Friday, November 13, 2020

In praise of slow democracy

Steve Landsburg wrote a excellent short WSJ oped  adding one more good reason for our apparently cumbersome electoral practices: 

Imagine a future presidential election in which the incumbent refuses to concede and enlists the full power of the federal government to overturn the apparent democratic outcome.

Now imagine that the election in question is actually run by a federal agency or by some nationwide quasigovernmental authority charged with collecting and aggregating the results from all 50 states.

I don’t know about you, but I might worry a bit about the pressure that could be brought to bear on that single authority. I might worry a bit about the objectivity of the attorney general and the federal election commissioners who would be in a position to ramp up that pressure.

 I might even cast a sober look at what tends to happen in other countries where leaders are chosen in elections conducted by the national government—countries like Russia, where two years ago Vladimir Putin claimed 77% of the vote

I might also be tempted to meditate on the general perils of centralizing power, and the specific perils of centralizing the power to decide who will yield power. [my emphasis]

By then, I might be so worked up that I’ll manage to forget why the Electoral College is a threat to democracy, and how its abolition—and the nationalization of presidential elections—would help make democracy function more smoothly.

But I’ll know who to ask for a refresher. By and large, it seems like the people who are most in a dither about the current president’s attempt to retain power are the same people who think we ought to make it easier for the next president who wants to do the same thing. I’m sure they can explain that to me.

Our slow, cumbersome method of collecting votes has great resilience. The electoral college means that politicians must gather widespread support, not just run up totals in a few places. It means that in a close election, we only challenge recount and fuss and bother about a few states or districts, we don't send armies of lawyers out to challenge every vote in the country. It makes the election practically unhackable. And, Steve's point, much harder to steal. 

I think Steve understates his point. He imagines an election which is called for the opponent but the incumbent refuses to leave. If presidential elections are run by a single Federal bureaucracy, it will never get to that -- the election will not be called for the opponent in the first place, as it is not in Russia. 

The first point of democracy is a peaceful transfer of power, and acceptance of the legitimacy of the new regime. That does not mean a fast transfer of power. Our slow election process is in the midst of doing its wonderful job of convincing the losers that they really did lose fair and square, even though the election was very close, and that the new regime is legitimate. 

To  Democratic readers in a huff that Trump needs to concede now, and to the media and commentators hyperventilating about it: Take a deep breath, and let the system work. Let the votes be certified, let the legal challenges fail, let the electoral college vote, and then, and only then, start worrying if it isn't all over. 

That losers accept the legitimacy of the winner has been the sore point of our recent presidential elections (and a few state ones as well, see Stacey Abrams), since Al Gore's challenge to Bush's narrow win (yes, dear hyperventilators, please remember it was Gore that filed the legal challenges, they lasted into December, and Bush really did win by about 500 votes when the recount was done). Too many of Trump's political opponents spent four years denying his legitimacy. You of all people should understand how vital it is that Trump's supporters do not feel as you have for the last 4 years! 

Which they will if this thing is rushed. You have every interest in undercutting a narrative, sure otherwise to emerge, that there were some votes out there that didn't get counted.  Sometimes just sitting back and letting the other side figure out the battle is lost is the best strategy. 

Where's the fire? The climate can wait a month -- it will anyway. The transition cannot go worse than the Obama to Trump transition, with FBI investigating the new administration. (On NPR I hear lots of praise about the Bush to Obama transition. There is a great big silence after that.) There is a whole month after the electoral college meets. That's plenty of time to learn everything the new administration wants to learn from Trump appointees (not much, I suspect). Again, our slow democracy shows great wisdom. 

Steve's last point is a good one. Why is it that "the people who are most in a dither about the current president’s attempt to retain power are the same people who think we ought to make it easier for the next president who wants to do the same thing?" Steve's charitable interpretation is that they just haven't thought about it. 

A less charitable interpretation beckons. "What is the question to which this is the answer?" is  the economists' usual approach, not "what question do people say they are pursuing?" Federalizing a single, fast national election  fits nicely with abolishing the electoral college, abolishing the filibuster, stacking the Supreme Court, increased intrusion in to politics by Federal law enforcement, widespread censorship of social media, election "reform" that allows much more political interference (see Kim Stassel). If the question were "take power with a narrow majority and then make sure you keep it" these would surely be sensible answers (see Understanding the Left). The authoritarian danger to a democracy like ours does not come from a single, now friendless individual. It comes from a well organized movement that can control the institutions of government and society. 

But let us be charitable today. The Great War for the soul of the Democratic Party is on, and half of it does value the great institutional machinery of our constitution. That half, at least, should welcome our slow, cumbersome, but very resilient process for the peaceful transfer of power and conferral of legitimacy. 

Update: In reaction to many comments. We seem to be in a moment where many on the left desire large constitutional changes. Beware what you ask for. Setting up constitutional changes because they happen to advantage your party at the moment is a dangerous business. Do unto others as they certainly will do unto you when they get a chance. Unless of course the game is to seize power and keep it forever, but the wailing about "save our democracy" can't mean that, can it? 


