What happened in the presidential election on Tuesday wasn’t democracy.
That’s not just the opinion of one voter in a state of denial either. It’s an entirely rational, and even obvious assessment of what occurred.
Let me back up for a moment.
I blog about management. In particular, the (mis)management of for-profit organizations operating in some approximation of a free market economy.
As a general rule, I do not weigh in on the management of public or not-for-profit organizations. This would include any of the institutions of government, or the political process. To my mind, they are different beasts entirely – or at the very least, worthy of their own blog.
But I do consider myself to be a sort of expert on organizational (dys)function. And in the wake of Tuesday’s election result, some of my readers have expressed…well, dismay, confusion, anger, and sadness – and are looking for “answers,” or some explanation as to what happened.
So this week, an exception to my usual rule.
I can’t tell you why people voted the way they did. Or what they were thinking when they pulled the lever, pushed the button, or sent in their ballot.
But I can offer a perspective on the election that you probably haven’t heard before…and that, ultimately, I hope you will take some comfort in.
Democracy is messy
Of the two myths concerning Tuesday’s election that are currently being circulated (yes, by the media) the first is this: the Trump win was the result of a democratic election process. It may have been unpleasant for some, but this is just how it works. Democracy is messy, as the cliché goes.
But this claim is easily debunked, as even a cursory look at the election totals show.
Consider again the outcome. According to the latest data I could find, the ballot totals for each candidate are as follows:
First of all, yes – as it stands, Clinton won the popular vote. In the absence of an electoral college, Clinton would have been declared the winner. Any twelfth-grade political science student can tell you that. Importantly then, the 2016 presidential election does not meet even the lowest bar for any “democratic” process: the most votes wins.
But the presidential election held on Tuesday fails to meet another basic criteria for a democracy: majority rule. Take another look at the those results again, this time converted to percentages:
Clinton: 47.7% of the electorate
Trump: 47.4% of the electorate
Trump, in other words, did not receive a simple majority of the ballots cast in the election. And this will almost certainly be the case even if Trump’s total eventually surpasses Clinton’s once the last vote is counted. (Of course, neither did Clinton, the remaining percentage of votes going to third party candidates.) At the most basic level then, the election failed a second litmus test for democracy: majority rule.
Based on this, it is thus entirely accurate to also say that President-elect Trump will occupy the oval office without a popular mandate from the voters. Or, to put it another way, of those who turned out on election day, most voted AGAINST a Trump presidency.
And I for one, take just a little bit of comfort in at least knowing that.
Divided we fall
There is a second myth circulating regarding Tuesday’s results. But this one has been fomenting for awhile now – from well before the election was held. And it is the following:
The US is a deeply, deeply divided nation when it comes to its politics.
Whether you look at ballots cast in terms of numbers or percentages—or even the electoral map—we, as a country, would appear to be split down the middle. Basically fifty-fifty in who we voted for (or against), red state/blue state in the electoral college, and a congress that can’t seem to do anything but disagree with each other. Throughout the electorate, and at all levels of government, there would seem to be deep divisions and little appetite for compromise.
Well, not so fast.
Consider the following: The United States is a nation of 324 million people, 226 million of whom are eligible to vote. Furthermore, only 142 million of those eligible are actually registered to vote. That means last Tuesday, almost 25 million chose NOT to support either candidate.
Why is this significant?
Well, for starters it means that a convincing 58% of the registered electorate effectively voted AGAINST a Trump presidency – opting to either vote for one of his political rivals, or by abstaining from the election entirely. (For you Trump supporters of course, that means roughly the same percentage voted against a Clinton presidency.)
That bears repeating: Almost three-fifths of the electorate don’t want Trump (nor Clinton) to be President of these United States. Had that been the result in the popular vote, it would have been considered a landslide.
Now, sure – you could argue that those registered voters who didn’t cast ballots weren’t making a political statement. They’re stupid, or lazy, or simply unpatriotic.
But if that’s the case, why bother registering to vote in the first place? And what about those citizens who we know didn’t vote, but can be sure aren’t any of these things? For instance, Jeb Bush didn’t cast a ballot in this year’s presidential race, and I don’t hear anyone calling him apathetic or un-American. Nor has Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) been shy about his decision not to participate in the election process in the past. Certainly no one can accuse him of being stupid, or lazy.
Maybe you’re with me here, and maybe not. But if I might indulge just a little more, consider the picture should we factor in those eligible to vote. Since that number is closer to 226 million people, this means that of those who might have cast ballots on Tuesday, only 26% could bring themselves to vote for Trump, while a whopping 74% did not, would not, could not, or simply didn’t care enough to.
All of which is to say that we, as a country, seem to be more “united” than we might have been lead to believe…united in our dislike of Trump, that is.
And I take comfort in this as well.
The fix is in
I was trying to explain all of this to a friend of mine late on election night, but she wasn’t finding it as reassuring as I’d hoped.
She proceeded to point out that while it might be nice to think that a majority of voters had gone on record as being against Trump, basically I was arguing that the problem was systemic. That the way we elect our presidents in this country is fundamentally flawed, in other words…and perhaps even failing us. And I got the impression that fixing it, to her mind, would always be a far more daunting task than the challenge of trying to convince people to vote for the better (or less terrible) candidate.
