The U.S. Presidential election has once again wound its way to the usual end of utter exhaustion and despair, with little elation even for the winning candidate’s followers and utter despair at four years of futility for the losers. With both major party candidates disliked by the majority of voters and the low quality of U.S. government since 1988, numerous commentators have scratched their heads wondering if there is a better way to run the system.
The U.S. electoral system is an extreme case of “first past the post” electoral systems, in which the election result is highly binary. In the nineteenth century, in many elections, it did not matter too much which side won the Presidency, because the policy differences between the two sides was not that great and the government was tiny. Thus, William Henry Harrison’s victory over Martin van Buren in 1840 in practice changed little about the U.S. policy trajectory, nor did his grandson Benjamin’s victory over Grover Cleveland in 1888.
Even at that time, however, you can hardly say that no Presidential election changed anything. Andrew Jackson, elected in a landslide in 1828, changed the entire political culture of the country, as to a lesser extent did William McKinley, elected by a narrow margin in 1896. And the smallest popular mandate for any President, only 39.8% of the vote, elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and sparked off a civil war that left 800,000 dead (I would have been firmly for the Bell-Everett Constitutional Union ticket in that election.)
Even in the nineteenth century, therefore, U.S. Presidential elections could make an enormous difference to the lives of Americans, and were correspondingly fiercely fought, with fraud and shenanigans highly prevalent. In the twentieth century, as both the size of government and the relative power of Presidents has increased, the winner-take-all element in U.S. elections has increased.
That in turn has increased the likelihood of voter fraud; if the winner takes all, and the election turns on a small number of votes in a few hotly contested states, then the incentives for fraud become overwhelming. The 1960 election was in serious doubt because of fraud in Illinois and Texas; the 2000 election was in even more doubt because the result in Florida was agonizingly close, and seemed likely to be overturned by fraudulent “recounts” in large Democrat districts, until the Supreme Court closed the process down. In both elections, the process prevailed – just. However, tomorrow’s candidates may be less upright than the gentlemanly Richard Nixon and Al Gore, and hence the process’s survival cannot be guaranteed in a future such situation.
Electoral systems do not need to be “winner take all.” For an example of one that isn’t, I give you the British parliamentary system. Here the election is divided into 650 sub-elections, one for each constituency. Naturally, some constituencies are closer-fought than others, and as anywhere else there is a chance of voter fraud in any constituency, especially if the election there seems likely to be close. However, there is one important difference: the result in any individual constituency is of only modest importance, and even a variation of say 5 seats does not make all that much difference.
Thus, in 2010 David Cameron’s Conservatives gained 307 seats and was forced to enter into negotiations to form a coalition; that outcome would have been the same if he had gained 312 seats or 302, although any total below 300 or over 315 would have made a difference at the margin. Similarly, in 2015 the Conservatives gained 330 seats and formed a majority government. That result would also have been the same for any result down to 325 seats, and probably down to 320, although in the latter case he would have been forced to come to some arrangement with the Ulster Unionists. Thus, even in the case of those two close elections a variation of a few seats would have made no difference to the outcome, so the temptation to voter fraud was minor, even though the results in individual constituencies might have been affected.
The advantage of a British-type constituency system was shown in Britain itself by the Brexit referendum, a question of existential importance on which the referendum outcome was binary like a U.S. Presidential election. If there had been more data on how close the referendum was going to be, you can be sure that both sides would have resorted to election fraud. Now that the result has been declared, the losers are engaging in another form of election fraud, by attempting to get the result nullified through the courts.
Since the British court system was “reformed” by the odious Tony Blair, abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor, which had existed since AD 604, and filling the phony “Supreme Court” with “Tony’s cronies” of appropriate leftist group-think, this attempt is likely to succeed. Brexit will then be subjected, not just to the House of Commons, which would face the wrath of its constituents if it undid a properly authorized referendum, but to a House of Lords that was also gerrymandered by Blair and filled with leftist drones.
The British people should demand, if the courts overturn their referendum, that only hereditary peers should be allowed to vote in the Lords, thus restoring the legitimacy of the Second Chamber, reversing the appalling errors of 1911 (Parliament Act abolishing the Lord veto), 1958 (life peers) and 1998 (Blair). Only a fully legitimate legislature should be allowed to overturn a duly constituted referendum of the British people.
