In his “Civil War Within the Second Civil War,” my Heartland Institute colleague Steve Stanek made some provocative observations in response to my blog post “America’s Second Civil War” and raised several questions, which I will attempt to answer at least in part here.
Islands of blue in a sea of red
The current President of the United States and the current Governor of the State of Illinois, Steve observed, won voter majorities in just 22 percent and 4 percent of the counties of the country and the state, respectively, that elected them. As shown at left, he noted, a color-coded 2012 electoral map by county shows that Barack Obama carried mere islands of blue surrounded by seas of red. (The Illinois map would look similar.)
“How representative is government when a governor can lose 98 of 102 counties,” Steve then asked, “and when the President of the United States can lose 2,388 counties and win only 689 of them?” The answer, of course, depends on the meaning of the word “representative,” but proceeds from the unavoidable truth that neither the Illinois governor nor the President of the United States is elected by county.
Existing electoral systems
In any electoral system, politicians win office by carrying the votes they need to win. In a popular election – such as for the governorship of Illinois – all that matters is the popular vote, not the number of counties the candidate carries. As Illinois Governor Quinn’s 2012 election amply demonstrates, one candidate’s amassing significant margins in a few heavily populated counties can outweigh a competing candidate’s victory margins in many more less populated counties.
In contrast, under the Electoral College system by which Americans elect a President, what matters is how many states the candidate carries, not counties; not even – as the 2000 election of President George W. Bush illustrates – the number of popular votes. The Presidential election system instead reflects the Great Compromise reached between big states and small states at the nations’ founding, in which each state receives the same representation in one house of Congress (the Senate) and the people of the state are (very roughly) proportionally represented in the other house of Congress (the House of Representatives). The number of electors each state receives is equal to the total number of the state’s Senators and Representatives. Although weakened somewhat by the 17th Amendment’s provision for direct election of Senators, this compromise was intended to help ensure that big states did not steamroller small states in the new union to which they were agreeing.
In the cases of both the Illinois governor and the U. S. President, therefore, the number of counties carried is simply irrelevant. Both Barack Obama and Pat Quinn won because, consciously or unconsciously, their campaigns recognized the irrelevance of counties and got out the votes that they needed to win – whether popular or electoral – and where they needed to win them. They devoted resources to urban areas and college towns for the political analogue of why Willie Sutton robbed banks (because that’s where the money is): because that’s where their voters are.
Where the voters are
That leads us to two of Steve Stanek’s more difficult questions to answer, which are the flip sides of each other: “Why have so many of those who want more government apparently concentrated in major cities and in counties dominated by college towns?” And “[w]hy have so many of those who apparently want less government concentrated in smaller towns and rural areas?” A full treatment of these questions would require a doctoral dissertation, but let me make a start.
Politicians choose their voters, not the other way around
First, the assumption behind these questions is not necessarily correct: People who concentrate in larger urban areas (and those include college towns) may not truly want more government; they may just be easier for politicians to get to the polls.
As a practical matter, politicians win elections less because they persuade voters of the wisdom of the politicians’ views than because they get their voters out. This involves finding the voters who share their views, making sure they register to vote, and making sure they get to the polls, or finding uncommitted voters willing to vote for them in exchange for some incentive. (This doesn’t necessarily mean a bottle of whisky or a ten-dollar bill, although that still goes on; it may simply mean promising to provide the voter with more government benefits down the line if the candidate wins.)
And once in office, presented with the opportunity, politicians tend to redraw district boundaries to favor their own re-election. Republicans famously did this in Texas in 2003 and Democrats equally famously did it in Illinois in 2011 in following the post-2010 Census. Computer programming and survey research enable redistricting down to individual voter addresses, so rather than the people picking their “representatives,” the politicians often get to pick the people they “represent.”
