Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Electoral College: Disaster 101

Here's a column that I hope to publish in the Vermilion closer to the election. Oyster expressed to me his support for the Electoral College, and so I promised him a look at this. I won't keep him hanging any longer (and I'm sure he was just holding his breath waiting...ha ha...). Oh yeah, I should probably mention that this is far from done. In fact, just to give you some insight into the writing process, I wrote much of the first paragraph probably a year before the rest of it. Sometimes you have tidbits that just don't fit with anything else, you know? But once you are finally able to connect it to a larger point, you get that warm sense of accomplishment. Kind of like when you pick up something with your toes.

The United States of America is a democracy only in theory. Very few institutions reflect this mode of government; the military, corporations, bureaucracies, churches and families operate under a structure of top-down management, with a few people or offices setting the agenda and using the bottom rungs as pawns to attain these means. Parents scream with fervor to their unruly kids, “This house is NOT a democracy!” Republicans and libertarians gladly remind us that “the United States is not a democracy but a republic,” as if that somehow justifies worship of our leaders. The people at the bottom of these pyramid schemes have no choice but to follow orders and have no voice whatsoever. All that’s left in terms of democracy is elections, and even those have come under scrutiny.

Still, we talk a good game about “the will of the people.” Except for the small fact that WE DO NOT VOTE FOR PRESIDENT! You think Election Day is on Nov. 2? Guess again! It’s actually on Jan. 6. And no, this is not one of those oh-so-hysterical Republican jokes about having all of the Democrats vote on Wednesday. No, this particular joke is called the Electoral College.

You have to love the Electoral College. We, the United States of America, supposedly the hallmark for free and fair elections by, of and for the people, hold tremendous support for a system that is in fact the least democratic or republican thing imaginable.

So, you might ask, what exactly are you doing in the voting booth? Look carefully. When you pull your lever for your chosen candidate, you are actually voting for the handful of names listed in fine print underneath. These people are called “electors” and they are more or less local; in fact, you may even know one or more of them. When you vote, you are voting for them to go to Baton Rouge on Jan. 6 and vote for your candidate. Only the electors for the winning candidate in your state will cast their votes.

Nationwide, there are 538 total votes, one for each member of Congress. Want to know the best part? THE ELECTOR IS NOT AT ALL OBLIGATED TO VOTE FOR THEIR PLEDGED CANDIDATE. Granted, most of the people who choose to serve in this position are so partisan that they make me look like a swing voter; however, change has been known to happen… “One man, one vote,” indeed. More like, “One state, one vote.”

What the Electoral College succeeds in doing is heightening the drama. Us Americans, we sure do like our drama! Remember that good old Reagan Revolution in 1980, when Ronald Reagan trounced incumbent Jimmy Carter 489-49 in the Electoral College? Man, you talk about a blowout! Except that it really wasn’t—the popular-vote count was much closer; Reagan amassed 43,898,770 votes to Carter’s 35,480,948. That’s 50.8 percent to 41 percent. Hardly a landslide. And those numbers shift depending on the source.

Likewise, Reagan whipped Walter Mondale in 1984 by the largest EC margin in history, tied with Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972. Of 538 electoral votes, Reagan nabbed 525, while Mondale grabbed a lucky 13. Not bad for a race Reagan really won 59 percent to 41 percent (54,450,603—37,573,761)!

Defenders of the Electoral College claim that it keeps the whims of the public in check. Yeah, wouldn’t want the public to decide, now would we? So much for the old adage that people get the leaders they deserve.

As a political-science professor once pointed out to me, “If you’re a conservative and you live in New York, your vote’s never going to count!” He did have a point. This works both ways and thus is yet a further argument for abolishing the diploma mill known as the Electoral College.

Fortunately, the Founding Fathers were smart enough to leave most elections to the popular vote. We only use the Electoral College for the frivolous presidential elections. Whew! I’d hate to see it being used on something important, such as on “American Idol.”


Michael said...

I did a social studies fair project on the electoral college back in the early 80's (which gives away my age--damn, I THINK it was in 1981, but I forget now). Anyway, I'll make a couple of points about that and a few other things.

Actually, to begin--your last paragraph notes the Founding Fathers "[left] most elections to the popular vote." Um--actually, only the House elections were "popular" vote contests, and, as I'm sure you know, voting was open only to property-owning males for the most part. Senators were chosen at the discretion of the States until 1917 (initially, most were selected by State Legislatures--I assume some States moved to popular vote prior to 1917, but I don't have the details).

The E.C. itself does a nice sort of double curve. Most folks assume it gives big states more weight, since a smaller number of big states can win the prize. However, it's the SMALL states that make a killing in the market--because each state is guaranteed at least three E.C. votes, it creates a tremendous imbalance where, for example, Alaska on a per capita basis has several times the voting power of California.

That's one reason why Bush won in 2000--all the sparsely populated states that generally vote GOP gave him a big head start in the race to 270. Technically, in a two person race, getting your electoral votes in the right places could put you over the top with as little as around 40% of the popular vote. Now, admittedly, that an ideal case, but theoretically, it's possible.

The big issue re: abolishing the college is the fact that it would take a Constitutional amendment to do so, and I doubt the small states would have any interest in that. Far more reasonable would be a modification that requires nothing more than state law (BTW--the STATES decide HOW electors are chosen--hell, if they wanted to, the state legislature could legally say 'screw the vote, we're sending xxxx--which is what the Florida legislature threatened to do at one point in 2000, except that the statute law would have come into play, and I assume the statute says something about popular vote). Anyway, I've digressed, so let me get back to the point--a state could, say, parcel electoral votes out in a combination of "at large" and "congressional district" categories quite easily--in fact, Maine and (I think) Nebraska already do that. The at large portion represents the two votes each state gets because the entire Congressional delegation is factored (Senators and Reps), and those go to the overall winner of each state. The votes are also tallied by Cong. district, and the winner of each district gets one vote per victory.

That's not perfect, but it would be far more representational than either the current system, and easier to do than an amendment.

Ian McGibboney said...

Yes, Michael, I believe you're right; I've seen the revoked sections of the Constitution myself. In fact, much has changed over the years concerning Senate and House elections as you say, as well as the vice president (originally the second-place finisher!). I should clarify that I meant that the Electoral College itself was used only for presidential elections (not that the people chose everything else0> Like I said, it's a work in progress...

I appreciate your input.

oyster said...

Thanks for the post Ian. My apologies for getting to it so late. I'm not sure I'm persuaded by your essay, but it got me to thinking. And I sure appreciated Mike's input as well.

There's a few oddball scenarios that the college might prevent, but there's plenty more that it permits (see 2000). In my personal case, I think it really comes down to the fact that I love all the various scenarios that can occupy me in the months before election day. It's more fun. That's the reason I like it. Now if Kerry gets screwed by it (not an impossibility), damn I'll be pissed.

Thanks again, keep fighting the good fight.