On Repeatedly Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Here’s a terrible idea that is getting far more traction than it should: Massachusetts has just passed a law that would set it up to give its electoral votes to whichever Presidential candidate gets the largest number of votes in the popular election. This reason is that, had such a system been in place in the 2000 election, Al Gore would have become President instead of George W. Bush.

It’s a terrible idea for a couple of reasons, the first of which is that it is trying to remedy a situation that is a decade old and unlikely to occur in exactly that same way again. It’s just as likely in the next razor-close election, that the roles will be reversed. It’s based on the assumption that the electoral college system is somehow less democratic than majority rule. Representative are directly elected. Thanks to the 17th Amendment, Senators are directly elected. And, if Massachusetts gets its way, soon Presidents will be directly elected too. There’s nothing inherently superior about direct election – on the contrary, it has turned the Senate into just a Second House of Representatives.

In many European countries, people vote for a party, not a particular candidate. So, there is no direct election of any candidate, the Prime Minister included. Personally, I wouldn’t want that system for the United States, but I think anyone would be hard-pressed to claim that European countries are ‘undemocratic’ for not using direct elections.

The second reason this idea is terrible is that the only law I know that works reliably is the law of unintended consequences. I’ll give an example: In the 2004 election, the state government of Massachusetts (which is heavily Democratic) realized that if John Kerry were elected President, then his vacant Senate seat would be filled by anyone appointed by the governor (at the time, Republican Mitt Romney). So they changed the law, effective immediately, to make it so that a special election would be necessary to fill a vacant Senate seat, thus taking the power to make the appointment out of the governor’s hands. (Never mind the fact that the people of Massachusetts knew full well when they elected Romney that he would be getting the power to make replacement appointments.)

Flash forward just a few years to August 25, 2009, when the other Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, passed away. By this time the governor was Democrat Deval Patrick, but he didn’t have the power to select a replacement. So (at a time of very tight finances) the government of Massachusetts spent about $7 million to hold a special election, the result of which was that Scott Brown became the first Republican Senator from Massachusetts in more than a half-century.

The whole story reminds me of playing board games with my older brother when I was kid: any time he thought it was to his advantage, there was suddenly announced a rule change that made it harder for me to win. In the article linked above, the man pushing for the rule change is John Koza, chairman of the group National Popular Vote, who said: “Suddenly a vote in Massachusetts will be important.”

Except, no it won’t (exactly). To win the election, a candidate will only need 50% of the popular votes (plus one), regardless of where those votes came from. So a vote in Massachusetts won’t be any more or less important than a vote from any other state. The votes that will be the most valuable will be those from moderates and those from infrequent voters – the sort of people who are not party loyalists – the sort of people who only vote in elections where they think their vote will make a difference – that is, the sort of people who made Scott Brown a Senator.

What Koza really means is ‘suddenly a Republican vote in Massachusetts will be important’. For decades some Republicans in Massachusetts have been casting their votes in Presidential elections knowing full well that all of the electoral votes were likely to go the Democratic candidate. Many others simply stayed home, thinking ‘What’s the point?’. With a direct election system, there will suddenly be a good reason for them to go to the polls.

If Koza (or anyone else) wants Massachusetts to ‘get attention’, there are two key pieces to doing so:

1. be likely to do something

2. be unpredictable in what that something might be

A person who is likely to do something, but unpredictable in what that something is will get a lot of attention in any situation. Massachusetts residents are very likely to vote (so they’ve got point #1 covered), but they reliably vote Democratic – so their commonwealth doesn’t get much attention from either party.

I think, though, what Koza wants is not for Massachusetts to ‘get attention’, it’s simply for Democrats to win more elections, especially of the Presidential variety. And if that’s what he wants, then Barack Obama showed how it is possible to do that, even with the current electoral college system in place: be compelling.

The 2000 election was extremely close because it was between two white, middle-aged, Harvard-educated southerners who got into Harvard because of their rich and powerful daddies, got into politics because of their rich and powerful daddies, and then fell over each other to be indistinguishable from the other. The 2008 election, on the other hand, was a blowout because one candidate provided a much more compelling vision of the future than the other.

If people think that switching from the current electoral system to a direct system would have made Gore as compelling as Obama, I’ve got a little excitement for you: imagine how worked up Massachusetts Democrats will be the next time a Republican wins the popular vote by a sliver and, by law, the electors are compelled to cast all of their ballots for that person, rather than listen to the majority of voters in Massachusetts. There’s a taste of direct democracy for you.

UPDATE, Thursday August 5, 4:52pm: A couple of hours after publishing this post, I received a couple of comments from ‘mvymvy’ that are just pro-forma blocks of text that he (I’m assuming it’s a he) has used and reused at other sites and blogs that have discussed this National Popular Vote initiative. I find it kind of ironic that an organization that claims it is committed to ensuring that the voice of the individual is heard during Presidential elections would not even take the effort to read my post before regurgitating the same content they’ve posted elsewhere. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?

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