Gordon L. Weil
The 2020 election and its huge turnout are historic. President Trump gets the credit for bringing out more voters than any other American president.
They defied Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in voting. Determined to vote, the people also would not let Covid-19 cut off the breath of democracy.
Despite a well-run election, with special care taken because of his attacks on mail-in ballots, Trump has done his best to undermine confidence in the outcome. There’s no doubt he has caused lasting damage and deepened the split between his supporters and the majority of voters.
The election revealed three serious weaknesses in how the U.S. deals with its most important election – too much influence by the polls and by pundits and too little respect for the will of the people.
Polls no longer work. In the world of “fake news” and the social media that spreads it instantly, polls do not measure public sentiment well. The mismatch between the forecasts and the results helped feed Trump’s attempt to undermine the election.
Polls are dangerously misleading and influence voters. The pollsters know polls have failed, but they keep feeding the addiction they promote for profit. There’s a real desire to know what people think, but polls are obviously not the way to find out; elections are.
Pundits rely on polls. They speculate continuously on each day’s polling data. They offer what is supposed to be instant analyses, but are usually thinly disguised expressions of their own hopes for the result.
The message is that we shouldn’t trust polls or pundits. And we should eliminate the system that allows the kind of post-election crisis created by Trump. Elect the president by national popular vote. Knowing who won would be quicker and easier, reducing the chance for protests and the influence of polls.
Choosing presidential electors by states was a compromise among the 39 men who signed the draft Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. They wanted to entice the states to ratify it, and they didn’t fully trust a vote of the people.
This system gives voters in small states outsized influence on the choice of president. A single Wyoming voter counts the same as 3.8 California voters or 1.8 Mainers. That’s not fair, because presidents can be elected by a majority of electoral votes while losing the popular vote.
That happened in 2000, thanks to a partisan Supreme Court, and 2016. In the four cases since the Civil War, the beneficiary has been the Republican Party. If Trump’s goal were reached this year, it would be the third time in the last six elections over a period of just 20 years.
Despite President-Elect Biden’s optimism, the partisan division among Americans runs deep with almost no room for compromise. The right believes it is the victim of the political system. The left believes Trumpers would trash democracy for authoritarian rule.
It makes it worthwhile for the Republicans to “game the system” by trying to suppress or disqualify voters in states with close results. Partisanship has overwhelmed patriotism.
Times have changed. The Constitution itself has been amended five times to extend the franchise. States play a smaller role than in the 18th Century. The U.S. has become one media market.
“Originalists” want the country to stick to the Constitution. But it has been badly bent out of shape, especially by Trump.
For example, the Framers of the Constitution believed that federal judges should serve for life, their terms insulating them from shifting, short-term political currents.
But if presidents and compliant Senates pack the courts with political judges, the party in power can use them to protect and extend its control even if it lost an election. Trump was stunningly clear that getting help in any electoral dispute was why he rushed his Supreme Court appointment of Amy Coney Barrett.
Of course, we will always have the opinions of pundits. But they should be taken as just opinion not expertise. We may also always have polls, but they should continue to fade.
A national popular election would reduce the influence of polls and pundits and make gaming the system almost impossible. If not, democracy could be killed by misuse of an outdated political deal.
The problems are all about polls, pundits and people. The country needs less influence from the first two and more by the people. The system can be simplified.
The National Popular Vote Compact does the job without amending the Constitution. States can agree to require their electoral votes go to the national winner. The NPV is growing closer to being adopted, having been approved by both GOP and Democratic legislatures across the country.
Only a few more states are needed. Maine should be one of them.