Statism in the United States of America

The picture is of course of Thomas Jefferson. When out of the presidency, he defended states' rights in the name of freedom; when in it, he sent the USS enterprise to crush North African pirates and Muslim slavers, abandoned black revolutionaries like Toussaint L'Ouverture, attempted to subvert Judges, and bought Louisiana, stretching from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico, from Napoleon without asking Congress.

It used to be difficult to use European terms in the USA. 'The State' could of course mean the local sovereign entities which are far more than mere administrative units, but which also have histories and aspirations as political units that Europeans, especially from big countries, never quite understand. 'The Federal government' was a phrase apt to be mistaken. Its public face, the presidency, was often confused with the Congress, whose semi-permanent and semi-dynastic political class, with their media support structure, were actually responsible for allowing the presidency to get away with things, or to spend anything.

There was another difficulty too. One of the reasons European liberals and centrists of a statist bent sometimes admire the United States is because, as Andrew Sullivan points out here, it is a very conservative polity which tends to produce innovative political ideas, like baby bonds and gay marriage and abortion as a right and so on. Yet it is, because of its local democracy and the power of its more conservative judges, often unable to implement them.

Centralised European states run by urban middle classes, on the other hand, are very bad at producing workable ideas but very good at implementing them, if good is measured in terms of coherent, quasi-stalinist bureaucratic efficacy. So urbanised and statist progressives in Europe very often adopt American ideas and, paradoxically, a quasi-American disdain for the conservative Americans who oppose them at the same time as they watch films and follow television set in liberal America or based on liberal American themes. Such behaviours are of a piece with their upholding what they think are French philosophies, but which are actually Atlantic ideas filtered through some American academic or other.

A third difficulty was that the United States clung, because of the difficulty of amending its constitution, to what had become the shadows of its ninth and tenth amendments, reserving power to the sovereign people and states quite fiercely. One was always likelier to find genuine democracy in townships and in embarrassing state elections than at the centre, for all the rhetoric.

Now, a largely urban and somewhat nationally-minded group, or rather a congeries of groups, wants to change that. Rather unsurprisingly, a British Tory with a Marxist past has backed the idea.

The movement for one uniform electoral vote across the country has gained some small momentum. It wishes to force, via a series of legislative acts, members of future electoral colleges that elect the president to vote according to the national popular vote. This campaign wishes to act by getting the states to pass fairly meaningless laws to achieve this aim which will only activate when enough states to accumulate 270 electoral votes have ratified them.

A state's electoral vote depends upon its congressional delegation, which can be no smaller than 3 (2 Senators + 1 representative) and which grows in proportion to the number of representatives drawn on population. There can only be 435 representatives in the whole country.

This system is one suited to a federal republic. It ensures that small states count, and that issues in places like Ohio, Florida, Texas, California and New York, to identify the usual suspects, cannot be the sole occupation of politicians. People running for the presidency must take into account the smaller states, which can often parlay their importance into subsidies, or various trade or market protections.

More importantly, the conservative, religious, rural and often armed voters of local areas, who represent a huge portion of the American population, cannot be totally sidelined in favour of urban concerns, as in Europe. You may think that this is a bad thing, and that such groups have been rampant and destructive in recent years. You may also think that, in power, the representatives of such groups have been grossly intolerant of urban liberals.

But if you do, that's not an argument to centralise the United States under urban liberals, centrists, and those used to the necessary morals and compromises of the city. That is an argument for separate sovereignties, and for the decentralisation that the electoral college represents.

