Friday, November 30, 2007

The Election That Wasn't

On November 4, 2008, Americans will elect their next president. What better time for a refresher on the election process?

This is how American presidential elections work: Americans go to voting stations and cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice. Once they're done, all the votes are counted. The candidate with the greatest percentage of the people's votes becomes president-elect. And once he (or perhaps she) assumes office the following January, he will be under the obligation of legislating into existence the policy agenda he ran on - the one dealing with matters like unemployment, health care, abortion, defense, etc.

Oh wait - ha ha. Silly me. That's what tens of millions of Americans imagine, despite - or is it because of? - having gone through high school civics classes and "US Government 101"-type classes at college. What actually happens is this.

On election day, Americans visit polling stations in which they will be given a ballot containing the names of presidential candidates. The "voter" then selects his favourite - yet under the terms of the United States Constitution, this ballot has no legal standing whatsoever as a vote for president. Nor do the tens of millions of other votes have any such legal standing. What that means is that even if all 280 million Americans decided on election day to vote for the same candidate, under the supreme law of the United States, that 280,000,000 to zero landslide victory would have no legally-binding effect on who actually became the president of the United States. In short, by Constitutional design, the president of the United States is not, and never has been, elected by popular vote. Remember all those bumper stickers that say, "Your vote counts"? Mmmmmmmmmnot really. ("BUT WHAT ABOUT FLORIDA!!!?". My answer: exactly. What about Florida? It meant nothing in the end, and only through an act of illegality far more brazen than that alleged to have been committed by "Bush and his buddies on the Supreme Court", could it have been made to count).

Where were we? Oh yes.

There are, in fact, only 538 Americans whose votes for president count. They are the "electors" chosen by each state (in whichever way they like); it is they who comprise the "electoral college". And while those electors are often chosen or elected based on which presidential candidate they have pledged to vote for, the bald truth is that once those special electors are elected, they are free to vote for whomever they please on election day. So-called "faithless electors" - those electors who change their minds after being appointed or elected - may theoretically be punished or censured by the state for breaking their pledge. Yet it is an historical fact that while there have been a number of faithless electors over the years, none has ever been punished.

I believe that part of the frustration felt by many Americans over the results of the 2000 election was caused by ignorance of the fact that the popular vote is not legally binding on presidential election results. (It is even still quite common to hear people grouse that Bush "stole the election" because "most people voted against him". But of course, it is nothing new in American history that a candidate wins the electoral college while losing the popular vote, nor is it, in itself, evidence of anything shady).

Just one little example of how that can happen:

Say two candidates - Joe and Mike - are running for president in a two state country, which has a winner-take-all, electoral college system like the US.

The two states are Leftistan, with 1000 popular voters (and 10 electoral college votes), and Rightistan, with 900 popular voters (and 9 electoral college votes).

In Leftistan, 512 people vote for Joe, who therefore wins Leftistan and all ten of its electoral votes. (That is, 488 Leftistanians voted for Mike).

In Rightistan, however, 654 popular voters (out of 900) voted for Mike, making Mike the winner of that state.

Supposing that the electoral college electors reflected the popular votes in their respective states, then, Joe - having won Leftistan and its electoral college votes - would win the presidential election by a margin of ten electoral college votes, to Rightistan's nine.

Yet, who won the popular vote? In Leftistan, 488 voted for Mike, and in Rightistan, 654 did, making a total of 1,142 popular votes for Mike, compared to only 758 for the legal winner, Joe.

The last thing to mention is that the Constitution prescribes a fairly limited role to the president; that so many citizens continue to think of the president as some sort of super-legislator says more about the human need for feeling secure - an impulse toward deification, to put it in more extreme terms - than about the actual Constitution. The president's primary Constitutionally-defined job, in addition to being commander-in-chief (though even that role is relatively circumscribed) is to ensure that federal laws passed by Congress are enforced.

It is of course true that in a state absolutely bloated by bureaucracy, much of which is federal, the president can in effect change some policies; he need only sign an executive order or sign off on some new program or reshuffling, and the way that the latest self-righteous, democratically-unaccountable horde of control freaks unleashed by the executive branch goes about their tax-dollar-wasting projects may be tempered a bit. Other than that power - which to speak the truth, is a power which arguably he shouldn't even have to the extent he does now - the US president just doesn't have that much direct power over policy.

Now - just before people start feeling too upset - the United States did become the greatest superpower the world has ever known in under two centuries. And if we acknowledge that it was not some nation-wide divine endowment of greater intelligence, we must concede that at least some of that rise - and maybe most of it, or maybe even all of it - has to be attributable to the genius of the American system of government (and certainly, reading "The Federalist" is an awe-inspiring experience). But whether that rise has mostly to do with the way American government operates now, or is mostly attributable to the momentum gained during the 150 years of a much more limited, frugal, and aloof federal government, is a very good question...


Janet said...

I think it's a sad commentary when someone in/from Canada knows more about the American election system than most Americans.


Someday I hope my vote will actually count.

Tal said...

Hi Janet

If it makes you feel any better, while I was born in Canada, I'm a dual citizen, spent much of my childhood in Washington, and lived in Utah for years. I also attended an American university (Utah State University), from which I graduated with a political science degree.

You might also feel better knowing that the votes of state electors almost always mimic the popular vote results.

Janet said...

Yeah, I know. But right now I live in a "Red" state, with an asshole of a Governor. (Matt Blunt). Ugh.

I can only support the revolution, I can't start it.

Amy said...

MOST favorite blog post this year.
Thanks for giving clarity to those who's eyes are clouded in Bureaucratic Grime.
The concern about our electoral system I think is that voters don't think their vote counts. On a smaller civic level, ie: State and Local Government, it does. 1 to 1. However for the bigger picture the electoral process has been proven to be a winner throughout the centuries. Hard to grasp? Yes, but successful none-the-less.

Verity said...

How dare you imply that President Cheney has no real power...? ;)

You said:

"It is of course true...the president can in effect change some policies; he need only sign an executive order or sign off on some new program or reshuffling...Other than that power -- the US president just doesn't have that much direct power over policy."

What about little loopholes like Presidential signing statements? Or the powers currently granted under the Military Commissions or PATRIOT acts? Just wondering if those are in fact only soft powers in the end, in your opinion.