Urban voters’ short-term self-interest
In and of itself, of course, this is not a satisfactory answer because conservatives and libertarians – those who want less government – should in theory be able to get city dwellers to the polls as well as so-called progressives who want more and bigger government. So what is it about urban voters that leads them to vote for less freedom? Most likely they don’t see it that way. But a whole host of hypotheses suggest why they do so:
Urban areas (and college towns) by their nature attract young people who want to take on the world and to meet a larger and more diverse group of other young people. How many small-town kids dream of spending their whole lives where they grew up, as opposed to becoming an actor in Los Angeles, a dancer in New York, or a lawyer in Chicago? And once they put down roots in the Big City, how many will beget children who dream of returning to a small town or a rural environment? Celebrity ranchers in Montana and aging hippies in Vermont aside, not very many.
Both surveys and common sense tell us that young people tend to be more idealistic than realistic, and therefore more likely to fall for ideas they’re hearing for the first time than once-idealistic youngsters, later middle-aged, who’ve seen those same ideas tried and fail, often many times. (Socialism never works, no matter how many times it’s been tried, but what could possibly sound “fairer” than “from each according to his abilities, to each according to her needs”?)
Urban areas attract people without automobiles and also make their use less necessary. Cities are therefore more conducive to mass transit systems that – in practice, if not in theory – are run at taxpayer expense and therefore subsidized. Subsidies in turn attract more riders than would full market-based fares, leading to more people who don’t have – and no longer need – cars, and who therefore over time become dependent upon public transportation.
Similarly, urban areas are ostensibly friendlier to the elderly and the handicapped, who can find the non-family companionship, health care, and other services they need in larger number and closer proximity than in small towns and rural areas because of greater population density.
This same greater population density makes urban areas also more conducive to high-rise and other public housing and related social services. Again being subsidized, such housing and services tend to attract more low-income residents who come to depend on such government services and subsidies rather than on family and friends.
A combination of excitement and opportunity for college-educated (if that’s not an oxymoron) youth on the one hand and a magnet for the poor, the elderly, and the handicapped on the other means that urban areas are more likely than small towns and rural areas to have greater extremes of rich and poor in close proximity. That in turn leads to a greater incidence of crimes of opportunity and resentment like theft and burglary, which likely require proportionately more police, more jails, more courtrooms, and more security. (Like mass transportation, these services could be provided privately but historically they have not been, so again the public sector becomes larger and stronger.)
Over time these and other aspects of urban living have created enclaves of people of voting age who depend on government for their livelihoods, their support, and their security. Their self-interest then dictates that they vote for greater government because that’s what keeps them alive and well.
The symbiotic relationship of urban voters and big-government politicians
That’s also what keeps government officials alive and well: recognizing the self-interest of urban voters, politicians who cater to them provide even more subsidies to their constituents, which creates even more such voters in a manifestation of rent-seeking behavior. In time, the codependency of the high-needs voter and the spendthrift (statist) politician becomes a symbiotic and self-sustaining relationship.
Nothing creates a safer Congressional district or City Council ward, for example, than a sufficient number of high-rise public housing blocs whose residents are easy to identify, easy to recruit, and easy to shepherd to the polls. (That is why some precincts in Chicago and some wards in Milwaukee voted 99-1 or 98-2 for Al Gore in the 2000 election.) On a practical level, it’s a lot easier to bring voters downstairs or next door to register and to vote than it is to round up ranchers or sheepherders out on the prairie.
The tyranny of the majority
Let me now turn to Steve Stanek’s last questions: “Is it too much of a stretch to argue that people occupying 20 percent of the country want to enslave people in the remaining 80 percent? How about if we remove the word ‘enslave’ and insert ‘impose their will on.’ Would that be accurate?”
In a word, yes – to both questions.
Yes, it is too much of a stretch to argue that people “occupying 20 percent of the country want to enslave people in the remaining 80 percent” and, yes, if we remove the word “enslave” and insert “impose their will on,” that would be accurate.
By definition, all sentient voters want to impose their “will” on the rest of the population – that is why they vote in the first place: to see the policies they prefer enacted over the policies that they don’t. Unless reinstating slavery is actually on the ballot (which the 13th Amendment and post-1808 sensibilities have pretty much put to rest), their purpose is not to enslave other people, nor to enslave themselves, yet as Hayek recognized that is the inevitable consequence of statism.
No one’s liberty or property is safe when the legislature is in session, and freedom is lost one government program at a time. Yet some people will trade freedom for comfort, especially when they perceive that someone else is footing the bill.
What is “representative”?
So is either the Illinois or the federal system really “representative”? Again, it all depends on the meaning of the word.
Under the implicit definitions that the respective state and federal constitutions provide, the results are necessarily “representative” because the people of Illinois (not the counties) choose their governor, and electors chosen by a formula that in part weights states equally (neither by county nor by direct popular vote) choose the President. The Illinois gubernatorial election process therefore “represents” the people, and the Presidential election process “represents” both the states and the people, under applicable law and constitutional provisions, just as they were designed to do. That does not necessarily mean that either system is optimal.
Alternative systems — some radical proposals
Do better electoral systems exist? Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, it all depends on whom you ask. Political scientists, philosophers, and Constitutional law professors – even some lecturers in law – have proposed or discussed alternative voting systems for decades or longer.
Lani Guinier and others have advocated various systems of proportional voting – akin to what the Illinois legislature had until 1980 – in which each voter receives as many votes as offices (or propositions) are on the ballot, which the voter may then cast in any combination. Proportional voting rewards voter intensity and arguably protects minority rights: voters who strongly support a candidate or position and political minorities can cast all their allotted votes for a single candidate or proposition and therefore more likely have an impact in the election on the political process.
Under the former Illinois system, for example, voters elected two representatives from each legislative district and could divide three votes among candidates for those two slots as they saw fit: one vote for each of three candidates, 1 & ½ votes for each of two candidates, or all three votes for one candidate – the so-called “bullet” vote. Candidates obviously prized such “bullet” voters: Illinois General Assembly member Barbara Flynn Currie, the House Majority Leader since 1997, largely owes her initial 1979 election to such bullet voting in Chicago’s old Fifth Ward, and has been in the legislature ever since.
Another kind of weighted voting
Other kinds of weighted voting are possible, too, although even less likely to gain popular support than the proposal that helped tank Lani Guinier’s nomination to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Clinton administration.
On the theory that taxation without representation is tyranny, for example, one might advocate a system in which votes are weighted based on the amount of taxes each voter has paid in the relevant jurisdiction in the last election cycle.
Under such a system, to take one example, a large property owner who pays more in property taxes to support the local school system would have a greater say in how those tax dollars are spent to support the local schools. A high income voter who pays disproportionately high income taxes under the nation’s “progressive” income tax system would have more say in how federal tax dollars are spent on the theory that, quite frankly, such a voter is shouldering more of the load. (Or, to satisfy egalitarians, a federal taxpayer’s votes might be weighted according to the average or marginal rate the voter has paid over the last federal election cycle, which might have the salutary effect of encouraging a single-rate income tax.)
Such a system certainly sounds radical (and is highly improbable) but is actually within the mainstream of the history of American politics, from the Boston Tea Party to the current District of Columbia license plates that the President’s armor-plated SUV’s themselves bear – no “taxation without representation.” Again, it all depends on the meaning of “representation.”
With electronic voting and accurate record-keeping by applicable taxing authorities, such a system would also be relatively simple to administer. An electronic voting system could be pre-programmed to link the voter’s ballot choices to the applicable jurisdiction’s record of taxes paid during the previous election cycle – whether federal, state, county, or local – and automatically perform the required calculation, then transmit only the weighted vote (anonymously) to the election commission responsible for tallying the votes. By deleting all voter-specific information from the system and backups as soon as any recounts were completed and any subsequent litigation resolved, such a system could still preserve privacy and the secret ballot.
Direct popular election
Of greater currency and more likely to draw popular support at the national level is a direct popular election, which is what Illinois and most (if not all) states currently have for governor, the results of which Steve Stanek decries. For more or less the reasons that Steve suggests, both I and – evidently – the Founders think direct popular election of the President is a very bad idea.
Nonetheless, the “direct popular vote” movement raises its ugly head from time to time, most recently spurred by the results of the 2000 Presidential election in which Republican George W. Bush narrowly defeated Democrat Albert Gore, Jr. in the Electoral College despite garnering roughly half a million fewer popular votes. The current movement takes two forms.
Abolishing the Electoral College
The first would abolish the Electoral College system and replace it with a direct popular vote in which whoever gets the most individual votes would win the Presidency, at least in a two-candidate race. With more than two candidates some variations would require a runoff between the top two vote-getters if no one received an absolute majority on the first ballot; others would accept a plurality winner, such as Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996; still others would implement an “instant runoff” in which each voter would cast first, second, and third place ballots at the same time, with second and third place ballots counted only for the top two candidates in the event no one received an absolute majority on the first ballot. All of these changes would require amending the U. S. Constitution and none of them is likely, at least in the near future.
Following the popular vote
Gaining slightly more traction is a second variation on a direct popular vote, which would amend state constitutions or change state laws to require the states’ electors to cast all their electoral votes for whoever wins the national popular vote. If Florida had adopted such a proposal by the year 2000, for example, then Gore’s national popular vote margin would have compelled Florida’s electors to cast their ballots for Gore and to have given Gore the Presidency, notwithstanding that Bush carried Florida, albeit narrowly.
The advantage of this proposal is that it would not require a federal Constitutional Amendment; the disadvantage is that it would nonetheless gut the Constitutional Compromise and lead exactly to the kind of tyranny of the majority that Steve Stanek decries at the state level.
Al Gore’s entire 2000 national popular vote margin of roughly 500,000, for example, is virtually identical to his popular vote margin in just the twenty most lopsided of the City of Chicago’s fifty wards, some of which went for Gore by margins of 99-1 and 98-2. One advantage of the Electoral College system is that if – hypothetically – every registered Chicago voter were to have voted multiple times for the same candidate, then they could only have helped Gore carry Illinois (as he did in 2000) and not the entire nation. Compelling states to cast all their Electoral College votes for the winner of the national popular vote would run precisely the same risk.
Another “great compromise”?
Ultimately, with respect to the 2012 Illinois gubernatorial election, this appears to be what Steve Stanek decries. So perhaps the answer to the perceived Illinois problem would be to “federalize” the state; i.e., to treat the State of Illinois as the union of its 102 counties and to provide each county with its own representation in the election of its governor.
Assuming that Steve wouldn’t want to see yet more elected officials – i.e., two (or more?) “senators” from each county – each county could be deemed to have “X” number of votes on behalf of the county that, as in the federal Electoral College system, would follow the popular majority in the county. How to determine that number would be problematic and extremely political, making recent redistricting boundaries in the state and for the Chicago City Council look like a picnic in the park, but it could be done.
Historically and philosophically, however, there is no reason to do it. Unlike the sovereign states, which formed the national government, the counties of Illinois did not form the state; it happened the other way around. And there is no apparent reason why, for example, the vote of someone in Sangamon County should count for more than someone in, say, Cook County, no matter how much any given voter or candidate in any given election might wish that were true.
Where do we end?
In the end, the electoral processes of both the country and the State of Illinois are probably better left alone. Computer-drawn, contiguous Congressional (and other) districts supervised by independent commissions would be preferable to current systems of gerrymandering but would require no changes in the election processes themselves. To win elections, conservatives and libertarians will simply have to do a better job of what “progressives” already do: identify their likely voters, register them to vote, and get them to vote while the polls are open. All that is necessary for liberty to perish is for those who love it to do nothing – but talk.