She’s right, of course. By no means would changing our electoral process be easy. It would require amending the constitution – which we haven’t really done since the early 1970s. Still, it’s not impossible and, perhaps ironically, 10 of the last 15 amendments concern either voting, or the election process in some way.
Logistical concerns aside then, here are the changes that one self-described (dis)organizational scientist suggests we should make:
(1) Abandon the electoral college
As we’ve learned twice in the last 2 decades, the electoral college does not always reflect the popular vote. Both in 2000 and 2016, it has effectively suppressed the will of the people. So no-brainer here: No electoral college. One person, one vote. Votes shouldn’t count more because of the state you live in, any more than whether you can vote or not should depend on your sex, or the color of your skin.
(2) Hold run-off elections
When no candidate gets a simple majority of the votes in first round of balloting, a run-off election should be held. There are a variety of possible protocols to implement here, which I won’t go into, but a run-off is a process which in effect winnows the candidates down to two, so that on the final ballot, one person is guaranteed to receive a majority of votes. Again, nothing ground-breaking here – other democracies do this to good effect (Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, for instance), and the process is even used in some jurisdictions in the US (San Francisco, and Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN).
In fact, for those Republicans who have been so uncomfortable with a Trump candidacy all along, it should be pointed out that he might never have won the party’s nomination had they opted to hold run-off elections in their state primaries.
(3) Make it easier to vote
This suggestion is perhaps the most obvious of the three – but for the sake of thoroughness, it should be acknowledged that this would do two things:
- It would likely encourage more people to participate in the political process. And the more people that vote, the more likely it is our elected officials will act on and reflect the will of ALL the people they represent.
- It would also force candidates to appeal to a broader electorate, thereby perhaps ensuring that they offer generally more palatable policies, or exhibit more mainstream ideals and attitudes.
So let’s hold our elections on weekend. Or better yet, make it a national holiday. Or simply make it easier to vote by mail, or electronically.
Back to the basics
Alright, that’s about it. Next week, it’s back to blogging about (mis)management.
However, before I go a couple final thoughts:
If it’s not already obvious to you, I did not vote for Mr. Trump in this election. I voted for Ms. Clinton. Why? Well, I have a theory as to why women do better in leadership positions than men. (That’s right, women seem to be better at leading than men.) So as scientist, I guess I had a hypothesis I hoped to test.
But a Trump presidency also troubled me, and still does – and for all the usual reasons which I needn’t go into in any detail. Others have done so already over the past few days, and far more eloquently than I would be able to, so I will spare you my attempt. I would just add, however, that as someone who was bullied as an adolescent, I feel that a(nother) terrible example has been set for our nation’s children.
What has also troubled me these last few days is this: I fear there are those who might now at the end of this long process believe that democracy has failed us. That it is somehow a moribund or outdated system, and that we need to find a different (or God-forbid, more hierarchical) means by which to govern ourselves. In fact, I think we might all now agree that it is this very frustration that lead voters to support Trump in the first place, at least in part. Theirs is a disgust, and anger at a political party and a system that they feel—and rightly so—doesn’t listen to them, and is thus failing them. I can honestly say I commiserate with Trump supporters on this point.
But as I hope I’ve been able to convince you, democracy is not failing us.
We have failed (again) to practice democracy.
To my mind, this organization that we call our republic can be improved upon only if we choose to more faithfully adhere to the principles of democracy, and its elections and voting processes, as opposed to our current half-assed attempts at it.
Why is this so important for me to point out? Because it is the difference between trying to figure out where to go, and the perhaps far easier task of figuring out how to get there.
And I take comfort in having come to this realization.
I hope you will too.
 This is precisely what some 12th grade political science students concluded in an “All Things Considered,” segment on NPR, aired November 10, 2016.
 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/03/2016-electorate-will-be-the-most-diverse-in-u-s-history/. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2016.
 http://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-577.html. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2016.
 This is roughly the same percentage of the vote Ronald Reagan received when he defeated Walter Mondale in the 1984 Presidential Election. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_presidential_elections_by_popular_vote_margin. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2016.
 https://www.facebook.com/jebbush/posts/876702172458827. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2016.
 Wozniak, Steve, with Gina Smith. iWoz. 2006. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, p. 77.
 Keep in mind too, that these numbers don’t account for the so-called “protest vote” – those who didn’t vote for Trump, so much as they voted against Clinton. We might get some idea of what that margin is by looking at the results of the 2016 Republican primaries. In total, Trump received a total of 14,015,993 votes, or 45 percent of the ballots cast. Again, this is not a majority (although it is more votes than any of his Republican rivals received.) In fact, Trump did not achieve a simple majority in any primary until very late in the Republican primary process, when most of the other candidates had withdrawn. The first was the New York State primary, which was held on April 19th, and the 42nd primary of the season. In it, Trump received 59% of the ballots cast. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Results_of_the_Republican_Party_presidential_primaries,_2016. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2016.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_presidential_elections_by_popular_vote_margin. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2016.
 See endnote #9.
 According to the Gallup Organization, women make better managers than men. From “The State of the American Manager.” Gallup. 2015, p. 26.