The bottom line is that, to preserve democracy in the states, and to direct responsibility for American ills to where it belongs--in the state legislatures and, pre-eminently, the Federal Congress--the presidential elections of the United States can not be completely democratic. I disagree strongly with the movement to make the electoral college irrelevant, having spent nearly twenty years in one way or another lecturing or teaching about the USA, or to Americans, and I urge any American readers to think about the implications of the campaign for electoral reform there too. If you want civil wars on some small scale, vote for this measure and see what happens.


mvymvy said…
The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the U.S. President is that presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided "battleground" states. 98% of the 2008 campaign events involving a presidential or vice-presidential candidate occurred in ONLY 15 closely divided “battleground” states. Over half (57%) of the events were in ONLY four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). Similarly, 98% of ad spending took place in ONLY these 15 “battleground” states. Similarly, in 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in ONLY five states and over 99% of their money in ONLY 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule enacted by 48 states, under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, of course, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.
mvymvy said…
The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The Constitution gives every state the power to allocate its electoral votes for president, as well as to change state law on how those votes are awarded.

The bill is currently endorsed by 1,246 state legislators — 460 sponsors (in 48 states) and an additional 786 legislators who have cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

The National Popular Vote bill has been endorsed by the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, Miami Herald, Sarasota Herald Tribune, Sacramento Bee, The Tennessean, Fayetteville Observer, Anderson Herald Bulletin, Wichita Falls Times, The Columbian, and other newspapers. The bill has been endorsed by Common Cause, Fair Vote, and numerous other organizations.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. This national result is similar to recent polls in Arkansas (80%), California (70%), Colorado (68%), Connecticut (73%), Delaware (75%), Kentucky (80%), Maine (71%), Massachusetts (73%), Michigan (73%), Mississippi (77%), Missouri (70%), New Hampshire (69%), Nebraska (74%), Nevada (72%), New Mexico (76%), New York (79%), North Carolina (74%), Ohio (70%), Pennsylvania (78%), Rhode Island (74%), Vermont (75%), Virginia (74%), Washington (77%), and Wisconsin (71%).

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 23 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes — 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

mvymvy said…
The National Popular Vote plan is an interstate compact — a type of state law that is explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution that enables otherwise sovereign states to enter into legally enforceable contractual obligations with one another.

Each state belongs to thousands of interstate compacts, including some compacts that have been enacted in the form of statutory law by the state legislature and numerous additional compacts that have been entered into by various boards, commissions, authorities, and the executive branch under the authority of the state's constitution or statutes. Examples of interstate compacts include the Colorado River Compact (allocating water among seven western states), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (a two-state compact involving New York and New Jersey), the Multi-State Tax Compact, and the Multi-State Lottery Compact (which operates the Power Ball lotto game in 20-some states). There are numerous compacts that include all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Interstate compacts existed under the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution explicitly continued compacts that were in existence when the Constitution came into force.

Interstate compacts are legally enforceable on the states because the U.S. Constitution requires a state to honor all commitments that it makes in an interstate compact. The Impairments Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 10, clause 1) provides:

"No State shall … pass any … Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts."

The Council of State Governments summarizes the nature of interstate compacts as follows:

"Compacts are agreements between two or more states that bind them to the compacts' provisions, just as a contract binds two or more parties in a business deal. As such, compacts are subject to the substantive principles of contract law and are protected by the constitutional prohibition against laws that impair the obligations of contracts (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 10).

"That means that compacting states are bound to observe the terms of their agreements, even if those terms are inconsistent with other state laws. In short, compacts between states are somewhat like treaties between nations. Compacts have the force and effect of statutory law (whether enacted by statute or not) and they take precedence over conflicting state laws, regardless of when those laws are enacted.

"However, unlike treaties, compacts are not dependent solely upon the good will of the parties. Once enacted, compacts may not be unilaterally renounced by a member state, except as provided by the compacts themselves. Moreover, Congress and the courts can compel compliance with the terms of interstate compacts."
mvymvy said…
The small states are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus.

Small states are almost invariably non-competitive in presidential election. Only 1 of the 13 smallest states are battleground states (and only 5 of the 25 smallest states are battlegrounds).

