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We Desperately Need A New Electoral System, New Methods Of Campaigning, And New Types Of People Running For Office

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Message Lawrence Velvel

August 28, 2007

 Re:  We Desperately Need A New Electoral System, New Methods Of Campaigning, And New Types Of People Running For Office. From: Dean Lawrence R. VelvelVelvelOnNationalAffairs.com  

Dear Colleagues:


            A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday, August 11th, The New York Times carried an article about a meeting of state Democratic Party officials “from around the country.”  The article started on page 1, which evinces a judgment that the matter is of at least some importance, and said the meeting was taking place that very weekend.  Oddly, the article was bylined Los Angeles, although the meeting was in Vermont.  The reason for the byline seems to have been that the reporter (is she from California?) had spoken with the California party chairman, Art Torres.  Also oddly, though the Times thought the subject of the article important enough to put on page 1, my superior researcher could find no follow-up in the Times or elsewhere about what had happened at the meeting.


            Here is how the reporter described what I think to be the overall topic of the article:


“Frustrated by a system that has marginalized many states in the presidential election process, or seeking partisan advantage, state lawmakers, political party leaders and voting rights advocates across the country are stepping up efforts to change the rules of the game, even as the presidential campaign advances.”


            Two major possibilities were discussed for “chang[ing] the rules of the game.”  One is an effort to change electoral rules in California so that, instead of the candidate who received the most statewide votes for president in California getting all of the state’s electoral votes, the electoral votes would be assigned by Congressional districts.  In other words, the winner in one district would get that district’s electoral vote, the winner in a second district would get that district’s electoral vote, etc., etc.  In this way, California’s electoral votes, which today all go invariably to the Democratic candidate, would instead likely be split. 


It is thought that this would insure Republican victory in any close election, because all other states (except Maine and Nebraska) now use the statewide unit rule, under which all of a state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who gets the most popular votes in a state.  In this circumstance, the splitting of California’s electoral votes, so that a significant number of them would likely go to the Republican candidate because he or she would get the most votes in particular districts, would insure a Republican victory in a close national election.  The Democrat’s loss of a significant number of California electoral votes would mean his or her defeat.


            The Democrats in the legislature of North Carolina almost enacted a similar kind of change to the Electoral College system there this year.  But Howard Dean stepped in to get the measure tabled.  I imagine he understood that if this kind of precedent were set, but were followed in only a few states that included the large ones that reliably vote for the Democratic presidential candidate (New York and California, for example), while not including the large ones that are reliably Republicans (such as Texas), the Democrats would be dead in many if not all Presidential elections, even in ones where the Democratic candidate received a significant majority of the popular vote.


            Although the Times did not see fit to write anything (as far as I know) about the results of the meeting in Vermont -- is this the result of a judgment that nothing important happened there, or is it just negligence? -- the proposed new California law disturbed it enough that a week and a half later, on August 22nd, it wrote a lead editorial condemning the California proposal, which it estimated would probably give 20 or more of California’s 55 electoral votes to the Republican candidate.  The same editorial spoke favorably -- albeit very briefly -- about a different plan for changing the voting in the Electoral College, a plan sponsored by various political figures including ones who were leading personalities back in the day.  Under this plan, put briefly, states would pledge to each other, via interstate compact, to cast all of a state’s electoral votes for the candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide -- even if that candidate did not win the most popular votes in the particular state.  So, for example, if the Republican candidate received the most popular votes nationwide, California would cast all its electoral votes for the Republican even if the Democratic candidate received the most votes in California itself.  (The California legislature voted to adopt this plan last year, but Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.) 


The national sponsors of this idea seem to have figured out pretty much everything in connection with it.  Their arguments (and the, I think weak, counter arguments) are in a book, on the web and have sometimes been mentioned in the print media.  I don’t intend to get into most of the various pros and cons.  All I will say here about the pros and cons is that the plan seems to be constitutional beyond doubt, requires no constitutional amendment ridding us of the Electoral College, and would cause presidential candidates to have to worry about the votes in every state.  For every vote in every state would count in the national popular vote, so candidates could no longer ignore most states because victory there is in the bag for one side or the other (as in California and New York), and could no longer focus only on 13 to 17 so-called battleground states (Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin) whose entire total of electoral votes are truly up for grabs under the present winner take all, or unit, rule followed in all states but Maine and Nebraska.  (Maine and Nebraska follow the district by district system that some California Republicans are trying to foist on that state).  Republican candidates would have to contest New York and California because millions in those states might vote Republican, and Democrats would have to contest the South because millions there might vote Democratic.


