Help America Vote... Again
US electoral processes have undergone substantial reform but there's still a way to go
As I write, US Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein has raised more money from the public to force and fund recounts in three key states than she did for her actual campaign, $4.5m-and-counting vs $3.5m.
Meanwhile, researchers from two more groups – the Foreign Policy Research Institute and PropOrNot – have or are about to release research pointing again to Russia as a source of anti-Democratic Party hacks and ‘fake news’ promotion on social media.
So, just how much at risk – or indeed subject to question – is the integrity of the US electoral system? It’s a relevant question for engineering, given how hard the US has been working to give that system a major technological upgrade.
This column has noted the following before, but it is worth repeating here: electoral processes serve two equally important functions. First, they facilitate the selection of the office holder with the greatest support across all the candidates according to pre-determined rules. Second, and most often forgotten, they prove to the loser and his or her supporters that he or she fairly and squarely lost.
The most obvious ‘problem’ with November’s vote is that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin set to exceed two million votes. However, because of the Electoral College system, in which almost every state receives a fixed number of ‘winner takes all’ delegates who go on to actually pick the president, Donald Trump has emerged victorious.
That might seem unfair, but it is worth bearing in mind that the only voice to raise suspicions over the electoral process during the campaign was Trump’s; Clinton accepted (and still appears to accept) ‘the rules of the game’.
Nevertheless, this is a bitter pill for many Democrats, and they are being asked to swallow it for the second time this century. George W Bush also lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000, but when the dust settled had supporters in the right places to secure victory in the College.
A deeper problem is that having tried to reform and clarify its procedures in the wake of Bush v Gore, particularly through the Help America Vote Act, the US still finds itself burdened with a complex mishmash of systems that too many disgruntled voters neither understand nor trust (and, let’s be honest, had this year’s result been the other way around, Trump's supporters would likely be as angry as now are many of Clinton’s).
By that measure, regardless of whether the vote itself was subject to interference, the current US electoral infrastructure is failing: it is not meeting that second vital criterion of proving to losers that they lost.
Still staying away from any claims of skullduggery or simple count errors, this is very dangerous stuff. Even a victor can only run an effective government with the general social consent of those who oppose him. This is something Trump does seem to understand in that while he has made a number of unpopular appointments, he has also already set about stripping away or mothballing some of the more extreme parts of his platform.
Where that consent is withheld after a disputed election that has exposed extremely deep divisions in society, the prospect of brooding resentment leading to serious civil disruption cannot be ignored.
So what can America now do? Here are three proposals.
- It is virtually impossible to see a way in which the Electoral College system can be abolished – smaller states still fear the more populous ones dominating the economic agenda at their expense. However, would it be that hard to institute automatic recounts in states where results were deemed ‘marginal’ whenever a candidate did win the popular vote but not the College?
- Notwithstanding elections at state level, the US should introduce a single balloting system for federal elections. It could be paper-based or electronic or some combination. Right now with various systems in use – and these at various levels of upkeep – the potential for confusion and complaint undermines the overall process.
- Once a single system is in place, elections could be more consistently audited (during and, if necessary, after the vote) and also better maintained by a central engineering and security team within the existing Federal Election Commission. It would be better equipped to say abreast of the latest technological options and, more importantly, the latest threats.
I don’t expect Jill Stein’s challenge to alter the result. Analysts have already dug into what appear to be ‘rogue’ results, and found that once local ethnic and social demographics were fully taken into account, they actually proved consistent. More to the point, in the three most important states to swing for Trump – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – even Democratic strategists now admit their local activists were raising warning flags that simply weren’t sufficiently acted upon by Team Clinton.
However, Stein could be doing American democracy a service in that the foundations for her recount campaign and the large support it is attracting both highlight how much the system still needs major reform.