The surprise with which many disappointed voters greeted the role of the electoral college in this year’s election outcome is a disconcerting trace of the poor state of civic education. Particularly with Bush/Gore in such recent memory, one would think most voters would understand that we choose, not presidential candidates, but slates of electors. The electors vote for president. I learned this in elementary school, in classrooms filled with other ordinary students being taught a standard curriculum. How could this come as a surprise? Mr. Trump did not win on a technicality. The electoral college in 2016 functioned exactly as it has been shaped to function, and in accordance with its original intent. It was written into the constitution to protect the elites of this oligarchic republic from the chaos of democracy, and, in practice, it has been leveraged by those elites in such a way that it puts the brake on popular drift away from more reactionary axes of public discourse. Overriding the popular vote twice in a generation is not accidental.
One reason widespread civic ignorance, especially on the so-called liberal left, is so appalling is because it is impossible to construct a meaningful national electoral strategy without keeping the stakes of the electoral college in mind at every turn. This is especially true of the labor of creating politics outside established machinery. Apportionment of presidential electors is decided by each state, and in every state but two apportionment is one hundred percent to a winner by simple majority. Nothing goes to any other candidate, no matter how close the vote. In Texas, for instance, finishing second may warm one’s heart, but it will not earn a single elector.
It does not have to be this way. Eliminating the electoral college will require amending the U.S. Constitution, but proportional apportionment of electors is achievable in legislatures state by state. Meanwhile, let us be clear-eyed on this matter. In forty-eight states a margin of victory of fifty percent plus one vote nets all electors. Full stop. Effectively, every vote cast for president in one of these states is reassigned to the single candidate with fifty-plus percent. It can come down to a single vote shutting out the voice of 49.9999…% of a state’s electorate. Why are you only angry now?
In Texas, where I vote, simple majoritarianism is the order of the day at every level of electoral politics. Here I must observe that the tyranny of an electoral majority is preferable to the tyranny of a self-selected elite, but it remains tyranny. Nevertheless, as an advocate and activist one must always maneuver within the space available. While voting for a second place finisher is the same as discarding one’s vote, there are tangible gains possible by voting further down the list. In Texas, each party must obtain a minimum number of votes in order to maintain ballot status. By voting down list, one protects these other voices in the discourse and secures a larger arena of future possibility. Precisely this has been a guiding ambition behind my lifelong commitment to third party and independent politics. But it has never been the whole story.
Prior to this year, I cast a ballot for third party or independent presidential candidates in every contest except 1984, when I voted Mondale/Ferraro. The choice then was eased by the absence of any visible third candidate on the left, and the fact that Walter Mondale was basically a decent human being, but Geraldine Ferraro was at the heart of my call. Iconographically, nomination by the Democratic Party of a woman for vice president was so significant that her candidacy demanded my support. All through the 2016 campaign I asked myself why I did not feel the same necessity about Ms. Clinton. I kept coming up with excellent reasons, every one rooted in sound critique of her actions, alliances and positions. She was, in many respects apart from her gender, a perfect conservative Republican candidate. Her boardroom alliances, her globalism, her militarism, any one of these was reason enough to oppose her candidacy—and then her strategy evolved to offer much to apparently imaginary anti-Trump Republicans and little to the very real, very motivated Sanderistas.
I also find repugnant the real politik argument that protecting reproductive freedom in this country demands acceptance of policies that result in drowned refugee babies washing up on Mediterranean beaches. There is nothing imperative in such a devil’s bargain. It is entirely possible to stand adamant for reproductive choice and against abandonment of human beings in desperate need. In the phrase of Emma Lazarus, the name of Liberty on these shores is “Mother of Exiles.” Within the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton was an architect of much that beggars defense.
Besides, unlike partisan Democrats, I voted for women in three previous presidential elections: Socialist Willa Kenoyer in 1988 (the year I was a Socialist write-in candidate for Texas Railroad Commission), Green Cynthia McKinney in 2008, and Green Jill Stein in 2012. This year I attended the Travis County Green Party’s combined precinct convention to vote for Ms. Stein for party nominee. She is not the candidate I would design—she certainly does not espouse anything like the revolutionary socialist principles of my political compass—but she has effectively represented Green Party core values to a growing public, which may be the most important accomplishment for a candidate with no practical chance of winning.
