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Commentary :: Government & Elections

Hey, California, It’s 2004: Do You Know Where Your Fifty-Five Electoral Votes Are?

If America can put men on the moon, surely it can devise a presidential election system easier to understand than the theory of relativity or even Dubya’s “answers? at his last press conference. It’s time to close the old Electoral College and start a new institution: winner by direct majority vote.
It's not easy writing about something that, at first (and second and even third) glance, appears to be an essay quagmire just waiting to happen, but I'm going to try anyway: I refer to the byzantine Electoral College. (Weird historical footnote: Anthropologists recently discovered that the Byzantines used the American Electoral College. What are the odds?) I actually did a little research before writing this piece because it seemed wiser than just making stuff up (although if I ever become a right-winger, I'll be able to save a lot of time by not having to gather facts). Here goes:
Most folks know that in presidential elections, each state has a certain number of electoral votes (equal to the total number of its senators and representatives; the District of Columbia gets three electoral votes, per the Constitution’s Twenty-Third Amendment) that all go to the winner of the state's (or D.C.’s) popular vote. The president-elect, of course, is the one who garners a majority of the country’s total electoral votes--except in any year that ends in 2000, when the Supreme Court picks its favorite candidate to run the country (into the ground). If no one wins a clear majority (in other words, if there is a strong third party ticket that year that wins some states; in additional other words, FAT CHANCE), then the president (if the Supreme Court is out golfing or something) is chosen by a spirited round of paper, scissors, rock. (Not really; in such a scenario, the outcome is determined in the House of unRepresentatives, but I think my idea would be more fun.)

Who, exactly, comprises the Electoral College? Why, electors, of course! All right, then, where do these electors come from? Well, the planet Electra, naturally! Either that, or they are human beings either appointed as elector candidates by each state's political party leadership or determined at state party conventions, except in Maine and Nebraska. (It's not that their elector wannabes aren't humans, it's that their systems for choosing them are different--or so I was assured by a top government official.) On Election Day, voters are actually casting ballots for a party's "slate" of its elector hopefuls rather than its actual presidential/vice presidential candidates. In December, the elected electors gather in their respective state capitals, have big old, drunken hootenannies, and vote for whomever they damn well please. (Actually, of course, they are all party loyalists who vote straight party tickets; I'm not sure about the drinking part.)

Simple, huh? OK then, smarty-pants, here's the tough part: trying to understand why the Electoral College was created in the first place. What's even harder is justifying its retention now, especially in light of the 2000 debacle, the year America's first king was enthroned. And the trickiest thing, of course, is explaining just why exactly it's called the Electoral "College" (because someone else--the early Byzantines, perhaps--had already taken "University"?).

Believe it or not, there are people who think the current system is still a good idea, no doubt because it's so incredibly easy to understand and makes so much sense. One such proponent is a fellow by the name of William C. Kimberling, whose title--Deputy Director of the Federal Election Commission Office of Election Administration--takes about as long to say as it took time to decide who won the last presidential election (or didn't win, but so the hell what, said five Supremes). Kimberling produced a well-written essay on the Electoral College from which I gleaned most of my information (please see first link below).

It is time now to hydrate yourself liberally (certainly not conservatively) and remember, NO SMOKING, because the following, to use an old literary term, is a little dry: The Electoral College was enacted by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and tweaked slightly by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804. It was created, reports Kimberling, in an era "without political parties and without national campaigns," and the framers feared that in an America comprised of "only 4,000,000 people spread up and down a thousand miles of Atlantic seaboard barely connected by transportation or communication," the electorate would not be sufficiently informed to vote directly for president. Each state's voters, possessing little knowledge of other states' candidates, would instead be tempted to cast ballots for a "favorite son." This would likely result in either no candidate receiving a clear majority of votes nationally, or a president typically selected by the more populous states, leaving the smaller ones just a tad cranky. (It was not exactly a trusting time in those days: Kimberling points out that the just-birthed America "was composed of thirteen large and small states jealous of their own rights and powers and suspicious of any central national government.") To assuage the states, and also because the founding fathers believed the various states' legislators were more knowledgeable collectively of candidates than most voters, the Electoral College was born (as were countless future headaches trying to understand, and worse, explain the damn thing).

The power to choose electors and the method for choosing them has always rested with the state legislatures. At first, legislatures employed different methods, including statewide direct popular voting for at-large elector candidates or by Congressional district, simple appointment by the legislatures themselves, or hybrid systems. Again, because the electors were beholden to no political parties (since they didn’t exist), it was expected they would select the best person to lead the country based on merit, with the system still maintaining the highest regard for individual states’ rights. It didn't take long for parties to emerge, however, and as communication and transportation improved, party platforms quickly usurped previously sacrosanct home state considerations. Over time, with most voters voting straight party lines on Election Day anyway, all state legislatures (except, again, for Maine and Nebraska, the so-called "alien" states) decided to allow people to choose by direct popular vote the slates of electors we have now; thus, the current winner-take-all system. There's more, of course, but even my dog who is watching me write this is looking at me like, "That's enough already!"

Now comes the argument/rebuttal part. So, for the less hardy, if you're due to wash the cat or clean the rain gutters, this might be a good time. The rest of you? Put on your boredom repellent and follow me!

