Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Electoral College and National Popular Votes, Part I

Let us be quite clear from the beginning: The Democratic Party deliberately nominated a candidate who was undergoing federal investigation for matters under national security law, and who was associated with a charity, the Clinton Foundation, that was also under federal investigation. The Clinton campaign actively worked to make sure that Donald Trump would get the Republican nomination and be on the ballot. Clinton then ran a campaign heavily governed by an algorithm. In the meantime, both the campaign and the party failed to make any serious attempt to re-integrate Sanders supporters, despite their vehement complaints about her tactics during the primary campaign. The campaign repeatedly assumed that it could turn out blacks and Latinos in the neighborhood of Obama's turnout while doing almost nothing specific to help local groups make it happen; and she passed over several Latinos to pick as her running mate the weak and barely helpful Tim Kaine. They did next to nothing shoring up the Democratic Party in Wisconsin despite the fact that it was known that the state party there was in disarray, and despite warnings that the entire Rust Belt was in imminent danger of being captured. One could make the list much, much longer. If one wishes to find something to blame for the rise of Donald Trump, one need not look beyond a campaign whose chief characteristic was the arrogance of complacent incompetence.

But a tough election leaves the losing side flailing around for a ground of complaint, and when there were a lot of close races, they look in particular for a reason to complain that they did not lose fairly. So, as the returns on individual races slowly reach more precise numbers, it was perhaps inevitable that their flailing would lead to an attack on the big target, the Electoral College. Such is Andrew Prokop's recent Vox essay, which handily brings together almost all of the false things people often say about the venerable institution.

Let's start with an essential issue, however, and one that is so often overlooked in these discussions that it needs to be highlighted. The first and most important rule for adding up numbers in the real world is that only relevant commensurable units can be added. If I add 5 degrees Celsius to 6 oak trees, I don't have 11 of anything real. Unit-wise, adding degrees Celsius to oak trees requires taking the unit of addition to be degree-Celsius-or-oak-tree, which is nothing real whatsoever. Degrees Celsius and oak trees are not commensurable; they have no common measure.

The reason this point needs to be remembered at the outset is that the United States has no mechanism for generating a generic vote across state lines. Votes are artificial things that are created by specific processes constructed on purely conventional criteria set by law. They have no other existence. I can fill out a ballot and bury it in the yard, and I have not voted, because I have not undergone the right process; I can scream out that I support someone for President and I have not voted, because I have not undergone the right process. I can write-in a vote for U.S. President in an election in Norway and while I have voted, my vote is not a vote in the same process and is not commensurable to the votes in the American election. But in the United States votes in a Presidential election are created by processes established by state laws, which vary from state to state, sometimes in considerable ways. Votes are not commensurable across state lines. The difference, of course, is not territorial but jurisdictional. When you vote, you do not create a generic American vote, you create a vote-in-California or a vote-in-Maine, or the like. We call them both votes because they are created by a voting process, and this is helped by the fact that there is a lot of similarity between the voting processes due to historical tradition, but we do not create the same kind of vote if we are voting in different states. Each state is its own election system.

Thus there is no national popular vote. Unlike, say, Canada, we have no mechanism for producing one.

So what is this 'national popular vote' that we keep hearing about in talk about election results? It is a violation of the unit rule for real-world addition. It's simply taking the votes in different election systems and adding them together. This is not completely senseless. One can think of the number as evidence for counterfactual votes -- that is, under some set of assumptions, we can translate the votes from state returns into votes-that-would-have-been-cast-if-we-did-have-a-national-popular-vote, and then add these together to say something about what the national popular vote might have been like. But one can see immediately that this is not a straightforward process. First, since state election laws differ, simply taking the numbers straight across creates uncertainty. In some states, for instance, felons can vote; in others, they cannot. Would our counterfactual national vote be a felon-voting system or a non-felon-voting system? Obviously, there is no answer to that question, and, what is more, whichever answer to that question we gave, it would mess with our starting numbers. If we assume that the counterfactual system is a felon-voting one, our numbers for the non-felon-voting system no longer provide exact evidence for what the votes would be in the counterfactual system, because we don't know how many felons would have voted if given the chance, nor do we know exactly how they would have voted. Treating the numbers as if they could be just translated across to our hypothetical national voting process is wrong. The difference in our starting systems has created an uncertainty in the final numbers.

Felons are just one case. The uncertainties add up considerably. And this is all before we get to normal error -- voting machine glitches or paper ballot misread -- or moral wrongdoing -- voter suppression and voter fraud. And all of this is important when we talk about the relations among the real state popular vote numbers, the real Electoral College vote numbers, and the fictional national popular vote numbers. More on this in the next part, when I can get to it.

Part II

Friday, November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Leonard Cohen, "Hallelujah". Cohen died Monday.

There's a blaze of light in every word;
it doesn't matter which you heard --
the broken, or the holy, Hallelujah.

