Collegial elections

Election Day is widely believed to have been a month and a half ago, but in fact Election Day is today: the day that those mysterious decisionmakers, the Electors, gather in their College to formally decide who will be the next president. Some hoped for a kind of cinema-hero surprise, in which enough Trump electors would stand up bravely and, in front of some moodily-lit red-white-and-blue bunting, deliver a speech about Honesty and Integrity and Nation, after which they would—well, who knows; maybe elect Mike Pence or Donald Duck or anybody else to the world’s most powerful office. Unsurprisingly, this did not turn out to be the case. Honesty and Integrity and Nation and all those other principles are worth about as much as arcade tokens when compared to the hard currency of Party and Ideology.

Given that Clinton earned several million more votes than Trump, it’s as good a time as any to question the bizarre selection process left to us by Founding Fathers who encoded both an anti-majoritarian paranoia and a permanent political subsidy to the Slave Power into the logic of the U.S. Constitution. Almost nobody, if they were designing an electoral system today, would make it look like the Electoral College. As countless observers have pointed out, the net effect of winner-take-all systems in states bounded by ancient territorial divisions is a kind of high-level gerrymandering. Neil Freeman and Josh Wallaert, writing in Places Journal, show how merely redrawing state lines while keeping county-level voting patterns the same can result in wildly different electoral outcomes (amongst other regionalization models, they use our new study of commuter megaregions).

Democrats, rightly, are furious that the election has been stolen from them—although the strange distribution of state results also bespeaks a massive tactical error on the part of the Clinton campaign. Even without an obviously undemocratic outcome like the 2016 election to sharpen the outrage, reform-minded thinkers have seen the Electoral College as an absurdity, and suggested innovative strategies, like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, to finally leave our seventeenth-century system behind.

These are laudable reforms, and I hope that my own state of New Hampshire will join the NPVIC before long (though with a Republican chokehold in Concord, it seems unlikely). But I do think there is some residual principle worth at least considering, if not salvaging outright, in the system of requiring presidential candidates to spread their attention across the country. There is much to like in the ‘one person, one vote’ theory of mass electoral politics which is the main point of popular-vote reforms, but it has the side effect of shading off into a kind of atomized libertarianism: of making voters into isolated tic-marks who can be tallied against each other. A better kind of politics is a politics of organization and solidarity, which recognizes that groups have common interests that require them to act in unison. This is the basic theory behind collective bargaining in unions: instead of treating each individual employee as ‘one person, one contract,’ the workers band together to form something stronger than when they are fragmented apart. District-block voting is to electoral politics what collective bargaining is to labor economics. It mediates the relationship between individual and mass in a manner which can privilege certain groups over others. The trick is figuring out how to justly apportion that privilege.

Carl Sauer, writing in a 1918 article against gerrymandering, argued that places bind together coherent body politics:

A region of geographic unity is one in which conditions of life are in general similar because of similarity of environment. … Quite commonly also the people of such an area have a common history … Past and present, therefore, combine to give such an area a definite political attitude. The interests of representative government demand that such a crystallized opinion be given a voice, that it be not concealed by the division of the natural unit.

There is a whiff of environmental determinism in Sauer’s reading that I do not want to ratify. But I believe there is still something here which is worth preserving. We do, in fact, come into political consciousness in the context of our surroundings, and regional units of social organization do in fact deserve a form of political standing.