Kimberling presents four main reasons to keep the Electoral College. His first: It "contributes to the cohesiveness of the country by requiring a distribution of popular support to be president" and without it, "presidents would be selected either through the domination of one populous region over the others or through the domination of large metropolitan areas over the rural ones." What "one populous region" would this be? The northeast? California? Neither of those areas alone could win an election—nor could both combined, even--so support would still have to come from elsewhere. And why, as Kimberling seemingly implies, would a president elected via a large bloc of rural support automatically be assumed to be a better president than one elected mainly by backing from more populous areas? Two simple(minded) words succinctly sum up this fallacious thinking: Dub ya.

Here's his second argument: The Electoral College "enhances the status of minority groups" because "even small minorities" can tip a state's electoral votes one way or another. Assuming that every state would do its utmost to protect the voting rights of its minorities (not that a state--even one governed by a candidate's close relative--would ever operate some sort of discriminatory disenfranchising policy, mind you), this argument still suffers. It's highly unlikely that "even small minorities" (who would this be: folks of Sumerian descent under 4’8??) could pack enough punch to throw a state's electoral votes one way or the other, and Kimberling provides no examples of such occurrences. He also says "the same [enhanced minority status] principle applies to other special interest groups such as labor unions, farmers, environmentalists, and so forth." Using that logic, EVERYONE is a member of a special interest group: accountants, executives, construction workers, and clowns (even though they're kind of scary, they still vote--and run for office, too).

He asserts, also, that because a minority group may have "'leverage effect'" in an election, "the presidency, as an institution, tends to be more sensitive to ethnic minority and other special interest groups than does Congress..." Well, I definitely concur with anyone who wants to institutionalize this presidency, but that notwithstanding, let's, for example's sake, check all of Bush's speeches at the NAACP conventions he's attended as president to determine his "sensitivity" regarding African American interests. Whoops! Junior hasn't gone to a single one since his installation. Is Bush silently giving black folks the same message a sneering Dick Cheney (redundant?) verbally gave Senator Patrick Leahy, perhaps because they’re of little help to Republicans in the electoral vote department? Seems likely. Additionally, if a candidate courts, say, the Latino/a vote in one particular state, but otherwise ignores their interests in non-swing states, how are these Americans' overall national concerns furthered? A national direct popular vote would mandate that the candidates broaden their appeal considerably, and (hopefully) their actual policies.

Kimberling's third claim is "that the Electoral College contributes to the political stability of the nation by encouraging a two-party system." If, instead of "stability," he'd written, "gridlock," then I'd say he was talking turkey(s). He goes on to say, with a straight face, apparently, that the two parties absorb other movements, acting like political melting pots that create constancy and prevent extremism. Well, no. In fact, I think most leading (political) scientists would agree the exact opposite has happened. Third party ideas rarely enter GOP or Democratic platforms because the newcomers are either: too powerless to make any difference and are thus ignored; bought off when they appear on the radar screen; or used as shills. And because the two existing parties couldn't be more polarized if their separate headquarters were located in Antarctica and at the Claus homestead, there just ain't a whole lot of fresh thinkin' going on. Our scientists (who've all been fired by the Bush administration, so we know they're bona fide) would further agree that the country has never been in more dire need of other viable parties and for that to happen, the Electoral College needs to go the way of the dinosaurs or, if you prefer, Colin Powell's dignity.

Now, Kimberling's final argument (do I hear cheering?): The Electoral College, he says, "maintains a federal system of government and representation." He writes that "the collective opinion of the individual state populations is more important than the opinion of the national population taken as a whole." This is a good point, actually, and his strongest claim. But then he undermines it with the old slippery slope fallacy: "Indeed, if we become obsessed with government by popular majority as the only consideration," he asks forebodingly, "should we not then abolish the Senate which represents states regardless of population?" Yes, and if marijuana is legalized, we'll all soon be immoral hopheads and saying "duude" a lot. As far as obsessing, Americans spend far more time fretting over American Idol contestants than they do about the alleged pitfalls of "government by popular majority," but I do think they'd like a voting system that can be explained in less than five days. Only one thing would be abolished by eliminating the Electoral College: The public's confusion about its arcane structure (and, devil forbid, a replay of the 2000 disaster), and no one would miss it except those receiving healthy recompense to actually miss such things.

I'm pretty pooped now, my head hurts, and it's time to bathe the cat. Before I get clawed, scratched, and soaked, I'd just like to point out that the primary reasons for creating a system few people understand have long since been remedied. What we have today instead are entire state populations (safely considered "red" or "blue") that regularly miss candidates' slop-slinging--er, debate. The Electoral College is a prime reason for voter apathy and millions of Election Day no-shows: If one's state is liable to go strongly one way or the other, what difference does one vote make? It also effectively disenfranchises millions of voters: In 2000, Al Gore won California by over one million votes; four and a half million votes for Bush meant nothing. Although I'm at a total loss to explain why even one person would vote for our thief executive, that's not the point. Every vote should count in a democracy. This year, with the Golden State deemed to already be in Kerry's (wind)bag, a Californian could almost be forgiven for not knowing an election is upcoming, given the paucity of attention here from either side. (On second thought, maybe that's not such a bad thing.)

The Electoral College is an archaic set-up that has long outlived its intended use. A constitutional amendment is needed that authorizes the following: The winner of a national direct popular vote should be declared the president, and, to preclude wins by plurality rather than majority vote while at the same time encouraging much-needed genuine third party participation, instant run-off voting should be instituted (please see second link below).

It's simple, really: The person with the most votes wins. It is, or certainly should be, the American way.

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