  1. A problem with the Electoral College (EC) is that a party getting just 1 more vote than the opposition garners all the EC votes. This makes the election outcome less representative of the votes and causes many states to be ignored, because which party will get a majority is never in doubt. There is a middle ground between giving all electors to the party with more votes in a state and allocating electors proportionally to votes in a state, which could encourage piling up fraudulently large margins. Let the fraction f(x) of the winning party's Electoral Votes in a state depend on its percentage x of the 2-party vote, up to a threshold c. Then f(x) = 0.5 + 0.5/(c-0.5) for 0.5 < x < c and f(x) = 1.0 for x > c. For example, if the the threshold c is 60%, the winning party gets 50% of the EC votes if gets 50% (the vote is tied), 75% if it gets 55%, and 100% if it gets 60% or more. According to this system, all states where the minority party has a chance of breaking 40% will be in play.

  2. So a *side-effect* of the electoral college is that vote counting/certification is decentralized, and I agree that's a good thing. But insisting on keeping the electoral college and giving some people more voting power than others based on where they live does not follow. You can keep the vote certification and counting at the local level, and still end the electoral college.

    1. Ending the electoral college leads to a presidential election in which all of the candidates would ignore all areas of the US except those living in the 6 or so largest cities, because by straight poplar vote that would be all they need to be elected. What is fair about that? The big-city dwellers have no idea of why the small-medium sized areas have the opinions/needs/wants they do because they have not experienced such. a country should not be run by allowing people in the largest urban areas making policy alone. The presidency should be won by a consensus of people all over the US; not just one type of contingent. But the bottom line is the US president should be the president of ALL the states, not just a few states who happen to posses the biggest cities pops. The founders realized the importance of including ALL the states; each STATE is allowed, as a separate entity, to choose the person they want as president. EC votes based on a mixture of a state as a state AND the state's specific pop does this. This why we should RETAIN the Electoral College process as is.

    2. The first 6 largest cities wouldn't be enough:; I checked because I wasn't sure if you meant it literally or metaphorically.

    3. @Unknown Ok, let's go point by point.

      The top 100 cities in US collectively have about 20% of the population, so clearly top 6 cities won't be enough votes. But for the sake of argument, let's suppose they actually DID have 95% of the population - would you still think that it's better to give the remaining 5% more voting power? Because that's exactly what would happen under the electoral college.

      Yes, the big city dwellers have no idea what the other people's wants and needs are. The same applies to the country-side dwellers. Once again, why should a minority (in our case country-side dwellers) have their needs elevated above the majority?

      Borrowing your line of argumentation - bottom line is the US president should the the president of all PEOPLE in all the states, and this is why electoral college is terrible and should be demolished - the sooner, the better.

      Finally, I highly doubt the founders would think current situation is desirable (since my understanding is that winner take all came later), but if they did - they were wrong, it happens.

  3. "Let the votes be certified, let the legal challenges fail, let the electoral college vote, and then, and only then, start worrying if it isn't all over"
    -> Do you not see the long term damage this whole White House freak show is doing to the American democracy with every day that it continues? I agree, as of now the most likely scenario is that Biden will be elected and move to the White House in January. But by then we will have a significant part of the country genuinely believing the election was stolen – because Republicans are just unwilling to call out Donald Trump’s lies and their silence or even support fuels this baseless conspiracy to the point that it will be a widely accepted view (instead of being regarded as a Q Anon or birther style conspiracy which it really is). And given that Trump will not accept the outcome "unless he wins", no legal ruling/recount/vote checking will ever put this issue to rest for him. This is not about a request for a recount as in 2000, it is a completely unfounded claim of nationwide voter fraud that erodes peoples' trust in the democratic system.

    1. There are over 200 affidavits supporting election frauds in favor of Biden. Multiple statistical analysis indicate Biden's votes violated mathematical laws. Another danger is the viewers of CNN, MSNBC, NYT are kept in dark from the facts and believe everything Trumps says is false, conspiracy. Today CNN compared President Trump with Hitler despite the fact that he has accomplished multiple epic peace treaties between Israel and its foes. Facebook already disavowed Trump presidency two months away from Jan 20. When you ask Siri how old the president is, you will get Kamala's information. Major media cannot help ignoring the facts and constitution.

    2. Do you not see that just declaring "Biden won" without allowing the process to play out will certainly erode peoples' trust in the democratic system?

    3. In what fictional universe do you live?

      I bring you back to 2016. After Clinton conceded, what happened next? As I recall, Democrats went the way of conspiracy theories, pushing forward a multi million dollars 2 years long investigation on collusion and foreign interference whose biggest revelation was that some of the core allegations where not only bunk, but known to be bunk.

      We have heard Democrats starting to complain that Clinton was the legitimate winner because she won the popular vote. It was perfectly clear to all players how the election was to be decided beforehand, but that complaint was made. Prominent Democrats started to routinely speak against the Electoral College. Others went the way of Soviet-style dictators, chastising social media platform for not censoring enough content and some journalists such as Glenn Greenwald (not a conservative, mind you) for daring to report about Clinton. The same Greenwald who quit his own journal over his desire to cover the Biden scandal this time around -- because, this year, social media did indulge the authoritarian impulses of Democrats.

