August 24, 2019
Are popular votes a good thing? When it comes to deciding issues or making policy, we could cite examples pro and con. The Brexit fiasco is an argument against referenda. My state uses popular votes freely, by initiative and referendum and to authorize property levies. That system produces mixed results. A negative example is the repeal, some years ago, of the state inheritance tax.
On the plus side is Initiative I-1639, passed last year, which imposed gun controls; it accomplished something important which the Legislature had failed to do. However, it also demonstrated the limitations of legislation by initiative; the proposed law was far too complex for most voters to fully comprehend and, unlike the legislative process, there was no forum for clarifying discussion. As to legislation, it’s better, on average, when the will of the people is expressed through representatives. Is indirect voting best as well in choosing a president, or should we trust and empower the people?
The question can be posed by two quotes attributed to, or borrowed by, Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” but “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” To frame the dilemma another way: On August 16, I noted the deficiency in public political knowledge revealed by surveys. That hardly is a basis for arguing that we need more democracy, but we can’t wait for better education to decide whether the people should vote for president directly or through an undemocratic filter, the electoral college.
When I’ve seen or heard the terms “populism” and “populist,” I’ve thought they were misused, often in a sense evoking white nationalism or something equally reactionary. However, we usually think of our nation as populist in the sense that the people rule. Do they? The fact that twice in sixteen years the electoral college canceled the popular vote demonstrates that we do not have a system in which the people genuinely choose their President. The advent of Donald Trump is sufficient proof that we need more democracy, notwithstanding the shortcomings of the electorate; their choice was better, as it was in 2000.
The electoral college reflects the structure of Congress, which is only a semi-democratic institution. Although allocation of House seats is based on population, adjusted every ten years by the census, each state has two Senators regardless of population, which varies widely, so representation in the Senate is anything but equal; one person, one vote does not apply there. Senators are, since adoption of Amendment XVII, elected by the people of their states, so a popular vote is involved, but that does not eliminate the inherent inequality of representation.
California, with 39,747,267 people has two Senators (one per 19,873,634 people), as does Wyoming, with 572,381 (0ne per 286,191). If the states were significant entities or had historical status, the iscrepancy might be justifiable. That argument can be made for the original thirteen, but west of there, boundaries often are arbitrary. Whatever the reasons for the size, shape and topography of the states, the makeup of the Senate distorts the electoral college.
The electoral system allocates to each state votes equal to the total of its Senators plus Representatives, thereby copying, in diluted form, the anti-populist bias of the Senate. California has 55 electoral votes, one per 722,678 people, Wyoming 3, one per 190,794. The ten smallest states by population (including the District Of Columbia) have 8,748,783 residents combined and 32 electoral votes, one per 273,399 people. The ten largest have 178,350,729 residents and 256 votes, one per 696,683. It makes no sense.
However, we’re stuck with the makeup of the states and the Senate, and probably with the electoral college, all of which have constitutional status, so three programs are crucial to restoration of democracy; the first is adoption of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) to neutralize the electoral college.
The member states of NPVIC pledge to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, thus converting the electoral college into a populist institution. The compact will take effect when adopted by states possessing 270 electoral votes, a majority of the total, 538. It has been enacted into law in 16 states (including DC), possessing 196 electoral votes, and will take effect if states with 74 votes are added. The chances are difficult to evaluate; several states have gone part way, for example by passing the bill in one house, but Colorado now will vote on a referendum to repeal its adoption.
The other two changes necessary to government by the people are recapture of the Senate and the White House by Democrats and major restrictions on filibusters and holds, so that the Senate can come closer to conducting the people’s business.
67. My comments on the initiative are in the post of 12/30/18.
68. State populations: http://worldpopulationreview.com/states/
69. Electoral votes: https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/allocation.html