To Step Aside Is Human

Address to the Unco Guid, Or the Rigidly Righteous
by Robert Burns

        My Son, these maxims make a rule,
        An' lump them aye thegither;
        The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
        The Rigid Wise anither:
        The cleanest corn that ere was dight
        May hae some pyles o' caff in;
        So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
        For random fits o' daffin.
        Solomon.-Eccles. ch. vii. verse 16.

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours' fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o' water;
The heaped happer's ebbing still,
An' still the clap plays clatter.

Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals
That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door
For glaikit Folly's portals:
I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences-
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer;
But cast a moment's fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ;
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what's aft mair than a' the lave),
Your better art o' hidin.

Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop!
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop!
Wi' wind and tide fair i' your tail,
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o' baith to sail,
It maks an unco lee-way.

See Social Life and Glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrified, they're grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O would they stay to calculate
Th' eternal consequences;
Or your more dreaded hell to state,
Damnation of expenses!

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o' cases;
A dear-lov'd lad, convenience snug,
A treach'rous inclination-
But let me whisper i' your lug,
Ye're aiblins nae temptation.

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, -
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

I like this reading by Kevin Brown:

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Lion and the Hun

Today is the feast of St. Leo I, the Great, Doctor of the Church. From his Sermon IV (ht):

Apart from the particular service that our ministry entails, all Christians who live spiritual lives according to reason recognize that they have a part in the royal race and the priestly office. What could be more royal than the soul in subjection to God ruling over its own body? What could be more priestly than dedicating a pure conscience to the Lord and offering spotless sacrifices of devotion from the altar of the heart? Since this has been given to everyone alike through the grace of God, it is a devout and praiseworthy thing for you to take joy in the day of our elevation as if in your own honor. Let the episcopacy be celebrated in the entire body of the Church as one single mystery. When the oil of benediction has been poured out, the mystery flows, though more abundantly onto the higher parts, yet not ungenerously down to the lower ones as well.

One of Raphael's great paintings is The Meeting of Leo I and Attila:


Wednesday, November 09, 2016


It's been an interesting day. Professionally, of course, I rotate in academic circles, and despite expecting some gloom, I have been surprised at the sheer level of depression among academics -- I mean, we are talking over-the-top, edge-of-despair kind of stuff. They are just utterly, utterly devastated. It comes out in email, in person, and in their actions. It is astounding. It's like the aftermath of a natural disaster, with everyone walking around in shock.

But, of course, what I see are professionals who, being intellectuals in the real sense of the world, are largely abstracted from the visceral feel of it and professionally disinclined to display it when they do feel it. That there is a whole 'nother world out there is seen on Twitter, which has been nearly twenty-four hours of nonstop angst and fury, with a lot of lashing out and remarkably little soul-searching.

All of this is minor, though; I can sympathize to a point, although it's sometimes difficult not to smile at how over-the-top it has become, and it will no doubt become tiresome if people aren't moving on by next week. But the anti-Trump protests people are having in various cities are annoying me. Are they protests of specific voting injustices? No. The protesters are protesting voting itself. I have no sympathy whatsoever for this. It is, frankly, revolting, as if the United States were some tinpot fresh-from-dictatorship little country, without any sense of due process or the importance of elections, both essential to American honor. Good-faith negotiation is one of the key principles of a free society; and if you have a problem with the fact that you can be outvoted by people whose views are distant from your own, protesting the fact now is a sign that your participation in the election was not in good faith.

Most people are not in such bad faith, however; these are protests of hundreds and a thousand here and there, not large scale. And there is another side to American life.

As I was getting ready to help out with confirmation classes, I stopped to get dinner at a local cafe. There was a table near mine, with about five older women, probably all at least in their fifties and probably from a church group, and they were talking about the election. I try not eavesdrop on other conversations in a restaurant, but bits and pieces of their conversation kept drifting over to my table. As near as I can tell from the fragments I heard, they had all voted against Trump, and had a diversity of reactions to his win. One was really shocked at it, although I didn't hear details of it; another said that while she had been, she had made peace with it and thought it might not turn out as badly as some thought. They talked about the possible implications for their own lives, involving jobs, for instance, and what they might do to take it into account, although I did not catch very many of the specifics. It was reasoned, it was thoughtful, it was practical. And at one point one of the ladies said, "And one thing we will all have to do is pray." And after some discussion, as their dinner ended, pray they did, and they paid their meal and discussed their next meeting and continued on their way.

That, my friends, is rational politics.


