America keeps counting

In the week and a half since we last looked at the aftermath of the US presidential election, about another four million votes have been counted, the majority of them for Democrat Hillary Clinton. She now leads by more than 2.67 million votes; in two-party terms, that’s 51.04%. (I’m using the figures compiled by the Cook Political Report; David Leip’s numbers seem to lag a little, although they’re very similar.)

So far this week, ten states have added new figures, but the only significant ones have been from California and New York, both strongly Democrat. California’s total of unprocessed ballots is now down to about 140,000 (not all of which will be valid); New York doesn’t seem to report a statewide total, but it’s probably of the same order of magnitude. There will be some bits and pieces elsewhere still to come in, but it’s getting near the end. (And about time too, being a month since polling day.)

That means that Clinton, with 65.5 million votes, is not quite going to match the 65.9 million that Barack Obama got in 2012, but she’s very close. The two-party swing since 2012 is now down to 0.9%, the lowest since 1888 – the year that incumbent Grover Cleveland improved his vote share by 0.1% but still lost the presidency. Weirdness in the electoral college is not new.

Clinton has also passed an Australian milestone, in that her share of the vote now equals that of Kim Beazley’s Labor Party in 1998, the highest ever losing score in an Australian election. America’s problems are not unique.

Nonetheless, “wrong” results in a parliamentary system make some sense, as a by-product of other desirable (or at least arguable) goals: securing local representation, providing for stable majorities, avoiding the complexity of proportional systems. None of these things apply to the electoral college. As I said immediately after the election, “It serves no intelligible purpose other than to introduce random errors into election results.”

Because, of course, four weeks of extra counting have changed nothing in electoral college terms. Donald Trump has 306 seats to Clinton’s 232; the closest state, Michigan, still has Trump in the lead with 50.12% (two-party), or a lead of about 10,700 votes.

That’s close enough to be worth recounting; realistically, it’s probably the only state that is, although another five states (three Trump and two Clinton) were won with less than 51%. The Republicans, of course, have used every available legal manoeuvre to try to prevent recounts. Their task has been made easier by the fact that the requests for recounts have come not from the Clinton campaign but from Greens candidate Jill Stein, who received just over 1% of the vote and therefore is not, in any reasonable sense, an interested party.

Republicans are arguing that recounts should be stopped if they can’t be completed by next Tuesday, 13 December, which is the federal legislative deadline (called the “safe harbor”) for certifying the results. That was the excuse that the Supreme Court used to stop the 2000 Florida recount in Bush v. Gore; those justices also warned against using their decision as a precedent, but the Republicans at least are consistent in not caring about how people actually voted.

Whatever happens, there’s no real doubt that on 19 December, when the electors meet in their several states, the majority will cast their votes for Trump. A handful will make protest votes of one sort or another, but it will not affect the result. Which in turn, ironically enough, further undermines the rationale for the electoral college system: if electors are supposed to exercise some sort of independent judgement, when would they ever get a better case for it than this?

The argument from independent judgement has been bogus for two hundred years, as shown by the fact that the electors are about to choose someone universally regarded as unqualified, and who lost the popular vote by a substantial margin. In reality the electors are ciphers, whose only function is to periodically gum up the wheels of democracy.

6 thoughts on “America keeps counting

  1. “the electors are about to choose someone universally regarded as unqualified,”
    I take it that the voters are not included in the “universally”

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    1. Thanks Petra. Sure, “universally” is rhetorical, but the election was noteworthy for how many, even among those who voted for him, said they thought Trump was unqualified. See e.g. here and here.

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  2. I think it still makes sense to aggregate votes at some level smaller than the entire nation. This should be a check on favouring certain groups and encourage campaigns to appeal to broader groups of voters. The College makes sense to me, as an idea.

    I struggle with some of the commentary that seems to extrapolate from the Clinton popular vote to a conclusion that she’d have won the election if the electoral system were different. If the rules were different, both candidates would have run very different campaigns – Trump would have campaigned much more in states like California and New York, and Clinton in Texas and Arizona. I don’t think we can say much about how the election would have turned out if the College didn’t exist.

    I do think the number of College votes should more accurately reflect the population in each state. There’s probably a case for erring on the side of giving small states more College votes per voter, but not to the extent that the current College setup does (IIRC Californian votes are worth ~9x less than votes in the smallest states).

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    1. Thanks Matt. I think the idea of aggregating votes at state level is a solution in search of a problem. Sure, if a single state (or a few closely related states, like the deep south) had half the country’s population, so you were afraid someone could win the popular vote by just campaigning there, then you might want to do something to make them spread their effort more. But America isn’t like that; the largest state is still less than one-eighth of the total. And even if that were a problem, it’s not clear that the electoral college would help much.
      You’re quite right that the popular vote total doesn’t prove that Clinton would have won if the system were different. But it’s reasonably good evidence: a vote is a vote, wherever it comes from, so if one side was shifting resources to get votes somewhere different then they’d probably be losing them somewhere else at about the same rate. If Clinton only had, say, 50.1%, you’d say it could easily flip the other way from just random factors, but with 51% I think that argument’s harder to make.

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  3. I haven’t had the time nor the inclination to do the maths of excluding California and New York from the popular vote. I suspect that the result would be that Trump won more votes than Clinton. This is as meaningful an exercise as using a metric (the popular vote) that isn’t part of the voting system. There is little or no chance that the electoral college will be abolished as Constitutional amendments in the US require 75% of the state legislatures to support the change. Therefore North Dakota has as much importance in amending the Constitution as California. We do live in interesting times as US’ pivot to China started by Republican Nixon as a counterbalance to the USSR is now being pirouetted deftly in reverse.

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    1. Thanks GGA. Yes, if you take out California, Clinton loses the popular vote; if you take out the deep South, she wins it by twice as much. Neither really proves anything. But as I said to Matt above, given the size of her margin, it’s hard to argue that a different sort of campaign would have produced a different result.
      I agree that the prospects for constitutional change are poor, but perhaps not quite as poor as you think. Take North Dakota; superficially it might look as if it would lose out from abolishing the electoral college, since it would lose the extra weighting for its two senators. But the reality is that it gets zero attention now, because it’s safe for one side: its votes wouldn’t amount to much in a popular vote, but not much is still better than nothing at all. The only states that would really lose out are the small swing states – New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico.
      As you say, interesting times.

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