            There is one other matter, however, which I wish to point out about the proposed new plan; it is a matter which, as far as I know, has not been discussed either by the plan’s sponsors or by the limited comment in the media.  The plan, as said, provides that Electoral College victory will go to the candidate who gets the most popular votes.  But the most popular votes does not mean a majority of the popular votes.  A candidate could win with 40 percent or less of the popular vote -- as Lincoln won with less than 40 percent.  Although one deduces that to some people, maybe a lot of people, the plan is attractive because under it Al Gore would have been President, not the incompetent, semi demented George Bush (though neither was even close to a popular majority), it also remains true, despite Lincoln, that some very bad people besides Bush II have become president with only a plurality of the popular vote, not a majority.  Exhibit Number One would be Richard Nixon (who had only 43.4% of the popular vote in 1968).  Exhibit Number Two for a lot of us, because of his lack of morality or honesty (though many love him), would be Billy Bob from Arkansas in 1992 (who got only 43 percent of the popular vote).  Another, with perhaps a more mixed record and character, who got elected with only a plurality was Wilson (who got 42.5 percent of the vote).  One might add that a president who got elected with a majority but was awful was Lyndon Johnson, whose huge majority in 1964 (when he had 61.7 percent of the popular vote) was even (a  bit) larger than Nixon’s in 1972.  (Nixon got 61.1 percent).  So we can get awful presidents by a majority of the popular vote as well as by a plurality, though it has to be said that both that Johnson and Nixon had the often huge advantage of already being a sitting President in 1964 and 1972 respectively, that Johnson probably could not have initially won the Presidency on his own, and that Nixon, as said, had only a plurality in 1968 -- and a thin one at that (43.4% for Nixon to 42.7 for the second place Humphrey).


            The question which arises under the proposed new plan of electing presidents is whether it is sufficient to provide, in a nation which supposedly follows majority rule at least most of the time, that the winner of the most popular votes will win the presidency -- even though this candidate may have a plurality of only 42 or 43 percent - - or less.  Or, rather, should the plan provide some method of insuring that the winner obtains a majority of the popular vote.  There are ways that automatically do the latter by taking account of voters’ ranked preferences when no candidate has an initial majority.


            My strong preference would be to build in a method of arriving at a majority of the popular vote, so that a state’s electors would be voting for the candidate who received a majority, not just a plurality.  This seems to me more in keeping with the proposed new system’s fundamental goal of bringing the election result more in line with the popular will.  It will also be a further step towards opening up the electoral system to a dire necessity upon which the future of our country may depend, even likely depends.  That is, it will be a step towards making it possible for a third party to put up a candidate when, as now, millions are extremely dissatisfied with the choices likely to be given us by the two major parties.  A third party is essential because it will, I think, take a third party to allow us to shed the national-security-state, Washington mentality which the two major parties are locked into, which they maintain regardless of the votes of the populace, and which will destroy us as surely as it has destroyed previous empires.  Opening up the system to a third party (or parties) is probably the only way to overcome our addiction to the national security state, an addiction replete with industrial, technological, and repressive appurtenances, including domestic spying. 


            It does not seem likely to me that one can comfortably rely on either of the current two major parties to overthrow the ultimately-disaster-producing national security state.   Much blame for the advance of the national security state is currently placed on the demento in the White House.  And he did take it to new heights.  But the truth is that the national security state had its origins back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, under Truman and Eisenhower, due to the Cold War against Communism and everything the country felt it necessary to do to combat the Communists.  And, at the end of his period in office, Eisenhower even specifically warned against one important aspect of the national security state, the military industrial complex.  But then the situation only got worse and worse under Johnson and Nixon, continued under Reagan and thereafter, and reached its acme to date under demento.  Both major parties have bought into it big time, so the failure of Democrats to end the current war after having been elected in 2006 to do so should not have come as a wholly shocking surprise to people who put them in office to stop the war.  Only a new party dedicated to fundamentally different ideas about America and the world will, in reality, be able to end the national security state.  (Or do you really expect the Democrats to do it, if elected?)


            The needed third party would be given a great boost by requiring a majority vote to win the presidency, and by implementing this through some form of ranked, instant run off system if no candidate initially has more than a plurality.  Such a system would allow people to vote their first choice for a third party candidate whom they favor, with little if any fear that this would throw the election to some Neanderthal if their candidate fails.  To take a concrete example, under the system being discussed, Al Gore, not George Bush, would have won in 2000 because it is almost certain that the vast preponderance of people who voted for Ralph Nader -- who got 2.7 percent of the vote when Gore received 48.38 percent -- would have ranked Gore second and that Gore would then have received about a 51 percent to 49 percent majority, or a 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent majority, in the instant run off after Nader was eliminated. 


            Under the system being discussed, it’s also possible, by the way, that Bush I would have been reelected in 1992, when Clinton got only 43 percent of the popular vote and Perot got 19 percent despite his craziness during the campaign.  It is likewise possible, though not certain, that Humphrey, not Nixon, would have been elected in 1968, when Nixon had 43.4 percent of the popular vote, Humphrey had 42.7 percent, and George Wallace had 13.5 percent.  (If one has to look back over history, almost any system that would have caused Nixon not to be elected would seem retrospectively desirable.)

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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