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Friday, November 11, 2016

Petition Edition

In the wake of last Tuesday's debacle, a couple of petitions are making their way around the internet.  One calls on President Obama to immediately appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  Assuming he has the power to do this, he absolutely should.  The Senate had ample time to perform its constitutional duties, and, out of pure partisan spite, chose not to.  Garland is an eminently qualified, slightly left-of-center judge, and there is no reason for him not to have received due consideration--and presumably approval--by the Senate.  President Obama should use whatever authority he has to get that man seated immediately.

The second petition, however, is far more dangerous: It calls on voters in the Electoral College who have pledged to vote for Trump to go rogue and cast their votes for Clinton.  The petition itself is purely symbolic: Electors can already vote for whomever they want.  If they are currently "bound" to Trump, they can vote for him--or Clinton or Gary Johnson or whomever.  The same holds true for those pledged to Clinton.  And this is true regardless of a state's popular vote totals--and regardless of any petition.  But here's the thing: Even if enough "faithless electors" could "do the right thing" and hand the presidency to Clinton, doing so would be an absolute disaster--a bigger disaster even than a Trump presidency, and that's saying a lot.  Bear with me.

First, the disclaimers: I am terrified about the prospect of Trump in the White House.  The man has shown himself to be a willfully ignorant, race-baiting bully with absolutely no qualifications for the office he is about to enter.  Even more frightening are the people he inspires--racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and assorted other members of the alt-right.  In a sane world, Trump would not be elected dogcatcher, much less President of the United States.

I also agree that the Electoral College should be abolished.  It is an arcane remnant of the early days of this country, which no longer serves any purpose--assuming it ever did.  It gives vastly disproportionate power to small states and can override the will of the majority of US citizens.  Indeed, a major reason this petition has gained steam is the fact that Hillary Clinton actually "won" (yes, in quotes--I'll get to that) the popular vote, and people feel that the will of the majority must be honored.  They're not wrong, but this is not the way to do it.

Throughout much of the endgame of his campaign, Trump--no doubt seeing polls that suggested he was heading to a massive defeat--would rally his troops with cries that the election was rigged--that the powers that be were simply going to thwart the will of the people and hand the White House to Hillary Clinton.  He was wrong about that (and of course I would say that even if Hillary had prevailed).  But what happens if 40 or so faithless electors switch their votes to Hillary next month?  Of course, as mentioned above, this is their right.  And if, say, in the next month or so, some new scandal erupts that proves Trump even more unfit to be President (the man does have a couple of court dates coming up), then maybe they should switch their votes.  But imagine what will happen in the country immediately afterwards?  Every Trump supporter would cry that Trump was right, that the system WAS rigged, that there was no way they--his voters--were ever going to have their voices heard.

And. They. Would. Be. Right.

Many of us were terrified at the prospect of armed militias taking to the streets in the face of a Trump loss, spurred on by his delusional (or tactical) claims of election rigging.  Those fears were probably overblown, but NOT if the election results are "overturned" by a small handful of unelected elites (electors are chosen by state political parties).  Even if the country doesn't descend into violent revolution, how much legitimacy would President Clinton have?  You think people resisted Obama?  We would see a level of obstructionism that would make the last eight years look like the Summer of Love.

But, you say, Hillary won the popular vote!  More Americans want her than want Trump!  The will of the people SHOULD be honored!  It should--and going forward, if we get rid of the Electoral College, it will be.  But the fact remains: You cannot change the rules in the middle of the game simply because you hate the outcome--and, again, I cannot stress this enough, I HATE the outcome. 

Furthermore, this is not--I sincerely hope--the last US presidential election.  Once we validate the idea of mass defections by electors, we have effectively eliminated any kind of certainty in the political process.  Best case scenario, this adds momentum to the calls for election by national popular vote; worst case scenario, this leads to anarchy.

And about that national popular vote: Yes, Hillary received more votes than Trump nationwide.  However, the last time I checked, her lead was about 200,000 votes. . .out of well over 100 million cast.  In other words, her margin is less than 0.2%.  A win is a win, you will say--and, again, you're not wrong.  But a margin of 200,000 out of a pool of 100 million-plus is not exactly a "win"--it's a statistical tie.

If the popular vote did decide the winner, we would right now have a massive recount going on: People across the country looking for the 2016 equivalent of dangling chads--Florida 2000 writ large.  This is, of course, not a reason NOT to choose the president by popular vote--but it is a caution: A relative handful of votes recounted differently could very easily hand Trump the presidency that way, too.

Those of us who loathe the thought of a Trump presidency should do everything we can to temper its worst effects.  We should also advocate for changes to our voting systems before the next election.  But like it or not, under the system we have now, Trump won the election.  We don't have to like it--but we do have to accept its reality.

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