So, as we enter the second phase of the election -- since technically the election isn't over until the Electoral College votes are certified -- it seems to be solidly President Trump. We'll see if hardcore Clinton supporters rise above my expectations or engage in a month-long temper tantrum about how it is everyone else's fault that they nominated someone under federal investigation, angered a significant constituency in their own party over Bernie Sanders, and lost perhaps as much as a third of their blue-collar voters. ('Love Trumps Hate' and 'Stronger Together', my foot. I never vote Major Party for President as a matter of principle, and have no temptation to Trump himself, and yet enough hardcore Clinton supporters of my acquaintance were so venomously obnoxious in their approach to this election that I was on occasion nearly tempted to break my rule and vote Trump for no other reason than to spite them. It was more than once that I came away from an encounter with them thinking, "You self-absorbed classist jackasses!") We'll also see if Republicans in Congress work very well with Trump; and we'll see if Trump works very well with Republicans in Congress -- or follows through on anything he's been saying. Trump is, if I am not mistaken, the first Republican President to have a Republican-locked Congress since 1928 [ADDED LATER: Actually, I seem to have indeed been mistaken] -- if the two work together, there isn't much the Democrats can do to stop them. They don't really have a history of working together, though.

One thing we can count on is that Republicans will as completely fail to learn from this election how to win as Democrats learned from Obama's election. If you find any Republican pundits crowing about how they can now guarantee Republican Presidents the way some Democrats were crowing after Obama's first election about how they could now guarantee Democratic Presidents because 'numbers', slap them. Numbers don't vote; people do. Winning an election is still about the hard work of giving a lot of people something they can support, and avoiding giving them anything they actively despise.

It's perhaps worth noting, given what will inevitably be said, that it seems, just taking polling and preliminary numbers, that blacks and Hispanics were far more likely to support Trump, and in practice less likely to be worried about him being in the Office, than they were for Romney. Romney struggled even to get the strongly Republican Cuban American constituency in Florida to go for him. (It's also noticeable that, again just given preliminary indications, that other traditionally Republican minority groups, like Hindi Americans, also seem to have broken much more strongly for Trump than for Romney.) Trump consistently did better with blacks and Hispanics, especially (again, as far as one can tell from preliminary indications) working class blacks and Hispanics, than people were expecting him to do.

There seem to be a few winners this election besides Trump for the presidency and the Republicans for a solid lock on Congress. We learned that the working class is still the most powerful voting bloc in this country -- when they act like a voting bloc. Trump won significant portions of traditionally Democratic country in the Rust Belt because of them, and they neutralized most of Clinton's advantage in New England and the Left Coast. In several states Trump didn't win -- notably the very reliably Democratic Minnesota -- it looks like they would have handed Trump the state if Democrats in the state hadn't done such a massive early voting drive.

Vigo County, Indiana, continues its streak as the most accurate Election Night bellwether. Since 1888, the candidate for which Vigo has voted has gone on to win the Presidency in all but 3 cases (1908, 1952, 2000), two of which were extremely close elections nationally.

Polling-wise, and, again, just going on preliminaries, it looks like the LATimes and IDB were again the most accurate polls, joined by PPD, and Richard Baris of People's Pundit Daily the most accurate poll analyst. Most of the others were not just off, they were way off in ways strongly suggesting a serious defect in their underlying approach.

ADDED LATER: And lest we forget, from 2000:

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Subtle Doctor

Today is the feast of Blessed John Duns Scotus, the Subtle Doctor. From De primo principio:

You alone are the first truth. Indeed, the false is not what it seems to be. Hence something besides itself is the basis for what it appears to be, for were its nature alone the basis, it would appear to be what it really is. But for you there is no other ground or basis for what appears, because in your essence which is first apparent to yourself all things appear, and by that very fact nothing subsequent is the basis for what appears to you. In that essence, I say, whatever can be known in all the fullness of its meaning is present to your intellect. You are then truth in all its splendor, infallible truth, comprehending every intelligible truth with certainty. For the other things apparent to you do not seem to exist in you in such a way that they deceive you simply because they appear in you. For the ground or reason for the appearance does not prevent the proper meaning of what it reveals from appearing to your intellect as is the case with our visual deceptions, when the appearance of something else prevents us from seeing what is really there. This is not so in your intellect; quite the contrary, so perfect in its clarity is the vision of your essence that whatever is displayed therein appears to you in all its proper meaning.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


As we come up into the last campaigning flurry of the Throw-It-In-A-Blender Election of the Year Gone Mad, two reminders lest we all go mad as well.

(1) Those of you who are talking as if the craziness will end on Election Day, just stop it; that's a good way to frustrate yourself. There will be recounts. There may be legal battles. There will be ongoing fallout from Wikileaks. The general favorability of the press with the American public will continue to plummet. It will get crazier. The Lunatic Year has a stretch to go.

(2) No matter how crazy this election has been, it is still arguably not crazier than any of the three elections (1824, 1828, 1832) in which Andrew Jackson ran. Admittedly, of course, the Lunatic Year has some wild surprises left; but up to this point the Andrew Jackson years hold their own.

A Way Where You Might Tread the Sun

The World
by Henry Vaughan

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow’r.

The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg’d the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work’d under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
That policy;
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain’d about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg’d each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac’d heav’n in sense,
And scorn’d pretence,
While others, slipp’d into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper’d thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.”