Yesterday, your correspondent wrote an article in which he confessed to some bafflement that the jerry-built nature of Australian democracy — in which one government in six over the past 60 years has been formed by the side that won a minority of votes — has not occasioned more protest, given that it renders the whole business a bit of a crap shoot. With a few exceptions, reactions to that article appeared to confirm that complacency, showing that people are willing to preserve the fiction that every three years we elect 150 individuals in the lower house, who then spontaneously form government.

Given that Australia has one of the most lock-step party systems in the world — in which three or four members crossing the floor (as in the late days of Howard’s refugee follies) constitutes a party crisis — the “sovereign single member” theory obviously has not a whit of truth about it. Many people seem to reach for it, or any explanation, because the truth is really a little much to contemplate — our politics has been shockingly arbitrary, and those results have shaped us decisively.

We are scarcely the only people to run a mile from close inspection of our electoral system. For most, nothing less than a total impasse, a full crisis of legitimacy, will force change — by which point the prospect of a pure power clash becomes more likely. Greece, having left a ratchety process in place for decades, now appears willing to rewrite the rules at every election, with its recently created 50-seat bonus for the leading party, now seen as a disastrous distortion of a minimal difference in votes.

But all of that is nothing compared to the potential train-wreck the US faces, should its disjunctive political system deliver a victory to either Barack Obama and Mitt Romney without a plurality of the votes. Though Obama has had a 2-3% lead over Romney for the past six months (aside from some widening out during the Republican follies), it is quite possible that this will narrow — and some recent polls show Romney with a small lead. That suggests a state-by-state slogathon, with the possibility that the election may be won or lost in one of Ohio, Florida or Colorado.

With a one- or two-state victory by either side, in tight finishes, and less than 100,000 votes in it, the victorious side — electoral-college victory — could easily be outmatched by a wave of votes in states where margins are too large for the result to realistically change. Thus Romney could pick up a big chunk of votes in upstate New York or California, while Obama could take a larger Hispanic vote in Texas and Arizona. With the very unlikely exception of the last, these states are not going to change hands — but they may deliver an overall majority vote to the losing side.

This has happened before, of course — most recently with the 2000 election, which saw Al Gore gain an undoubted majority of the vote. But this was so overlaid with the chaos generated by the “butterfly ballot” in one Florida county, the Supreme Court involvement, and its bizarre five-four “non-precedent” decision that it was ignored. In 1876, the Republicans consolidated their power with the victory of Rutherford B. Hayes, who lost the popular vote — and also, the electoral college vote, which was then subject to a fusillade of legal shenanigans. And in 1960, the close victory of John F. Kennedy was almost certainly stolen. Legend has it that Richard Nixon refused to challenge the result “for the good of the country” — in fact, he was concerned that an investigation would reveal GOP rorting practices too, and that the Republicans had simply been less diligent vote stealers.

Given that so many Americans believe their system to be ordained by God, you would think that 2000 would be taken as a bit of vote clearing by the Almighty. But the system has simply sailed on, with no real reform taking place. This year may prove its undoing.

Here’s a couple of ways in which it might happen. Obama won 365 electoral college votes to McCain’s 173. The Republicans need 97 electoral college votes back to win power (there are 538 electoral college votes, so 270 are required). Obama’s nine-state hold is why he remains the favourite to win even against Romney’s positive polling. Romney has already gained a few of these due to shifts in the number of electors held by the relevant states (each state gets one election per congressional district plus two for the Senators — congressional district allotments per state are allocated according to the results of each 10-year census, with their always being 435 districts. The district of Columbia also gets three electors).

Everyone thinks that Obama will lose Indiana, a freak win of a very conservative state in 2008 — that’s 11 votes. If the new south turns against him, Virginia and North Carolina go — that’s 13 and 15, another 28, 39 lost. Florida is always a toss-up, a wild-card. Give that to Romney and that’s another 29 — 68 gone. And finally Obama loses the heartland — Iowa and Ohio, with six and 18 votes — that’s 92 gone. Throw in Omaha, Nebraska (Nebraska splits its college vote by congressional districts), that’s 93 and with the shift in numbers in other states due to redistribution, and that’s a loss for Obama.

Note that that still leaves Obama holding the new West (Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico), and you can game it out any number of ways — give Obama the new South but lose the West, lose everything but Ohio and Florida, or lose a state or two, hitherto considered solid Democrat — New Hampshire and Pennsylvania (with a tasty 21 votes), and even a district in Maine (which follows Nebraska rules). There are several ways for a cliffhanger result to come out with either side winning by five college votes or so — and yet amassing a solid majority in states that don’t change hands. It’s partly because of the new states Obama put in play — the new South and West — that the process has become so unpredictable.

What can be predicted is this. If Mitt Romney were to win without an overall majority, I would hope that left and progressives would put up a concerted and ongoing peaceful but vigorous campaign to fix a broken system. But if Obama were to get in by the same process — well, there are millions of armed people in the US who would simply refuse to accept the result. Whole state legislatures would refuse to ratify federal laws. Tea Parties would take the result as a legitimation of basic rebellion — the minority victory would be taken as sufficient reason for saying that they were not represented. Does anyone doubt that this would occur, on at least some scale, given how Obama is viewed? And does anyone really know where it would end?

And that’s without considering what happens if electoral college members don’t vote according to the state result (or “faithless electors” as they are called, the matter having come up many times before). Fun times ahead …

Peter Fray

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