Former AEI President Christopher DeMuth Says Electoral College Saved the 2020 Election — Not So Fast, Chris

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Source: Google Images

In the January 8th edition of the Wall St Journal, conservative lawyer, former Reagan administration official and American Enterprise Institute president, Christopher DeMuth informed readers that, “The Electoral College Saved” the 2020 presidential election and that it had proved its “ democratic value.”

Right out of the gate, DeMuth hyperbolically takes aim at,” Scholars, pundits and progressives,” who, “widely despise the Electoral College,” as if they were the only ones who have been critical of the institution. What he conveniently, or perhaps lazily, leaves out is that in the past, a number of prominent Republicans including, Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush also indicated support to abolish the Electoral College — the latter two voting for an amendment to do so when they were members of the House of Representatives in 1969. Likewise, in 2014, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also called for a national popular vote. And just a year ago, former chair of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele and Saul Anuzis, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, made the case that Republicans should ditch the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular vote. Even Donald Trump got into the act, ironically tweeting on Election Day 2012 that, “the electoral college is a disaster for a democracy” and “this election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!”

DeMuth tells us, “The main complaints against the Electoral College are that it can elect someone who didn’t win the nationwide popular vote and that it causes candidates to campaign heavily in “battleground states” while ignoring those they think they are certain to carry or not.” He then informs us that,“The Electoral College aims for presidents who represent the nation’s great diversity, by obliging them to earn votes across many states and regions.”

However, a national popular vote system might actually work very much the same way because, according to the 2010 census and 2019 estimates based on it, there are at least 384 high-population, “metropolitan statistical areas” of the United States that are spread across virtually every state and all of the country’s regions. And this is also precisely where the, “ nations’ great diversity,” in terms of ethnicity, race, religion, language. sexual/gender orientation, wealth, income and political affiliations are most concentrated.

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2018 Map of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas of the U.S. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Next DeMuth points to some of the historical examples where the Electoral College allegedly bestowed, “a broad-based majority mandate on a candidate who has won only a plurality of the national popular vote,” and observed additionally that this, “is particularly important in messy elections with three or more candidates.”

The first, perhaps unfortunate, example he provides is that of Abraham Lincoln, who ran in a four-way race in 1860. As DeMuth notes, Lincoln won with about 40% of the popular vote but 59% of the Electoral College. However, Lincoln did this without receiving a single electoral vote from the South. Admittedly, this happened 160 years ago, under conditions of an impending civil war but it still totally undermines DeMuth’s regional argument. The other examples he cites are the 1968 and 1992 elections, where the electoral results were inter-regional. But the idea that a presidential candidate who wins only 43% of the popular vote, like Nixon or Clinton, has any kind of “broad-based majority mandate” is laughable. And in cases where the Electoral College awards the presidency to someone who loses the popular vote, it is preposterous. As Dennis, Michael Palin’s Medieval peasant, “anarcho-syndicalist commune” member character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail once observed, “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses.” A less fun way of saying this is that people vote, regions, states, counties and districts do not, physiologically cannot in fact. Inanimate territory cannot give a president any kind of mandate, no matter how well spread out it is.

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Dennis from Monty Python and the Holy Grail had it right — Source: Google Images

Next DeMuth claims without reservation that, “A national popular vote would turn America into a multiparty democracy,” as if, a priori, that would be a bad thing. Some of the world’s most stable and successful democracies are multi-party systems, including, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Israel, India, Australia and New Zealand. And even in multi-party systems sometimes two major parties can remain dominant, as in the case of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party (which have been dominant since 1949) or Norway, where the Norwegian Labor Party and Conservative Party have historically played leading roles. There is simply no way to tell for sure how a national popular vote for the president will effect the US’s current two major- party system without actually taking the plunge and doing it.

DeMuth continues his parade of horribles by telling us that a national popular vote for president would lead to, gasp, run-off elections! He lays out the terrifying scenario further:

a second national election would be costly and polarizing. Candidates would differentiate themselves with adamant appeals in the first election, and then, in the period before the runoff, bargain with the two front runners for support in exchange for cabinet appointments and policy commitments. But without a runoff, we are left with the miserable prospect of presidents with narrow parochial pluralities in elections with large majorities voting for others.

Well, yes, some of these things might happen if we were to use the more widely used, delayed, two-round majority runoff system but that’s not the only option out there. In the Republic of Ireland, presidents have been elected for decades with an instant runoff voting system that ensures a majority of voters have their decision respected. Rather than delayed runoffs, Ireland uses a ranked voting system in which a series of runoffs are simulated based on voters’ rankings. In 1990, for example, the Irish presidential election came down to three candidates. Mary Robinson, the first woman to to be elected President of Ireland, was elected despite finishing second in the count of first choice rankings because she was the overwhelming second choice of supporters of the third-place finisher Austin Currie. Rather than Currie being a “spoiler,” with instant runoff voting his supporters could indicate Robinson as their second choice and elect a president who gained true majority support. In addition, voters did not have to return to the polls, candidates did not have to spend more campaign money, voter turnout did not drop, and the winner was the candidate who showed a greater capacity to reach out to more voters.

