The Need To End Minority Rule in U.S.       

Harvard professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, make a convincing case that the structure of the U.S. government has permitted minority rule in the U.S. and they propose ways to change that structure to reduce the enabling of such minority rule.[1] We will examine their arguments about structure and reform. Then a couple of other ways to change one part of that structure—the Electoral College–will be proposed by this blog followed by looking at another critique of the current U.S. government structure provided by Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

Existing Structure Enabling Minority Rule

 “Democracy is supposed to be a game of numbers: The party with the most votes wins. In our political system, however, the majority does not govern. Constitutional design and recent political geographic trends — where Democrats and Republicans live — have unintentionally conspired to produce what is effectively becoming minority rule.”

“Our Constitution was designed to favor small (or low-population) states. Small states were given representation equal to that of big states in the Senate and an advantage in the Electoral College, as we are seeing in this year’s presidential election. What began as a minor small-state advantage evolved, over time, into a vast overrepresentation of rural states. For most of our history, this rural bias did not tilt the partisan playing field much because both major parties maintained huge urban and rural wings.”

“Today, however, American parties are starkly divided along urban-rural lines: Democrats are concentrated in big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. This gives the Republicans an advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate and — because the president selects Supreme Court nominees and the Senate approves them — the Supreme Court.”

Moreover, “recent U.S. election results fly in the face of majority rule. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 years. Democrats easily won more overall votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The 45 Democratic and two independent senators who caucus with them represent more people than the 53 Republicans.”

“This is minority rule.”

“The problem is exacerbated by Republican efforts to dampen turnout among younger, lower-income and minority voters. Republican state governments have purged voter rolls and closed polling places on college campuses and in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and since 2010, a dozen Republican-led states have passed laws making it more difficult to register or vote.”

Levitsky & Ziblatt’s Proposed Reforms

Eliminate the electoral college by constitutional amendment. This is not easy. Under Article V of the Constitution, the Congress shall propose amendments “whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary [Senate (2/3 x 50 = 33.3) and House (2/3 x 435 = 290). Or under Article V, the Congress shall call a Convention for proposing amendments “whenever . . . two-thirds of the Legislatures of the . . .States [currently 2/3 x 50 = 33.3] apply for such a convention). I agree.

Eliminate the filibuster, which has meant that “meaningful legislation now effectively requires 60 votes, which amounts to a permanent minority veto.”[2 ] This would require a Senate vote to change its rules. Under the current Senate Rules, I believe that would require a vote of at least 60 senators, but whenever a new congress convenes as it will do in January 2021, I believe it may do so by majority vote.   (Please advise by comments to this post if these beliefs about Senate Rules are wrong.).) I agree.

Offer statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Colombia, “which would provide full and equal representation to nearly four million Americans who are currently disenfranchised.” I agree.

Defend and expand “the right to vote. “HR-1 and HR-4, a package of reforms approved by the House of Representatives in 2019 but blocked by the Senate, is a good start. HR-1 would establish nationwide automatic and same-day registration, expand early and absentee voting, prohibit flawed purges that remove eligible voters from the rolls, require independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional maps, and restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. HR-4 would fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder ruling in 2013.” I agree.

Other Suggestions Regarding the Electoral College

There are at least two other methods of changing the anti-democratic nature of the current Electoral College that, at least in part, would not require constitutional amendment.

First. Peter Diamond, professor emeritus at M.I.T. and a 2010 Nobel laureate in economics, has suggested a constitutional amendment that would require each state to divide its electoral vote between the two leading candidates within the state in accordance with the popular vote. For example, a state with an even split in the popular vote and 10 electoral votes would allocate 5 such votes to each candidate.[3]  Yes, such a change would require such an amendment since it would require all states to do it this way.

Or each state independently could decide to do just that, without a constitutional amendment, since Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” the Electors to which it is entitled. (Emphasis added.)  It, however, seems unlikely that all 50 states independently would decide to do this as a matter of each state’s laws.

Another way of changing the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College is approval by additional states of the existing National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which requires signatory states to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia once the Compact is signed by states with at least 270 electoral college votes. As of October 2020 this compact had been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which have a total of 196 electoral college votes although one of the states (Colorado) has suspended its approval of the Compact.[4]

This proposal raises a number of legal issues. Some legal observers believe states have plenary power to appoint electors as prescribed by the Compact; others believe that the Compact will require congressional consent under the Constitution’s Compact Clause or that the presidential election process cannot be altered except by a constitutional amendment.

