Elections matter.

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Image remixed from Creative Commons images (1, 2) and COVID-19 data from here.

The fifty states with their different laws and governments are natural laboratories of democracy. This year, those laboratories of democracy have held an epidemiological experiment. Preliminary results from that experiment are in: Elections are a matter of life and death.

For an American in the year 2020, the risk of death from COVID-19 has varied quite significantly from state by state. Part of the pattern is geographic; population density accounts for a majority of the variation in risk thus far. Part of the pattern can be seen in when governors are elected.

For good or ill, it is governors that have led the response to COVID-19. Not all governors have led equally capable; and not all state governments have been as competent and able as others. Competence and capability varies significantly with different election schedules; states where governors are elected in mid-term or off-year elections tend to have more corrupt state governments and lower gubernatorial approval ratings.


There are holes in our democratic process of succession

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Presidents William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, and James Garfield on their respective deathbeds. (Remixed from Creative Commons images 1, 2, 3.)

America has seen the death of presidential candidates; America has seen the death of presidents. Thus far, those two events have happened separately, and America has avoided a major crisis in the presidential succession process. Even after the passage of the 25th Amendment, however, the presidential election system is vulnerable to badly-timed deaths.

Presently, President Donald Trump is in ill health, may have infected rival candidate Joe Biden, and a presidential election is already underway. If he, Biden, or both were to die any time between now and December 14th, it could lead to a major electoral crisis.

The open window in the Electoral College

Ordinary American citizens have already begun to vote for president. Technically speaking, however, an ordinary citizen’s vote for president is actually a vote for a slate of electors. It doesn’t matter whether or not the presidential candidates die; a vote for a presidential ticket is counted as a vote for that ticket’s designated electors. …


“A good compromise leaves everybody mad.” — Bill Watterson

The Electoral College was a compromise. Most of us know this. As far as I can tell, none of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention thought that the final version of the Electoral College system was the best possible method for electing the president —it was just the compromise that they were willing to agree to.

I will begin by saying what the Electoral College was not.

  • It was not intended to protect the interests of small states.
  • It was not intended to protect the interests of rural voters.
  • It was not intended to insure elections were resolved quickly. …


The Electoral College system is vulnerable to political attack

This article was originally written in the lead-up to the 2020 election. For those of you reading it after Election day but before electors meet and vote, see the section about retroactive rules changes.

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“Consensus” election forecast (from 270toWin) highlighting battleground states with Republican state legislatures in yellow.

Reportedly, Trump is exploring plans to appeal directly to state legislators in order to win the appointment of electors in key battleground states. The unfortunate reality is that this line of attack is constitutional. Not only that, this strategy has been employed in the past. State legislatures can and have stolen elections out from under the noses of voters.

There are three different ways in which state governments can steal a state’s slate of electors from a candidate who won more votes than their opponent. First, and most simply, they can cancel the election, as happened in New Jersey in 1812. Second, they can certify results that are known to be inaccurate, irregular, and incomplete; the 1876 and 2000 elections were both decided on the basis of counts known to be inaccurate. Third, they could simply order electors to change their votes; in Colorado in 2016, the state successfully compelled electors’ votes. …


The geography of who lands in the White House

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Where presidents come from

There are forty-four presidents. Thirty-nine were elected (five accidentally became president). Of the thirty nine people elected president, twenty-eight have lived in either New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, or Ohio for at least part of their life. Twenty-one were born in one of those four states.

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Presidential birthplaces

There’s one uncertainty about how many presidents were born in each state: Andrew Jackson was born near the border of South Carolina and North Carolina. It’s not known which state he was actually born in. …


He probably is lying about his height, though.

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Modified from this public domain image.

“Girthers” suspect that President Donald Trump’s vital statistics are misrepresented, and that he has a serious obesity problem.

Even considering the uncertainty over Trump’s height and weight, he is definitely not the fattest president in history. He might be pushing second place, but it’s hard to be sure.

The first thing to understand is that Trump does seem to have padded his vital statistics. His 2012 driver’s license and 1961 draft card both list a height of 6′2″. In other words, there is an official chain of records stretching from 1961 to 2012 showing him with a height of 6′2″. Trump currently claims to be 6′3″. …


If Biden dies on November 3rd, 2020, things could get very complicated very quickly.

Here’s the deal: The president is elected by a set of 538 presidential electors. Not states, not citizens, but electors. The electors vote on December 14th, 2020. If Biden dies between November 3rd and December 14th as the apparent president-elect, any votes cast by presidential electors for Biden won’t count, according to current precedent.

The same is true for Trump; if any presidential candidate dies between the election and the meeting of electors, this could lead to some unusual outcomes.

1872: The precedent that electors cannot vote for a dead man

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(Image source.)

In 1872, Horace Greeley, famous newspaperman, challenged incumbent president Ulysses S. Grant. He lost the election by a landslide on election night, and then died before the electors met. …


The Supreme Court settles the “faithless elector” question.

On June 6th, 2020, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of Chiafolo v. Washington and also Baca v. Colorado Department of State. (The two cases were separated because Sotomayor recused herself from the latter case.) The decision can be summarized in a single line from the decision:

[E]lectors are not free agents; they are to vote for the candidate whom the State’s voters have chosen.

The Supreme Court has specifically decided that states are free to either fine (as in the case of Chiafalo v. Washington) or replace (as in the case of Baca v. Colorado) electors who vote for a different candidate. …


Obvious choices and high stakes

Picture of Biden next to an empty question mark.
Picture of Biden next to an empty question mark.

As of April 8th, 2020, with the suspension of the campaign of his last major opponent, Joe Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee. Who could — and should — he pick as a running mate?

This is a question with a simple good answer: The person who is best qualified to fulfill the duties of vice president.

You’ve probably seen other articles that talk about symbolic meaning, base voters, swing voters, political debts, fundraising ability, charisma, and a lot of other malarkey. This is not only malarkey, but dangerous malarkey. …


A mathematician’s thoughts on a political and historical problem

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Who might be the next elected official to occupy this house?

It appears very likely that either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders will be the next Democratic presidential nominee. Actuarial tables suggest that if either is inaugurated, they have about a 1 in 6 chance of dying by the end of their first term in office; in addition to death, incapacity or disability is also a major concern.

The stakes attached to the vice presidency have never been this obviously high. My advice would be caution: The most important role of the vice presidential nominee is to step into the presidential nominees’ shoes. Trust that voters understand that.

Choosing a running mate in order to appease a disgruntled political faction — either a different faction of the same political party, or voters outside of the political party — has little positive electoral impact. It may even have a negative impact, as voters do not trust politicians who are clearly pandering insincerely. It’s also reckless. …

About

Tomas McIntee

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

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