Well before election day I stopped speaking of the campaigns at all. Here I note that when faced with a heartfelt, consistent vision of politics outside the straight-jacketing duopoly, liberal Democrats are every bit as capable of intolerance, abuse, and coercive, post-factual hectoring as any frothing reactionary. No argument has ever convinced me that the Democratic Party—the legendary graveyard of progressive movements—is in any essential or necessary way the lesser of two evils. By my lights it is full partner in a morally bankrupt form of bipolar social control made to look squishy with smiley faces and lipstick. If one examines not the speeches made but the budgets passed, it becomes clear that the DP is distinct from its opposite number by branding far more than substance, like cigarettes or colas. This year, after a couple of vehement personal attacks by people I once thought would at least respectfully hear out a difference of opinion, I shut my mouth about the election. Whenever someone broached the topic, I would listen to whatever comment they chose to make, and then change the subject. Saving my breath, however, never meant that I ceased following coverage of the campaigns.
An interesting trend showed up in apparent polls of Texas voters as election day approached. The reported numbers seemed to show Ms. Clinton steadily erasing Mr. Trump’s lead. As Texas has been overwhelmingly, oppressively dominated by Republicans since the 1994 re-election defeat of Governor Ann Richards by George W. Bush, such a narrowing margin in this year’s contest was completely unexpected. Of course, the actual election demonstrated that no such trend existed, but in advance of the test the best purported information available seemed to show Texas in play for the first time in over twenty years.
The day I chose to early vote, I looked at poll numbers first thing that morning, clicking links on the NY Times website to a poll with a claimed margin of error of ±4.4%. At that hour, Mr. Trump’s reported lead was greater than the margin of error, and I still planned to vote for Jill Stein. That afternoon, immediately before leaving the office for the polling station, I checked again. Mr. Trump’s projected lead in Texas had narrowed to slightly more than 3%, less than the margin of error advertised for the poll. What this would have indicated, had the poll been accurate to the degree claimed, was that Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump were in a statistical dead heat in my home state. The hypothetical possibility of a result decided by a single vote suddenly inserted itself into the dialectic of the moment. Regardless of the national outcome, a Democratic win at the head of the ticket in Texas would have fundamentally shifted the local spectrum of possibility. Dedication to social transformation—my game, if you will—means first and always a dedication to enlarging what is possible. In a way, I did not even think about it. I walked into the Shriners’ hall, presented my credentials, obtained a voter code, went to an open booth, and voted for Hillary Clinton. Then I went back to the office.
By the time I got home after a late appointment that evening, Mr. Trump’s Texas lead was again reporting greater than the published margin of error. Had I voted in the morning or waited another day, I would have voted for Jill Stein. I chose based on what I believed I understood at the moment of action. Ironically, in the pudding we found that the race in Texas was never close. And, sadly, despite Jill Stein receiving more than 71,000 votes (that still would not have lifted the Dems above the Reps, you math-challenged crybabies), and Railroad Commission candidate Martina Salinas (for whom I did vote) receiving over 285,000 votes, the Green Party failed to meet the state’s threshold for continuing ballot status. The Greens must now restart from scratch the arduous process of obtaining a place at the table in Texas.
Contemplating the post-election landscape, it is clear my vote provided no substantial advantage to Ms. Clinton, and certainly none to Ms. Stein. A strictly partisan perspective will argue that I threw my vote away. Fortunately, heterodox Robert’s values and agenda are but incidentally partisan. The integrity of democratic governance demands respect for every vote cast with sincere good will, and with sincerity comes grace. If I extend this to others, I must also extend it to myself. After an effort to get information from a reputable source, I adapted accordingly to give clearest expression to my heart. The vote I cast for the Democratic Party ticket was not for candidate Hillary Clinton, nor was it in any primary way to help smash the glass ceiling. I voted as I always vote, for possibility. In this case I was misinformed. I have opinions on that fact, and if you buy me lunch I’ll repay you with pecks of them. What most concerns me now, however, is not second guessing how events have unfolded, but how to proceed as we grapple with the real fact of a Trump presidency. One model I think resistance could do worse than consider is the strategy of the conservative movement launched by Barry Goldwater in 1963. But that is another perambulation for another night. Please stay tuned.