      They've worked tirelessly, explicitly saying that Donald Trump was not legitimately in power for 4 straight years, even going as far as setting a new precedent where you can impeach presidents without even the slightest shred of criminal accusations... and you're whining about him filing lawsuits?

      Good Lord! The straight laced, clean attitude went out the window a long time ago.

  4. Some good points, but also a little bit of setting up a straw man. The issue isn't so much the debate about counting votes, but the associated claims of "cheating", "electoral fraud" etc., which all go to delegitimise the democratic process. The best thing to happen would be for votes to be counted, for Trump to somehow get in front of the Supreme Court, and for POTUS to find out that in fact the Law trumps personal allegiance by his appointees. A more interesting debate around US democracy would centre around the issue of the popular vote versus electoral college votes. At what number of excess popular votes (3 million, 5 million, 10 million?) against the winner does the system become untenable?

  5. Or he must pander to the places where very few people live to get their non democratically distributed votes. I need you to explain why a voter in Wyoming has a vote that is 4X more valuable than one from California. Why LA has to share 2 Senators with the rest of California, and the equivalent number of people get 14 senators spread across Wyoming, both Dakotas, and four other states. population Why it seemed to be a close race, although Biden's areas represent 70% of US productivity.

    1. Have a read of the Federalist Papers and you can better understand why the electoral college was created in the first place.

    2. I suspect Trump's areas grow about 70% of America's food, allowing the others to concentrate in a few cities and states, thereby increasing some of the country's productivity. It's a big circle. Count all the parts.

    3. It's called COMPROMISE, which today's Congress doesn't seem to know much about. The Great Compromise brought together the less populated states' and the larger populated states' wants. One house reps a state as a whole the other reps the amount of pop. If Bothe houses' reps were based directly on population, again, the country would be run by those living in majority places (basically 6 or so big cities) and the rest of the US would be totally ignored-----which would be leaving no place for some standing for the minority opinion. In a democratic republic, the majority rules but not to the point of totally disenfranchising the minority.

  6. The implicit comparison with one-person one vote is highly misleading. What's a person, a 12 year old? Someone who pays income tax? Someone who is not a government employee [John Stuart Mill)?

    In contemporary jargon, the electoral college awards more votes to underrepresented minorities, namely those living in less populous States. :-)

    1. But why should 'minorities' from less populous states be over-represented and not other types of minorities (religious, race, gender)?

      In fact, the current winner-take-all allocation of the electoral college effectively throws out the votes of all the people who voted for the losing candidate in the state. It completely disenfranchises the minority within each state!

      It does not favor small states. It favors divided states (i.e. battleground states). Most small states are deeply red or blue so don't matter while some of the largest states like Florida (#3) and Pennsylvania (#5) matter a great deal. Doesn't the fact that your vote counts more ONLY IF your neighbors are more divided seem arbitrary to you?

      The main issue is not the electoral college per se but the current winner-take-all allocation which is NOT required by our Constitution nor envisioned by our Founding Fathers. A proportional allocation based on popular vote within each state would be much more fair. "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal."

    2. "But why should 'minorities' from less populous states be over-represented and not other types of minorities (religious, race, gender)?"

      They are! I'm just pleading for Affirmative Action for minorities living in underpopulated States. :-)

  7. A few comments:

    1- The case you're making is for a "decentralized election" and not for "electoral college" per se.

    Putting my theorist hat on, you mentioned one nice thing about the electoral college system, an axiom that you like (slowness, decentralized-ness!) and didn't mention a lot of weaknesses it has. If that's the only axiom you like about it, well, there are many more reasonable mechanisms. Let me add one more axiom perhaps? How about "take two voters X and Y. Swap their votes. The election outcome should remain the same." Electoral college does not satisfy this property. Consider this system: You can have the same non-central election system, where each state electoral votes is proportionally divided, according to votes proportions (instead of winner takes all). Give each state electoral votes proportional to its population, and you have a decentralized election which is de facto popular vote.

    2- "If presidential elections are run by a single Federal bureaucracy, it will never get to that -- the election will not be called for the opponent in the first place, as it is not in Russia." Like, how does the election works in Europe, Australia, etc.? I feel I'm missing something here.

    3- Yes, in a close election, you don't have to recount all states again, with electoral college. But the chances that an election is close is much less in a popular vote election to begin with.

  8. Those who are so eager to Federalize a single, fast national election, abolish the Electoral College, abolish the filibuster, stack the Supreme Court, increase intrusion in to politics by Federal law enforcement, and engage in widespread censorship of social media, should remember the Second Law of Political Dynamics: "What goes around, comes around."

  9. "To Democratic readers in a huff that Trump needs to concede now, and to the media and commentators hyperventilating about it: Take a deep breath, and let the system work. Let the votes be certified, let the legal challenges fail, let the electoral college vote, and then, and only then, start worrying if it isn't all over."

    It's then, and only then.


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