Another Challenging Critique of U.S. Government

Another challenging and surprising critique of the current governmental problems in the U.S. has been provided by Larry Diamond,  a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.[5]

According to Mr. Diamond, “Today, we are far closer to a breakdown than most democracy experts, myself included, would have dared anticipate just a few years ago. Even if we are spared the worst, it is long past time to renew the mechanisms of our democracy, learn from other democracies around the world and again make our republic a shining city on a hill.”

Moreover, “The very age of American democracy is part of the problem. The United States was the first country to become a democracy, emerging over a vast, dispersed and diverse set of colonies that feared the prospect of the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Hence, our constitutional system lacks some immunities against an electoral debacle that are common in newer democracies.”

Today, he asserts, “The American [election] system is a mishmash of state and local authorities. Most are staffed by dedicated professionals, but state legislatures and elected secretaries of state can introduce partisanship, casting doubt on its impartiality. No other advanced democracy falls so short of contemporary democratic standards of fairness, neutrality and rationality in its system of administering national elections.”

In contrast, “even though Mexico is a federal system like the United States, it has a strong, politically independent National Electoral Institute that administers its federal elections. The Election Commission of India has even more far-reaching and constitutionally protected authority to administer elections across that enormous country. Elections thus remain a crucial pillar of Indian democracy, even as the country’s populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, assaults press freedom, civil society and the rule of law. Other newer democracies, from South Africa to Taiwan, have strong national systems of election administration staffed and led by nonpartisan professionals.”

In addition, “more recent democratic countries have adopted constitutional provisions to strengthen checks and balances. Like many newer democracies, Latvia has established a strong independent anti-corruption bureau, which has investigative, preventive and educational functions and a substantial budget and staff. It even oversees political and campaign finance. South Africa has the independent Office of the Public Protector to perform a similar role.”

In contrast, the U.S. “has no comparable standing authority to investigate national-level corruption, and Congress largely investigates and punishes itself.”

On another issue, newer democracies have taken “measures to depoliticize the constitutional court. No other democracy gives life tenure to such a powerful position as constitutional court justice. They either face term limits (12 years in Germany and South Africa; eight in Taiwan) or age limits (70 years in Australia, Israel and South Korea; 75 in Canada), or both. Germany depoliticizes nominations to its constitutional court by requiring broad parliamentary consensus. In other democracies, a broader committee nominates Supreme Court justices. In Israel this involves not just the executive branch but the parliament, some of the existing justices and the bar association.”

In contrast, the U.S. “lacks national checks on executive corruption and national guarantees of electoral integrity that have become routine in other democracies around the world. And nominations to our Supreme Court have become far more politicized than in many peer democracies.”

Conclusion

A proposal for changing the undemocratic  structure of the U.S. Senate will be discussed in a future post.

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[1] Levitsky & Ziblatt, End Minority Rule, N.Y. Times (Oct. 23, 2020). Levitsky and Ziblatt also are co-authors of How Democracies Die, which was reviewed in the New York Times: Szalai, Will Democracy Survive Trump? Two New Books Aren’t So Sure, N.Y. Times Book Review (Jan 10, 2018).

[2] This blog has published posts that discuss the history of the filibuster rule, including modest reforms of the rule in 2013, and recent unsuccessful litigation challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster.

[3]  Diamond, Letter to the Editor: Let States Split the Electoral College Votes, N.Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2020).

[4] National Popular Vote, Inc., National Popular Vote!National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Wikipedia.

[5] Diamond, I’m a Democracy Expert. I Never Thought We’d Be So Close to a Breakdown, N.Y. Times (Nov. 1, 2020).  Diamond is the author, most recently, of  “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency,“ Penguin Random House, 2019, 2020).

Other Opinions About the U.S. Electoral College

A prior post discussed the July 6 Supreme Court decisions about the “faithless electors’ in the U.S. Electoral College for electing the president and vice president and initial reactions to those Supreme Court cases. Here are some additional reactions to those cases as well as other commentaries about the U.S.’ complicated system for election of a president and vice president.