Of the 13 smallest states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska regularly vote Republican, and Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC regularly vote Democratic. These 12 states together contain 11 million people. Because of the two electoral-vote bonus that each state receives, the 12 non-competitive small states have 40 electoral votes. However, the two-vote bonus is an entirely illusory advantage to the small states. Ohio has 11 million people and has "only" 20 electoral votes. As we all know, the 11 million people in Ohio are the center of attention in presidential campaigns, while the 11 million people in the 12 non-competitive small states are utterly irrelevant. Nationwide election of the President would make each of the voters in the 12 smallest states as important as an Ohio voter.

The fact that the bonus of two electoral votes is an illusory benefit to the small states has been widely recognized by the small states for some time. In 1966, Delaware led a group of 12 predominantly low-population states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania) in suing New York in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that New York's use of the winner-take-all effectively disenfranchised voters in their states. The Court declined to hear the case (presumably because of the well-established constitutional provision that the manner of awarding electoral votes is exclusively a state decision). Ironically, defendant New York is no longer a battleground state (as it was in the 1960s) and today suffers the very same disenfranchisement as the 12 non-competitive low-population states. A vote in New York is, today, equal to a vote in Wyoming--both are equally worthless and irrelevant in presidential elections.

The concept of a national popular vote for President is far from being politically “radioactive” in small states, because the small states recognize they are the most disadvantaged group of states under the current system.

The National Popular Vote bill already has been approved by a total of seven state legislative chambers in small states, including one house in Maine and both houses in Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It has been enacted by Hawaii.
Martin Meenagh said…
I like the quality of your spams. The bottom line is that the United States is a federal republic and you can't sweep away the states, legalistic silliness about compacts or not. This effort is misplaced; the problems America has at the minute are almost all a consequence of Congress, the media, and the role of money in the relations between the two. The reform whoever wrote these spams proposes would not do anything positive and may indeed worsen the costs of campaigning and the hubris of the elected.
Martin Meenagh said…
I would also point out that the internet and the eventual victory of Barack Obama last November suggest that 'wasted votes' in some states are not as prevalent as they were--and voters can 'set off' or swap votes tactically if they want. America is not some centralised European national republic.
Martin Meenagh said…
What this all is, on reflection, is junk food--a quick fix for a working day that's gone. Turnout changes, battleground states change, and regional issues change. The harder but better thing to do would be to change your abysmal party consensus, break the filtering power of the media, and stop generating false personality based controversies for infotainment whilst ignoring serious questions. That would probably involve campaign finance reform, more state, city and county sovereignty, and a dimunition of federal power.

It would also mean different rules and different opportunities in different parts of the USA, with the Bill of Rights and the fourteenth amendment protecting basic rights. Why on earth should everything be standardised?

I am conscious I am writing for any reader whose eyes fall upon these words, and not exchanging ideas since the implication of the timing of the above posts suggests some sort of spamming device.
Martin Meenagh said…
I might also point out to any reader that if the Democratic Party wanted to appeal to Idaho or Indiana, or the Republicans to California and New York--and it isn't impossible--then they'd have to change their appeal and policies and get people to stop voting as they do in those states, like Obama did in Indiana last time. A quick-fix of subjecting people in predominantly rural states to some majoritarian tyranny from the cities just would not work. If you really like democracy, make it local, down to counties and townships, and think about open primaries in those jurisdictions.

All the comments above rom mvymvy, by the way, appear under different names word for word elsewhere on the web. I am not particularly bothered by this sort of graffiti but you really do have to wonder about whoever programmes a machine to launch it at me in the name of some uniform-voting idee fixe.
berenike said…
Or someone who has a ready text and pastes it into the comboxes of whatever vaguely relevant post he turns up ...
Martin Meenagh said…
well, exactly. I think that this is a more organised effort, however--some of these words have been submitted elsewhere under female names, some under male. This is a well-organised campaign to have a go at the electoral college and I think that it is misconceived.
Anonymous said…
Federalism concerns the allocation of power between state governments and the national government. The National Popular Vote bill concerns how votes are tallied, not how much power state governments possess relative to the national government. The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, along district lines (as is currently the case in Maine and Nebraska), or national lines.
Anonymous said…
National Popular Vote has nothing to do with whether the country has a "republican" form of government or is a "democracy."