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Mary Robinson, first woman president of Ireland, elected in 1990 using an instant run-off voting system (IRV) Source: Google Images

As his article nears conclusion, DeMuth’s spins a version of the 2020 where, of course, the Electoral College plays the hero. For example, he tells us:

the Electoral College began showing its stuff in March, when Joe Biden, who had done poorly in early primaries, suddenly emerged from a pack of far more vivid candidates to become the presumptive Democratic nominee. Party elders, led by Barack Obama, realized the key to the general election would be moderate suburban voters, including Trump-weary Republicans — many of whom were terrified of Bernie Sanders’s socialism and Elizabeth Warren’s economic populism. Mr. Biden’s opponents soon abandoned their campaigns.

Since DeMuth has laid out so many speculative and self-serving scenarios, let me offer my own at this point: Bernie Sanders won the Iowa Caucus vote, the New Hampshire primary and Nevada Caucus (diverse states from different regions of the country) and was the clear front runner and choice of Democratic Party voters going into the South Carolina primary. “Party elders,” led by Barak Obama (who is all of 59), may have been genuinely worried by Sander’s general election prospects but they — and the vested interests they are allied with — were also clearly terrified themselves by the popularity of Sander’s message, program and promise to create a mass movement for reform if elected. We may not be able to be certain about which fear was driving the “Party elders” more but we do know they were considering stopping Sanders by any means necessary, even if that meant circumventing the will of Democratic primary voters at the Democratic National Convention. Call it whatever you want but that’s not democracy.

This is also the reason why Mike Bloomberg, a plutocratic political opportunist, willing to change party affiliations like other people change their pants, jumped into the race in November 2019. If Biden and the other “moderate” primary offerings weren’t cutting it, Bloomberg, with no national following or movement behind him would simply use a small portion of his billions to buy these accoutrements. One might add that this kind of thing was precisely what was driving many Democrats to support Sanders. But neither Bloomberg or the other moderate candidates were able to take Sanders out. And the obituaries for Biden’s lackluster campaign were already being written when South Carolina presented the golden opportunity to both stop Sanders and revive Biden’s rapidly diminishing prospects in a nick of time. To his credit, Biden won South Carolina big, albeit with critical help from powerful, long-time incumbent Congressman Jim Clyburn. With that most of the moderate candidates quickly lined up to endorse Biden, thought there is at least some indication that Party Elder Obama had a hand in orchestrating this consolidation of support. Regardless, none of this had anything at all to do with the Electoral College.

But here’s where electoral college politics became intertwined with Democratic Party primary system in a way that should be upsetting to anyone who truly believes in majoritarian democracy. Biden’s political fortunes were revived in an ultra-conservative state that hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 and where there was no chance — at all — that it would go for either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden in 2020. On the contrary, a few days later, Sanders won a resounding victory over Biden in California, a large, diverse state with the fifth largest economy in the world, which could easily survive as an independent country, and, which has been uber-reliably Democratic in the Electoral College since 1988. Sanders won California with 2,080,846 votes; Biden won South Carolina with 262,336 votes, let me repeat those figures: 2,080,846 to 262,336 and yet Biden’s South Carolina victory was the triggering event that put him on the road to the nomination.

DeMuth’s final point is that the 2020 presidential election would have been even more chaotic if it had been conducted under a national popular vote system. True to form, he lays out a lot of hypotheticals and scary scenarios such as:

Election administration would perforce be vested in an executive-branch agency headed by the president. The agency might be a bipartisan commission with lengthy terms of office, but to be effective it would need a tie-breaking vote, cast by an official from one party or the other (or from one of multiple parties). It would be widely assumed that the president exercised significant control — and a president who would publicly berate state legislators and governors, and the Supreme Court and his own attorney general, as Mr. Trump did, would certainly try to exert such control.

But, once again, there is no reason why this or something like it should necessarily be the case. Congress current authority to regulate presidential elections is limited to determining, “the time of choosing presidential electors” (Article II, §1, cl. 4), while the Supreme Court has allowed congressional regulation of political committees which seek to influence Presidential elections, arguing that such legislation is justified by the need to preserve the integrity of such elections (Burroughs v. United States, 9 290 U.S. 534 1934). In addition, a 2004 Congressional Research Bureau Report speculates that,” The power of Congress to protect the integrity of the Presidential election, combined with its authority to set the time of election, would also seem to provide the Congress the power to postpone elections because of a national emergency.” But the Constitution is silent on Executive Branch authority to regulate presidential elections, which at least implies that there is none, unless perhaps Congress chose to enact a statute delegating such authority. Maybe under extreme circumstances such a thing is comtemplatable but to the idea that a situation like that of the 2020 election would reach the theshold is a stretch to say the least.

Final point: The Electoral College effectively disenfranchises millions of people and almost certainly discourages participation in the system. Here’s a personal example. I’ve been voting in presidential elections in New York State since 1988, though I’ve also known the whole time it doesn’t really matter if I or a lot of my fellow New Yorkers vote or not because the state is going with the whoever the Democratic Party candidate is. New York’s Republican voters also know (or should know) that it makes no practical difference if they vote for their candidate, the state is going Democratic. The reverse obtains in all the ultra-reliable “Red” Electoral College states. That, my friends, is not democracy and, although I’m sure there will be contrary opinions even on this, it is the lack of democracy that is at the heart of what is plaguing our country.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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