Jesse Wegman[1]

Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board and the author of a book about the Electoral College, rightly says these recent cases did not address the issue of the continued existence of that institution, which, he says,” is rotting American democracy from the inside out.” First, it potentially can award “the presidency to the candidate who earns fewer votes among the people as a whole — which violates the fundamental premise of majority rule.” Second, it violates “the constitutional mandate of ‘one person, one vote.’ In the presidential election, the value of your vote depends on where you live. If you live in one of the half-dozen or so ‘battleground’ states, it matters hugely. If you happen to live in a ‘safe state,’ as a vast majority of Americans do, it’s effectively irrelevant.”

The Electoral College was created in the late 18th century Constitution because its “framers worried that most voters — who rarely ventured far from home and had no easy way of getting information quickly — couldn’t know enough about national candidates to make an informed decision.” However, Wegman says, the College has never worked that way with the immediate formation of national political parties.

As a result, Wegman argues, “there is no remaining rationale for the Electoral College. What remains is a system that serves no purpose other than to erase the votes of 100 million Americans every four years, making them bystanders to the most consequential election of all.” In short, amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College.

Wall Street Journal[2]

A Wall Street Journal editorial also points out that these new cases do not “address the most controversial question about the Electoral College, which is whether the U.S. should have one at all.”

The editorial, however, does not address that issue either. Instead, it discusses the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact whereby some states agree to grant their electors to the winner of the nationwide popular vote and which presumably is valid under the Opinion of the Court. However, says the Journal, Justice Thomas in his concurring opinion, points out that the Constitution in the last clause of Article I, Section 8, states, “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress . . . enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State.”

In any event, that compact currently has 16 members (15 states and the District of Columbia) with a total of 196 electoral votes and by its terms would go into effect when enough additional states join to constitute a majority of the Electoral College (270 votes).

Richard L. Hasen[3]

 Just before these Supreme Court decisions, Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of a leading book on problems of the U.S. election system, noted several problems with that system.

  • First, it “features deep fragmentation of governmental authority over elections. Not only does the United States use a highly decentralized and localized election system that gives many powers over national elections to state and local bodies, but also, even within the approximately 10,500 bodies expected to run the 2020 election, there is sometimes disagreement over who has decision making authority over voting rights decisions.”
  • Second, “protection of voting rights in the United States is marked by polarized and judicialized decision making.”
  • Third, U.S. “ constitutional protections for voting rights remain weak. The U.S. Constitution contains no affirmative right to vote. It speaks of voting rights mostly in the negative: thanks to a number of constitutional amendments, it is now illegal to bar someone from voting on the basis of race, gender, age of at least 18, or through the use of a poll tax.”
  • Fourth, this “decentralized, federalist approach to voting rights has led to a self-perpetuating system of voting inequality, where in some places you may be disenfranchised even if you do everything right.”

Therefore, Hasen proposes the following short-term remedies. “All states need to expand opportunities for online voter registration in time” for this November’s presidential election. . . . Congress needs to adequately fund additional expenses related to running an election during the pandemic. . . .  States need to form independent bipartisan task forces to conduct full and independent investigations into why areas with more poor voters and voters of color saw significant problems voting in person during the primaries.”

In addition, Hasen advocates for a new constitutional amendment that would “guarantee all adult citizens the right to vote in federal elections, establish a nonpartisan administrative body to run federal elections that would automatically register all eligible voters to vote, and impose basic standards of voting access and competency for state and local elections.

 Wilfred Codrington III [4]

Last year Codrington, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, pointed out a racist motivation for the creation of the Electoral College at the Constitutional Convention.

“The populations in the North and South were approximately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bondage. Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president, one that could leverage the three-fifths compromise, the Faustian bargain they’d already made to determine how congressional seats would be apportioned. With about 93 percent of the country’s slaves toiling in just five southern states, that region was the undoubted beneficiary of the compromise, increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegation by 42 percent. When the time came to agree on a system for choosing the president, it was all too easy for the delegates to resort to the three-fifths compromise as the foundation.”

This racial impact affected the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, 73-65 in the Electoral College and “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves,” according to a Yale Law School professor, Akhil Reed Amar.

In the 1876 presidential election, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but not the Electoral College vote due to disputes about the status of some electors. An ad hoc commission ultimately awarded the disputed electors to Republican Rutherford Hayes with his agreeing to remove federal troops in the South that were intended to maintain order and protect black voters.