This robustness to small changes can be taken too far; in proportional representation systems, election after election can go by, with party support fluctuating considerably, yet every government is formed by negotiation between the leaders of the major parties after the election results are known. For half a century after World War II, elections in Italy meant almost nothing.
The problem is exacerbated if the political culture favors broad-based coalitions, especially “Grand Coalitions” between the two major parties of left and right. In such a system, policies that are clearly opposed by a majority of the electorate can become firmly entrenched in the political system, while the electorate has no effective means to change them. The result is the rise of anti-democratic parties like the Altermative für Deutschland, which reject the odious consensus politics that imposes the whims of a leftist elite on the unfortunate populace.
David Cameron, to his credit, realized the danger of this both to his party, and to the system as a whole, when he set up the Brexit referendum, which neutralized much of the appeal of UKIP. Remainers can reflect upon the anti-democratic action of John Major, in not giving the British people a similar referendum on the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Had he done so, and the people had voted against it, as the sound chaps presumably would have, Britain would not have left the EU but simply stopped the superstate in its tracks, forcing the EU to remain a free trade market with modestly harmonized regulations, as was originally promised.
I have written already about the other feature of the U.S. Presidential system that needs reform, the primary system. As 2016 demonstrated, this allows voters with no great connection to a political party, or even those who oppose it, to dominate the nomination of its political candidate. In 2016, the primary system produced two bad results, among the Democrats where insider party apparatchiks were allowed to select the candidate and among Republicans, where the most ignorant and politically unconnected dominated the selection system.
The solution is to return to a “smoke filled room” system, but one that is highly decentralized to the states, so that Washington insiders play little role, and state party members, those most engaged in the party’s future, get to select the nominee., I look forward to the Ted Cruz presidency that will follow the adoption of this procedure, and to future nominees who can no longer neglect the deep seated political beliefs of the party’s core supporters.
Democracy is not a perfect form of government; it produces statesmen substantially inferior to those of the “mixed” political system intended by the Founding Fathers and in operation in Britain in 1660-1832. But that train has left the station; we cannot recreate the rotten boroughs, nor the complex property qualifications for voting beloved of the early Federalists.
However, we can improve the system we have by reducing its “winner take all” nature. If in the United States we do not want to shift to a Parliamentary system, and are not confident of shrinking the government and the Presidency to its pre-1828 level, there is still an alternative available, which is to dictate the Presidential term’s length by the size of majority the President receives. We can either keep the Electoral College to do this or lose it, but assume for a moment we keep it, then each 40-delegate margin in the Electoral College would entitle the winner to a year in office, with the period in office increasing or decreasing proportionately.
At one extreme, the modest 5-delegate margin achieved by George W. Bush in 2000 would have entitled him to 46 days in office, and his 35-delegate margin on re-election would have entitled him to a further 319 days in office, for a year in total. Had 538 voters in Florida in 2000 gone the other way, President Gore would have been entitled to 411 days in office, ending his term in early March, 2002. Thus, the “swing” from Florida’s extremely close result would have been much less significant than a full 4-year term for the winner.
President Obama’s 192 delegate margin in 2008, on the other hand, would have entitled him to 1,752 days in office, ten months longer than his actual first term. His second term on the other hand would have been 1,150 days, shorter than his actual second term, so he would have left office on December 31, 20 days earlier than in reality.
At the other extreme, President Reagan’s 440-delegate majority in 1980 would have entitled him to a massive 4,015 days in office, just 11 years — his first term would have ended in January 1992. Thus, a really popular President who was re-elected (you would keep the current two-term limit) might in an extreme case serve for 20 years while President George W. Bush, even with re-election, would have been out of office in a year.
With majority-linked terms in office and party-member selection of nominees, the U.S. political system would be greatly improved. The newly elected President Donald Trump under this system would find his fairly narrow victory gave him 675 days in office, just under two years, assuming he takes Michigan but not New Hampshire. His success in office would then determine how long his second term would be.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)