The trouble of the electoral system

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Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (17 October, 2016)

Living in New York City, I’ve always experienced the later stages of an American presidential election as a spectacle happening far away, almost as if it were being held in another country. One of the many curious things about this election is that it hinges on voters in only a few places. Their decisions at the ballot box outweigh everybody else’s. Millions of people here in New York will cast their votes on November 8, but their verdict is a foregone conclusion: According to forecasters, Hillary Clinton has a 99.6% chance of winning the state over Donald Trump. No Republican has won New York since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Since presidential elections are decided by the electoral college system (in which a victory in a given state, no matter the margin, hands all electoral votes to a candidate) and not a popular vote, neither Trump nor Clinton has any real incentive to mobilise voters in New York.

As a result, the candidates haven’t bothered to spend much time or money campaigning in the state they both claim as their home. In the past year, I have managed to listen to the radio and watch TV without enduring a single political advertisement. With the exception of a few graffiti caricatures of Trump, I can walk through the streets of the city and take the subway without seeing any billboards, flags, or posters to remind me that the nation is in the midst of an election. Compared to the way Indian cities and towns get tangled in partisan pageantry, New York seems serenely removed from the political frenzy.

That’s because in this system, votes in New York (and California, Texas, Alabama and other so-called “safe” states) matter less than votes in a handful of “battleground” or “swing” states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado, where both candidates have a chance at victory. Every election cycle, reporters trudge out to these hotly-contested areas, interviewing blue-collar men in a diner or families in a bowling alley or members of a church group, making them a microcosm of the nation as a whole. The fate of the country (and, by extension, much of the world) is seen to rest on the delicate sensibilities of people in the suburbs of Philadelphia or a few “bellwether” counties in post-industrial Ohio. Unsurprisingly, both candidates will be touring almost exclusively in swing states in the coming weeks.

Ahead of the final debate between Clinton and Trump on October 20th, the Republican candidate’s prospects look bleak. Sexual assault accusations have crippled Trump’s presidential bid and protected Clinton from the potentially damaging fallout of campaign emails released via WikiLeaks. Trump trails Clinton by seven points in national polls. The last candidate to win after trailing by a significant margin with one month to go was Reagan in 1980, and the deficit he overcame was just four points. Only an unprecedented reversal in fortunes will allow Trump to win in November. Crucially, Clinton leads Trump in most of the major swing states.

The focus on a few swing states reveals a wider trend in American politics. The two parties have carved the nation into their own geographical fortresses. The Democrats hold sway over coastal, more densely populated urban regions in the northeast and west of the country; the Republicans are strong in the rural south and Midwest. This divided political cartography leads to a lack of competition. In the last election in 2012, the margin of victory was less than 5% in only four states (the median margin of victory was 16.9%). But back in 1976, the votes in 20 states were decided by a narrow margin (with an overall median margin of victory of 5.9%).

Thanks to this consolidation, Trump and Clinton can devote energy and resources to fighting over less than 10 states, while taking the votes of the rest of the country for granted.

Is this a healthy way to pick a president, to inflate the importance of certain areas to the detriment of all others? Constitutional lawyer and scholar Akhil Reed Amar has led a lonely campaign to push the archaic electoral college system towards something closer to a direct popular vote. Amar argues that presidents should be elected just as governors in each state are directly elected, where one person equals one vote.

In a popular vote, the concerns of inner cities and cosmopolitan urban areas couldn’t be side-lined as they are now for the more rural, conservative politics of swing states. In 2012, 67% of registered voters in Ohio turned out to vote; only 49% of registered voters here in New York City (whose population is comparable to Ohio’s) went to the ballot box. There will be a similar difference in turnout this year, but it won’t be a measure of indifference or civic virtuousness. In this electoral system, New Yorkers can’t escape the depressing truth that their votes hardly matter.

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