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.