The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party

The best party ever is back for its tenth year.

Freedom is not about allowing people to do things that you approve of. Freedom is about protecting peoples’ rights to do things you find distasteful.

So said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute at its 10th Annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party last Saturday.

The ATF party – "the most fun, most politically incorrect event of the year" – invites members of the public to "celebrate the perks of adulthood" by partaking in a "PETA-friendly clay pigeon shoot followed by a clubhouse luncheon complete with whiskey and cigars in one of the last places available to smokers – the outside".

As reported by C-Span:

"This year the forum focuses on personal liberties and gun rights. Participants discuss government regulation of tobacco, food and drink, and are critical of what some speakers call the "Nanny State". Other topics include the New York City ban on trans fats, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on certain soft drink sizes, global warming and this year’s presidential campaign.

It would be easy to dismiss an event where one of the speakers, David Matosko, considers global warming "an aggressive hoax" as yet another case-in-point to the sheer lunacy of the American 'right'. But much more lucid speakers, such as David Kopel, the Institute’s Research Director, point to some unpalatable truths about the hypocrisy and intolerance that plague both sides of the partisan fence.

Kopel begins by criticising Mayor Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns as a powerful lobby for the prohibition of guns in general, rather than simply the prohibition of illegal guns. He goes on to state that the there are 19 members of the group "who have left office for felony convictions, or are under indictment (...). Mayor Bloomberg's organisation has a much higher crime rate than people who have permits to carry guns for lawful protection. I think in the interest of truth in advertising that the proper way to refer to this group is Illegal Mayors Against Guns.".

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the party is later sobered by Kopel's call to divert Colorado tax money from unconstitutional "corporate welfare" to more grassroots community projects. In particular reference to the Aurora shooting this summer, the speaker calls for more investment in mental health services.

He later highlights the glaring hypocrisy of a country that has banned smoking in films, but emphatically glorifies violent gun misuse. Kopel argues that violence is indisputably condoned, but the key is to encourage a responsible gun sports culture:

We are not only on the pro-choice side, we are on the pro-life side as well. What we do every day is to fight for those lifesaving values of safety responsibly.

The underlying ethos of the ATP is best summarised by Caldara himself – in many places, a liberal accepting gun culture is as socially unacceptable as being against same-sex marriage. In this sense, the ATP stands as an attack to the tribal, divisive, and outright illogical divide that keeps the USA in gridlock.

As Rob Dreher notes:

As with so much in contemporary American politics, the gun control issue is not about reason and dispassionate analysis of the facts. It's about emotional assertion and rhetorical bullying amid an atmosphere of mutual incomprehension.

The ATF logo. Photograph: Getty Images
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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.