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the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

Canto: What do the words ‘electoral college’ mean to you?

Jacinta: Let me see, ‘electoral’ has something to do with processes and methods relating to elections, and a college is an educational institution, and connected words like ‘collegial’ and ‘colleague’ bring to mind teams and teamwork, in an educated sort of way. I’ve also heard about the electoral college in relation to US federal politics, but I’m not sure what it means. At a guess, I think it just means the electorate, and the regions it’s made up of, though why that would be called a ‘college’ I’ve no idea.

Canto: Well there’s this American-only phenomenon called the Electoral College I’ve been hearing about since I’ve been tuning into what has become, hopefully briefly, Trumpistan, but the term has kind of washed over me, and I’ve not thought of it as anything more than a fancy term for the electorate and its divisions, as you say. But no, a little book called Will he go?, by Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, has taught me otherwise, though I’ve not completely got my head around it, so now’s the time.

Jacinta: Wikipedia tells me it goes back to that worshipped but problematic constitution of theirs. It also seeks to explain how it works, but it doesn’t really explain, at least not in its initial section, how it was thought needful.

Canto: Well, Douglas has a chapter in his book, ‘The Electoral College revisited, alas’, which opens thus:

The Electoral College is our constitutional appendix, a vestigial organ that has ceased to perform any valuable function and can only create problems for the body politic. It is a deservedly unloved part of our Constitution. Recently asked what part of the Constitution she would most like to alter, Justice Ruth Baider Ginsburg quickly answered, ‘the Electoral College – I’d like to see it abolished.’ Most Americans agree. No poll conducted over the past 70 years has found a majority of Americans supporting it. Only roughly one third of those polled in 2019 ‘would prefer to keep’ it.

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

Douglas goes on to argue that the USA is the only country in the world where the loser of a presidential election, based on popular vote, can actually win it by means of another system, namely the Electoral College in this case.

Jacinta: But in Australia we often have parties losing the popular vote but gaining more seats and so gaining ultimate victory, or in cases where neither party has an outright majority, it’s the party that can form a coalition with minor parties or independents that can form government.

Canto: Yes but here they’re talking about one-on-one presidential battles, no coalitions. Though such one-on-one races are just indicative of a bad political system, IMHO. And the reason parties win with a minority of votes is because the voters in some electorates are ‘worth more’ than the voters in other electorates. This imbalance was sort of deliberately created to provide more rural states with more power, so they wouldn’t be swamped at every election by the urbanites, but with the dramatic increase in urbanisation in recent decades, and the increase in productivity of those urban states, it’s become clear that the most urbanised states are effectively subsidising the rural states, while being dudded out of their share of the vote.

Jacinta: This isn’t a problem with the Electoral College, though, is it? The solution to what you’re talking about could surely be solved by a kind of independent commission on demographics, which could redraw the electorate every few years, say, on the basis of the movement of peoples….

Canto: Which would thus constantly be reducing the value of the rural vote, which would, if people considered the value of their vote to be a high priority in their lives, increase the rate of urbanisation. I’m wondering if that would ultimately be a good thing. But to return to the Electoral College..

Jacinta: Before you go on, this problem of losing the popular vote and winning the election, which has become much more of a factor in recent years in the US, is far more of a worry in these one-on-one contests, because you could have contests between, say, a centrist candidate and a far-right or far-left candidate, and if the extremist candidate manages to win the contest based on electoral boundaries rather than popular vote – which can be done more and more in the US, even with a substantial loss in the popular vote – that candidate and his personally appointed courtiers (another example of American exceptionalism) can do substantial damage to the public interest during his term, given the extraordinary powers given to one person by the system. That’s what’s happening now – though Trump is neither right nor left, nor up, he’s just down down down.

Canto: True, and if you regularly adjusted those boundaries so that they better captured one-vote-one-value, it’s probable that Trump would never have been elected. As Douglas writes, perhaps a little optimistically, ‘it seems fair to say that it is harder to convince 50% of the electorate to embrace a politics of division and intolerance than it is to convince 40%’.

Jacinta: Trump has never had 50% popular support at any time during his presidency, which provides support for that.

Canto: So the Electoral College system is little understood by even tertiary-educated Americans. Douglas suggests that its very opacity from the public perspective is a damning indictment, but it requires an amendment from the most impossible-to-amend constitution on the globe to change or dump it. In fact their constitution is hoist by its own petard in this case, as the system gives disproportionate power to less populous states, who would have to ratify its elimination. It’s a collection of electors, 538 in all, so requiring the magic number of 270 for a majority, who meet every four years to decide who’ll be the President.

Jacinta: I thought the federal election did that. So clearly the EC, if I can call it that…

Canto: Please do.

Jacinta: Clearly the EC is tightly bound to the election. I knew there were some 500-odd parts to the election, or the electorate, but I just thought that meant 500 electoral regions, a certain number in each US state, just as there are currently 47 electoral districts here in South Australia. Why would they need electors, and what are they?

Canto: To be honest, it’s confusing – when people, including Douglas, complain about the Electoral College, it seems to me they’re complaining about the electoral system, which again can be made to be highly unrepresentative of the popular vote, with safe electorates and swinging electorates, which can change as electoral boundaries change, and that can happen quite often, in Australia at least. But, the electors…. it all started with the very concept of the President, and the so-called separation of powers. In the USA they originally had the idea of a President being something like a monarch, only elected, and having to fight for re-election every so many years. But they also wanted a parliament, again like Britain, which they, presumably just to be different, called a congress, as a ‘coequal branch of government’. But in Britain, parliament has long since ceased to be a co-equal branch, it is the government. No need for a separation of powers, parliament is the power.

Jacinta: You’re right, the US congress is just another parliament, and the USA is still just a British colony – why can’t they face facts?

Canto: Anyway, back in the day, there was a huge amount of argy-bargy about this separation of powers, with constitutional conventions and various formulae and compromises, and finally they settled on this weird electoral college thing, with electors from each state ‘in the same numbers as their representatives in Congress’.

Jacinta: So a state with, say, seven electoral districts will have seven electors. For what possible reason? If one guy wins the district, he wins the seat. What more do you need?

Canto: That’s the billion-dollar question. I’m trying to get to the reasoning. In fact, your straightforward option was favoured by some constitutional convention delegates, such as James Madison, though he recognised that this might disadvantage the South, where there was a disproportionate number of slaves, and of course, they would never be allowed to vote, even if they were freed. Though I’m not sure how this situation could be resolved by an Electoral College. The whole idea of this EC seems as complicated and bizarre as quantum mechanics.

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

Canto: So, an elector for each electoral district, who was expected to be a proxy for the district, voting the way the district voted. But each state was able to choose its electors and to decide on how they chose them. You would think this wouldn’t matter, as they were required to vote the way their district voted. But get this, they weren’t legally obligated to do so – at least there was no clear law, and still isn’t any clear law, forcing them to do so, and there have occasionally been ‘faithless electors’ who’ve cast their vote for the loser.

Jacinta: Which is highly undemocratic. But I still don’t get…

Canto: Don’t bother, just thank the dogs you don’t live in America.

Jacinta: Oh well, I’m sure they do their best, the poor wee souls…

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP0708/08rp05

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm