Friday, November 11, 2016

"Our Democracy" and the Electoral College

Once again it looks like the popular vote for President of the United States is going to go to a Democrat (Hillary R. Clinton) and the vote in the Electoral College to the Republican (Donald J. Trump). Okay; possibly the worst results of these results will be environmental degradation and violent weather, but, fortunately, I'm old and will be dead before the worst hits or will get enough sympathy to be evacuated out when the Pacific overwhelms my neighborhood.

Two things here.

First, don't get your hopes up for reform of the Electoral College, not until a fire-breathing Republican wins the popular vote and loses in the Electoral College. Second, don't talk about "Our democracy" in the same paragraph in writing or within five minutes in talking about the Electoral College.

The US of A is not a democracy. We're a federal republic with occasional democratic aspirations and a history of increasing democracy — but we were designed as a "mixt constitution," with democracy only a part. Over simplifying a lot (and to hell with it; I'm a retired English teacher, not a historian), to oversimplify a lot, the grand design has the House of Representatives for representative democracy; the original Senate, with senators selected by state legislatures as federalist and aristocratic — way more aristocratic nowadays, as in rich, than even some of the planter elite could've dreamed — and the Presidency as mildly, constitutionally, monarchical. 

And the goddamn White trash rabble were to be kept away from selecting the president (to say nothing of those even lower than poor White men in the divinely-ordered Great Chain of Being and the really-convenient-for-the-well-born, food chain of politics). 

Against some pretty tough competition — I'm looking at you, original-version of the Senate — the Electoral College may be the most openly un- or even antidemocratic part of the Constitution. (The parts on slavery and women work more indirectly [the "s-words" slave or slavery don't appear in the original Constitution] or through silence.)

As it evolved, and since 1913 and the 17th Amendment and the popular election of senators, the Electoral College has been pretty much undemocratic in the same way the Senate is undemocratic and gerrymandering — not explicitly mandated by the Constitution but traditional — like gerrymandering is undemocratic. The rule can be "One person, one vote," but that doesn't means that everyone's vote counts the same.

E.g., my vote hasn't been as important as some except for the time I was in Ohio when it first became "a swing state" and we got what we'd grumbled we hadn't gotten: respect and the attention of candidates. Place here your favorite version of the advice to be careful what you wish for. 

I live in ungerrymandered California, and in an area where we have some hotly contested state and local races. Ventura County, though, went for Hillary Clinton 54.01% to Donald Trump's 38.25%, which came out to 143,095 votes to 101,351. We're both urban and rural in Ventura County, and I live in a port town of 22,399, but the county churned out 264,965 votes in the 2016 presidential election, against, say, the 255,791 votes I add up for the three electoral votes from the State of Wyoming. 

You see where this analysis is going, and I will "leave as an exercise for the student" to work out what part of 55 electoral votes for Hillary Clinton we got in California for the 5,481,885 people who voted for her, as opposed to the 3 electoral votes representing the 174,248 people in Wyoming who voted for Donald Trump. (Use a calculator and, if you know how to do it, scientific notation.) 

Nowadays, we have pledged electors who almost never vote other than they've been instructed to by the laws of their states, so the undemocratic part here is in the numbers and the feeling that having some votes are worth more than others — way more between Wyoming and California — is undemocratic. It doesn't prove the Electoral College system is a bad idea.

Arguably, the system ensures that Wyoming will get some attention, and candidates won't spend all their time in large centers of population. And anything that gets candidates out of the NYC-DC axis and into small towns and rural areas is good. Indeed, it would be a contribution by the Trump campaign to America if it demonstrated that the Electoral College can be gamed against the popular vote precisely by getting out into the rural counties and getting enough "more-equal-than-thou" votes to outweigh New York and California and Illinois.

Except there will still be too much concentration on the "swing areas" and gaming the system, and too little serious discussion spread over way, way too much time.

Arguments can be made for the Elector College, but in updated forms of defense of the College as it was intended to be: a check on democracy, at least "democracy" as defined as "one person, one (equal) vote." Just please spare us the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian B.S. of the purity of solid yeoman farmers and the wisdom of simple country folk. People are people. All of us act dumb some of the time, and some of us are just stupid most of the time. So it's arguable that democracy needs its limits, and liberal democracy demands limits to prevent "the tyranny of the majority." Those limits on democracy, though, are part of "Our republic"; don't get ingenious and insist on limits on democracy "central to our democracy." 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Problems Getting Participants for Political Polls

For much of my grad student career, I was part of "a convenient study population" — University of Illinois graduate students, or just grad students in English — and I definitely got invitations to be studied. With exquisitely bad timing, I finally rebelled and counseled rebellion in 1969 or 1970, when it turned out the researcher was the wife of another grad student in English at the U of IL, who (the husband) was both a well-liked colleague and a paraplegic, to add to the apparent nastiness of what could be interpreted as an attack on this nice couple.

I didn't intend to attack them. It's just that by 1970 I was tired of people's being quite so generous with my time and tired of people prying into my opinions, attitudes, and various feelings. As an undergraduate, my fraternity chapter had at least gotten free stuff for marketing tests — I recall Tiparillos as one horrible product we tried — and I was coming to the conclusion that if someone wanted my time, they could bloody-well pay for it.

And a few years later, I was offered a pittance to participate in surveys: primarily about batteries for some reason.

Anyway, by 1970 I'd had it with being surveyed, and I've gotten downright churlish about it lately, when I'm asked repeatedly to be "kind enough to take a short survey" to help construct The Grand Taylorite Panopticon to monitor employees and (more positively) independent folk selling books and films and other products.

So I understand how people far more dissatisfied with America in 2016 than I am would refuse to respond to political pollsters and how this could skew polls enough to get them wrong, Wrong, WRONG on the final outcome of votes such as that for BrExit and the 45th President of the United States.

Nowadays, all sorts of people are on-line and potentially in "convenient study populations" and are getting studied up the whazoo. Adding this to all the other generous donations of our time — starting with phone menus — it is no wonder that increasing numbers opt out.

So, Attention, Pollsters! (of all sorts): You're going to have to find indirect ways of measuring opinions. People who respond to your queries may become increasingly atypical, and maybe annoyed enough to get very creative with their responses.