It’s Time to Change the Way We Elect Presidents
One year ago today, we saw exactly why
Today is the real anniversary of the election of Donald Trump. I know we all marked the dark day on November 7, but that was just the day the citizens of the 50 states voted for Electors — the only people who ever vote for president.
Although, oddly, they don’t really vote at all — not in the way we usually think of voting. Instead, they serve as glorified clerks for an antiquated system that has often served the nation badly and outrun its lifespan by a long time.
They did that on December 19 and then went back to their lives of anonymity. Only 7 exercised their Constitutional right to vote their conscience (like legislators, jurors, and voters at the polls). The rest stuck with tradition and partisan loyalty.
Since then, there’s been plenty of talk about the Electoral college, but misconceptions — some mathematical, some historical — persist.
This is not trivial. The way we elect presidents makes no sense for this nation in the 21st century, if it ever did.
We are literally punishing people for living in states with many people, and rewarding those in small states with extra political power. Why this anti-democratic system?
And please don’t tell me “this isn’t a democracy; it’s a republic”.
Democracy has many meanings. Broadly, it just means “government of the people,” and that is what the United States is supposed to be. We the People, by the People. Free speech, a free press, election of officials, a process for impeachment — these are all indications of a people’s government.
Democracy doesn’t necessarily mean “direct democracy,” or pure democracy, which indicates majority votes for every decision and legislation by popular referendum — an impossible system in any large-scale society.
The United States is, and always has been, a democratic republic, also called a representative (republican) democracy. Americans historically object to anti-democratic ideas and practices. Our nation’s first political party — the one Jefferson and Jackson shared — was the Democratic-Republicans. Ronald Reagan, hero of the right, consistently talked about democracy prevailing over communism.
And though the Constitution guarantees every state a “republican” form of government, almost every state appoints electors by straight majority vote (ie: pure democracy, the popular vote) — with the losing candidate getting no Electors, even if the margin were a single vote.
Supporters of the Electoral college system say it protects against the mob rule of democracy. But if a popular vote equals mob rule at the national level, why is a popular vote — with no voice for the minority — fine for selecting Electors?
The Electoral college protects against “mob rule”, but not by taking power from the national majority and giving it to the national minority (which is just another, slightly smaller mob), and not by taking the right to vote from the people, who never vote for president, and giving it to the states — who could appoint Electors without any popular vote at all if their legislatures so chose. Would defenders of the Electoral College system defend that move?
You don’t protect against mob rule by simply replacing the majority vote winner with second place, and you don’t do it by holding 50 “mob rule” contests (ok; 48 — Nebraska and Maine split their votes up.) You do it by protecting minority rights — but that doesn’t mean all power to the minority and none to the majority. It means rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances.
The founders also decided to check mob rule with the Electors themselves, who are supposed to be a college of wise, politically aware men who “investigate” before casting their votes. The original idea was that they were chosen for their wisdom and integrity, not their political allegiance. The common man didn’t know enough to vote in a national election, but he might know the names of some prominent state leaders he could trust to pick a president.
Now, Americans can certainly learn plenty about the leading president candidates, and the Electors are political party loyalists and simply report what is already known — who won the plurality (not even necessarily the majority) of the vote in their state.
If there was ever a year for Electors to step up and overrule the state political parties, 2016 was the year.
We rightfully object to a small group of Electors making this decision for us. But that was the check on direct democracy (aka mob rule) that the founders left us, not the division of power among states. The division of power among states served instead three other purposes.
One was to make sure one region couldn’t dominate another — in other words, to preserve slavery. With slaves only counted as ⅗ of a person, southerners feared the north would abolish slavery through federal fiat. The Electoral college was designed to protect the slave states from this outcome.
As Madison put it in a speech at the Constitutional Convention, with a direct popular vote, southerners “could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes”
“The substitution of electors,” Madison later wrote, “obviated this difficulty.”
