How not to reform our electoral system
Our system needs reform, but some things work surprisingly well
In his classic text, Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville wrote about American individualism, describing it as “self-interest, properly understood.” It’s amazing to think that a 19th century aristocratic French diplomat in the 1830s could have understood us so well.
De Toqueville was not a fan of individualism per se, but he marveled at how Americans as individualists could work together in a way that perpetuated a civil society. He admired our civic organizations, our local governments, our lack of central authority, a seemingly disorganized mess somehow working together.
Much of our system is set up to harness individual self interest in a way that it advances the common good. Indeed, this philosophy is a central tenet to capitalism itself, the “invisible hand” Adam Smith described.
Similarly, prosecutors pursue prominent bad guys not only because the law demands it of them, but because their careers will flourish when they convict a prominent wrongdoer. Just ask Rudy Giuliani about that. He’s a former prosecutor who parlayed prosecutorial success into the mayoralty of New York and a national political stage.
And people look with suspicion on the mainstream media, but every reporter wants to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, exposing the corruption of a prominent politician. No amount of party loyalty will keep a reporter from destroying the career of an elected official if it helps them get headlines. And the competition among reporters is such that if one sits on a story because of some misplaced loyalty to a benefactor, another reporter will scoop them.
This dynamic leads to the ironic situation we have in which many people believe corruption is rampant in the United States, while in fact we have a relatively clean government. People’s individualistic tendencies may push them to be corrupt, but the vigilance of reporters and prosecutors, also pursuing their own selfish ends, roots out such behavior.
While it is true that individuals tend to behave ethically, the American definition of ethics being “complying with the law” and “doing their job competently” is a relatively low bar. The system through our laws, especially as interpreted by our courts, has corruption built into it. At the same time, outright bribery is extremely rare in our system.
This situation explains the seemingly honorable behavior by several loyal Trump allies in this election. For instance, the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the state official tasked with conducting the state’s election, a Republican who voted for Trump, has stood firmly behind the validity of his state’s election results. To do otherwise would be to admit that he is incompetent, and possibly subject him to criminal liability. No amount of Trump raging will convince him to risk such an admission. That is why in his public statement asking people to stop threatening election staff, he refused to blame Trump himself for causing this toxic environment.
This story is being played out again and again across the country. In Arizona, Trump toady Governor Doug Ducey ignored a call from the President himself during a press conference in which he certified Biden’s win of the state. Even if Ducey wanted to unlawfully throw the state to Trump, thousands of election officials below him, but who don’t work for him, know the results they are responsible for and will refuse to throw their own reputation under the bus to protect Trump. Trump might have found a number of national politicians willing to debase themselves to him in return for a cabinet position, but what incentive does a local election official from rural Wisconsin have to damage their own reputation for running a fair election just to protect a President they may support, but have never met.
As economists explain, actions result from the incentives people have. In the case of the thousands of independently elected municipal officials running their local election, their incentive is to do their job competently, no matter what Trump wants. It may be one thing to actively support Trump, but to damage their own community standing by admitting incompetence in their job is something few Americans will do.
And that is the beauty of the American electoral system. Unlike most countries, our elections are not centrally organized. According to the Census Bureau, there are 89,004 local governments in the United States. Each one independently runs its own election, reporting its results to the 3006 county governments, which then report their results to the fifty states.
In each and every case, there will be local election administrators, elected by their community, completely independent of Trump, tasked with administering the election. To subvert an American election would require fraud on such a massive scale, involving hundreds of thousands of individuals, that such a subversion is unrealistic. As the saying goes, two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. We are chronically incapable of keeping secrets, and all of this coordination would be going on under the watchful eyes of reporters and prosecutors looking to make a name for themselves by destroying the career of a politician.
This lack of centralization has led to our mishmash of election rules, often varying significantly from one community to another. Indeed, this division has made our system devilishly hard for foreign adversaries to directly modify election results, pushing them to instead rely upon rumor-mongering on Facebook. In fact, the Trump White House repeatedly tried to develop a national voter database, but their efforts were repeatedly rebuffed by the many local and state administrators who wanted to keep control of their own system.
So the seeming chaos of our election system is actually a strength. It is managed by hundreds of thousands of individuals, all looking out for their own individual best interests by running a legitimate process. Indeed, it is likely telling that the greatest success this administration had in interfering with our election machinery was with the Post Office, a centrally-controlled and administered organization completely different from our election system.
None of this is to imply that our system does not need reform. Especially in the era after the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act, and since the expiration of the consent decree banning Republican interference in voting, voting rights are under attack. We need to address the problem of disenfranchisement, which is a major problem in our country.
At the same time, we need to acknowledge the strength in our system. Its chaos and lack of centrality creates incentives for hundreds of thousands of individuals to safeguard their piece of it. No amount of tweeting from a defeated candidate can change that.