A "republican" form of government means that the voters do not make laws themselves but, instead, delegate the job to periodically elected officials (Congressmen, Senators, and the President). The United States has a "republican" form of government regardless of whether popular votes for presidential electors are tallied at the state-level (as is currently the case in 48 states) or at district-level (as is currently the case in Maine and Nebraska) or at 50-state-level (as under the National Popular Vote bill).

If a "republican" form of government means that the presidential electors exercise independent judgment (like the College of Cardinals that elects the Pope), we have had a "democratic" method of electing presidential electors since 1796 (the first contested presidential election). Ever since 1796, presidential candidates have been nominated by a central authority (originally congressional caucuses, and now party conventions) and electors are reliable rubberstamps for the voters of the district or state that elected them.
Anonymous said…
Presidential candidates currently do everything within their power to raise as much money as they possibly can from donors throughout the country. They then allocate the money that they raise nationally to places where it will do the most good toward their goal of winning the election.

Money doesn't grow on trees. The fact that candidates would spend their money more broadly (that is, in all 50 states) would not, in itself, loosen up the wallet of a single donor anywhere in the country. Candidates will continue to try to raise as much money as economic considerations permit. Economic considerations by donors determines how much money will be available, not the existence of an increases number of places where the money might be spent.

Under the current system, they spend two-thirds of their time and money in just six closely divided battleground states; 80% in just nine states; and 99% in just 16 states. That's precisely what they should do in order to get elected under the current system, because the voters of two-thirds of the states simply don't matter. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns of voters of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

If every vote mattered throughout the United States, as it would under a national popular vote, candidates would have to reallocate the money they raise over all 50 states.
Martin Meenagh said…
Federalism isn't just some administrative fetish by which local politicians are appeased. It allows for the maintenance in the minds of voters of two different sorts of allegiances and an approach to politics which does not look to central national solutions or uniformity as a comfort.

A national popular vote would severely weaken this and, amongst other things, give to the winner of a vote which would still be conducted on different terms in different states--here a paper ballot, there a touch screen, here a rule about postalvoting, there a rule about counting--a dubious and unchecked legitimacy. Turnout could not be guaranteed, and in very close elections, the mechanism for selecting a winner would be much more divisive than a tested and traditional process.

Moreover, urban areas and the coasts, plus chicago, would simply predominate, and the people in rural areas would matter even less than now.

The endorsements of newspapers and local politicians under pressure from the organisation that can throw comments like the automated ones above at me is neither here nor there. Greater numbers would have backed prohibition or the fugitive slave act or other silly, and national, ideas.

One solution that wouldn't involve all the constitutional subversion being mooted is for states to allocate their electors by congressional district, rather than as a unit. To do so, however, should be up to states. Expensive and well-organised campaigns to force everyone to do the same thing shouldn't be followed.

The United States is in a ratcheting fiscal crisis; this is not the time to waste time conveying on the presidency an additional democratic legitimacy just to appease those who thought it lost it in the Vietnam war, or their heirs.
Martin Meenagh said…
By the way, there's a sleight of hand, as it were, in the posts above, since, as 2008 demonstrated, the electoral college comes at the end of a very long process in both parties that starts in the primary system. This system isn't often mentioned by American constitutional reformers because it tends to undermine their argument.

Without it, the electoral system might approximate to their criticisms; with it, and with its fantastic localism, they are arguing theologically about the slightest perceived imperfection in their civic ideal.

It's interesting reading where this stuff is coming from. The first load came from california, the second from wisconsin, but both were prefaced by a 'myv' prefix. I will snarfle around and report back on how this colossal graffiti system works....
Martin Meenagh said…
I'll correct that. All of the posts I have received are from Wisconsin; I presume that they come from a contributor identified on the national popular vote site. The same posts seem to have been posted elsewhere associated with a woman in california, but I make no claims to forensic skills on the web.

And stop tutting. This is a timewasting blog....