Max Boot[5]

Boot, an historian and Washington Post columnist, reports that he recently participated in a “war game” over a hypothetical narrow Biden victory in the Electoral College, 278-260, including narrow wins in three swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—where Republicans control both houses of their legislatures. Although all three states have Democratic governors, who usually certify election results, there is nothing to prevent the legislatures from certifying different results, especially if Trump “will stop at nothing to avoid the stigma of being branded a ‘loser’” and if hypothetically he and his allies concocted allegations of election fraud in those three states. The resulting dispute over these three states and hence the results of the election could well end up in the Supreme Court, and who could predict how they might resolve the dispute, given what it did in the 2000 election contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

A related concern is whether local, state and federal funding for the expenses of conducting the upcoming election in this pandemic will be adequate. This especially is true for the U.S. Postal Service with the anticipated mailing of election ballots.

David Rothkopf[6]

A lot of these current issues about the Electoral College are prompted by the outrageous conduct of our current president, Donald Trump, who is the “embodiment of the Founders’ worst fears.” So says David Rothkopf, a former professor of international affairs at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown University, former CEO and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine and a senior official in the Clinton Administration.

Rothkopf continues, Trump “has invited our enemies to interfere with our elections to help him win, then sought to do it again. He has misused federal resources, inappropriately elevated his own family members, and enriched his own businesses. He has repeatedly attacked the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. He has had infants thrown in cages and denied relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria at the cost of thousands of lives. He has gutted environmental protections and attacked alliances that the US spent decades building and maintaining. And now he has mismanaged the worst public health crisis in a hundred years, overseen the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, and attempted to use the US military to crush legitimate protests on the streets of the capital.”

Moreover, “in the space of just a few days, . . . [Trump] was revealed to have endorsed concentration camps in China and to have again sought the assistance of a foreign adversary in winning a US election, was quoted as calling for the deaths and imprisonment of US journalists, defended the slave power traitors of the Confederacy, admitted that he suppressed testing during the pandemic because true data about the rate of infections would harm him politically, sought to fire more truthtellers in the administration and had his attorney general remove an official in charge of investigations into him and his supporters. He was reportedly briefed about a Russian scheme to place bounties on American and allied troops in Afghanistan, and not only did nothing about it but continued to act as an advocate for Putin. And so it goes on… before we even consider the many complaints about his character—his racism and misogyny, his ignorance and contempt for science and history, his lies, his narcissism, his vulgarity, his demagoguery. Has there ever been a public official in US history so unable to relate to others, show an emotion besides anger, or view the world through any means but his own self-interest?”

Conclusion

 Support a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College!

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[1] Wegman, Can We Please Pick the President by Popular Vote Now? N.Y. Times (July 6, 2020)

[2] Editorial, States and the Electoral College, W.S. J. (July 6, 2020); Kendall & Bravin, Supreme Court Rules States Can Prohibit Electors From Breaking Rank, W.S.J. (July 6, 2020); Astor & Stevens, Did the Popular Vote Just Get a Win at the Supreme Court? N.Y. Times (July 6, 2020); National Popular Vote, nationalpopularvote.com.

[3] Hasen, Bring on the 28th Amendment, N.Y. Times (June 29, 2020).  Since there are now 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, this article calls for a 28th amendment even though an existing non-profit organization has drafted and is promoting what it calls the 28th Amendment “to end the escalating influence of big money that dominates our elections . . . [by enabling} Americans to enact reasonable limits on campaign contributions and dark money political spending [and] reversing the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision.” (American Promise, The 28th Amendment.)

[4] Codrington, The Electoral College’s Racist Origins, The Atlantic  (Nov. 17, 2019); 1800 United States presidential election, Wikipedia.

[5] Boot, What if Trump loses but insists he won? Wash. Post (July 6, 2020); Reuters, ‘Epic failure’: U.S. Election Officials Warn of November Chaos Due to Budget Crunch, N.Y. Times (July 10, 2020); McCarthy & Jameel, The Postal Service Is Steadily Getting Worse—Can It Handle a National Mail-In Election?, propublica.org (June 15, 2020). See also Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? dwkcommentaries.com (July 5, 2020).

[6] Rothkropf, “The Most Ignorant and Unfit’: What Made America’s Worst Ever Leader? N.Y. Rev. Books (July 3, 2020).