we really blew it, and now there are too many fronts to fight back on for it to be quick and easy and painless.

    True electoral reform would have to include:
    1) independent and impartial redistricting bodies in order to eliminate gerrymandering – with meaningful, significant punishment for abuses (fines, jail time)
    2) all big money out of campaigns – and all donations go on the record, transparent and searchable, with meaningful, significant punishment for abuses (fines, jail time)
    3) six-week campaign maximum
    4) automatic voter registration with drivers’ licence or at age 18
    5) politicians/their staffs and their extended family members all banned from taking lobbying or corporate directorship positions for 5 years before and 10 years after holding office.
    6) a well-funded, well-trained, independent adversarial media
    7) a return to the fairness doctrine (if possible in the internet age)

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