Clearly, this reason for the Electoral college no longer has any bearing. Whereas slavery was the dominant issue in the United States for the first century of our existence, and fell precisely along state lines, today there are no political interests inherently bound to one state or group of states. Despite maps that try to fool us into thinking we are divided by region, we are actually divided on ideology that is not tied to states.
Another reason for this system was to preserve state sovereignty. But since 1865, we are no longer 50 sovereign states in a loose federation, like the EU. We are more like Germany, Brazil, Japan — one nation, indivisible. Right?
Finally, the division of Electors protected against fraud. Stuffing ballot boxes in colonial times may have been easy; now it is very, very difficult. In the early days of our country, the largest states were smaller than many of today’s mid-size cities. Virginia was the largest state when the Constitution was signed in 1787, but until 1830 it had fewer than a million residents. In that scenario, throwing an election might require a few thousand votes at most, and local authorities could operate with little oversight. That is not the case today.
If anything, in our current system, the Electoral College makes voting fraud easier.
Successfully tampering with a national popular vote would require hundreds of thousands or even millions of phony votes. But in our current system, tampering with votes in a swing state can tip the scales to win all the state’s Electors, changing the outcome of the Presidential election with just a few hundred votes.
This makes the idea of election tampering more plausible. Whether foreign or domestic hackers, corrupt bureaucrats, aggressive voter intimidation groups, or strategically enacted Voter ID laws, all that’s really needed is to swing a few key counties.
Some argue that the Electoral college protects those in the middle of the country against the liberals on the coasts. They say in a popular vote (which, again, is not the only alternative to the Electoral college) California and New York would rule over everyone. But this is like saying the last man up in a baseball game lost for the team because he struck out; in a national popular vote (NPV), the votes of every American count the same. The state they come from doesn’t matter. We can take California’s 3 million vote margin and say it put Clinton over the top in the popular vote, but on the other hand we can take out all the votes in the deep south and she would win by even more.
Picking the votes from a certain state to single out is a random, meaningless exercise in a national vote. — unless you think everyone in a state thinks and votes alike. But in reality, there is more diversity in California — politically, ethnically, ideologically — than there is in many samplings of 10 or 12 states. And in all states, the same divide we see in national politics exists locally.
The Electoral college no longer protects certain state-bound political interests. It just gives small states an unwarranted advantage.
The Electoral college isn’t protecting rural votes against urban ones either. Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut are extremely urban (and usually democratic leaning) states, and have lots of extra voting power thanks to the Electoral college. Meanwhile, there are millions of rural voters in California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas being disenfranchised.
And there is no reason to think candidates would only campaign in population centers. Candidates don’t campaign mainly by bus or train. Campaigns take place mainly through mass media, which can reach anyone anywhere. Instead of campaigning only in swing states, candidates could and would seek votes everywhere, since a NPV model makes every single vote meaningful.
But the NPV isn’t the only option.
At the founding of our republic, the biggest state — Virginia — outnumbered the smallest — Delaware — by a factor of about 12:1. Now California has about 70 people for every resident of Wyoming.
Even if we object to a NPV, and even if we want to give the states some power in this process, there are other options. We could get rid of the two votes awarded for the two US Senators. We could also raise the number of Congressional representatives — indeed, we absolutely should, apart from any concerns about the presidential election. That number has been stuck at 435 since 1910! This means that each congressperson represents, on average, more than 700,000 Americans. At the founding of the nation, that number was about 40,000! No wonder we feel like our voices aren’t heard. No wonder Congress has such a low approval rating. They are representing far too many people.
That system also means that the imbalance between small states and large ones has grown exorbitantly. It’s one thing to give small states some protection against large ones. But to have winner-take all awarding of Electors, and give so much more voting power to the Electors from small states, grossly distorts our democratic, republican process.
Fortunately, there are ways we can change this. But until we change the make-up of Congress, the only real path is through the courts. Legal challenges based on the 14th amendment are currently underway, and could use your support. So could the many progressive Democrats running in competitive House and Senate races — and I’ll have more ways to help those folks in the coming weeks..
One way or another, it’s time for a change.