Saturday, March 08, 2008

How the Electoral College Virus is Infecting the Nominating Process

Sandy Levinson

Today's Washington Post has an article that discusses "The Downside of Obama Strategy," i.e., that he actually has the audacity to believe that every Democrat's (and, perhaps, every American's) vote should count equally. The article notes (accurately) that Clinton has done better in large, electoral-vote-rich states than has Obama, which has ostensibly provoked fears about the prospects of his winning in November. It doesn't matter that he has received more popular votes than Clinton in contested elections--which allows us to omit Michigan and Florida--and, of course, that he has won more delegates. All that matters, according to a number of quoted Clinton supporters, is the vote in large states. So what we have is an attempt to apply to the nominating process the Electoral College's effective disenfranchisement of those unlucky enough to live in states where they are the political minority and the insane emphasis on a relatively few "battleground" states . One gather that Clinton will lose to Obama in today's caucuses in Wyoming. But, hey, it doesn't matter what Wyoming Democrats think, because they live in a Republican state. Similar logic, of course, would dictate that it doesn't matter what California Republicans think, because, after all, it is a safely Democratic state. Why any American committed to a 21st century notion of democracy (or even a Republican Form of Government) would defend this approach to selecting our most important national political official is beyond me.

Incidentally, for the record, I don't concede the Clintonite point that Obama is any less likely to carry the large Democratic states than is Sen. Clinton, but that is basically beside the point relative to the argument being made by her supporters about which states are to be taken seriously and which to be utterly dismissed (can you spell "Texas," which will, when the caucus votes are finally counted, will be found to have given more delegates to Obama?).


Well there....the Clinton argument may be flawed, however practical given the current situation. And you can't blame her for trying.

But now, sir, please justify the use of very anti-democratic caucuses that are prone to being taken over by a few strong members (who apparently may be bending, at least, rules and misreporting results) and in any even disenfrachises the ill, the infirm, those with jobs or kids or whatever else that makes it impossible to be at a particular place for a couple of particular hours. Those living elsewhere temporarily. Those who want to have a right to vote in a way that may be unpopular without wishing to expose that vote to their neighbors. And so forth. Why shouldn't all of those people get to vote, too?

While you're at it, Sandy, please explain how the voting and caucuses that form the Texas Two Step can have such different results, and whether the caucuses or the traditional voting model produces the results more consist with the will of the people?

I actually think there is something to be said for the "Texas Two Step" inasmuch as it offers a way of combining what might be termed "ordinary" voting preferences and then tne preferences of the most "intense" part of the electorate. Though, of course, there's much to be said for having only the popular vote and dispensing with caucuses. And there's even more to be said for better organized caucuses that allow as many people as wish to to participate.

I presume that states choose caucuses over primaries because they're cheaper, save for Iowa, which makes out like bandits because of the totally unrepresentative caucus process.

The one thing that is certain is that there's no perfect election process. Perhaps one can defend the overall nominating process on "federalist" grounds: i.e., states choose different processes, each of which has its own costs and benefits, and the national result is the sum of these variegated procedures.

The problem is not with the Electoral College, but with the winner-take-all system, which is an entirely extra-constitutional construct (not unconstitutional, but extra-constitutional).

Adopting the District Method across all 50 states, as two states (Maine and Nebraska) already do, with remove essentially all these problems.


District Method = Battleground districts instead of battleground states. What's more, it exposes the presidential election to gerrymandering.

For a longer explanation of what's wrong with the District Method, cf. Hendrik Herzberg's column from December.

The only way to stop the focus on battlegrounds, at the expense of all other voters, is NPV.

The other problem with the District Method is that in a close election you only need a few districts to go to minor-party or independent candidates in order to throw an election into the House of Representatives, and thereby make it even less democratic (each state delegation gets one Presidential vote in the House).

The Electoral College translates pluralities into majorities. It doesn't do so perfectly, but it's a reasonably good way to run a one-step presidential election. A two-step (or perhaps a one-step "instant") runoff system based on national popular vote would be better. Proportional representation in Congressional elections would be good too, but that's another matter.

More information on the National Popular Vote Bill can be found here.

The purpose of a primary (presumably, to choose the most electable and we hope best candidate of the bunch) is not the same as the purpose of a general election (presumably, to choose whomever the majority wants in office). Recent appearances to the contrary, I doubt that career politicians who are Democrats have a death wish for their party. This is a very close contest, and I have no problem letting career politicians choose whomever they view as more electable.

That said, Obama is not a public servant. He is a product, and I the professionals needn't expect me to buy it.

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