Saturday, May 3, 2008

College Education

Since we didn't have a popular uprising after the judicial coup of 2000, the least we could have done would have been to abolish the electoral college, that bizarre remnant of the 18th century which gave Florida's hanging chads their determinative power in the first place and ultimately allowed the Gang of Five to award the White House to the guy who lost the election to Al Gore.

The framers of the Constitution believed that the best protection against tyranny was the separation of powers, the division of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government. However, the executives with whom the framers were familiar were hereditary monarchs, chosen by their pedigree; the problem of selecting an executive by non-genetic mechanisms was a perplexing one. The suggestion that the President be chosen by national popular vote was rejected. In a society in which the vote in local elections was restricted to white men of property, this was deemed way too democratic. Instead, they invented the electoral college.

The formal structure of the EC is impressively complex. Each state legislature selects a slate of electors in a number equal to the total number of representatives and senators that the state sends to the U.S. Congress. The college elects the president and vice president, with a majority vote required for election. As originally designed, the person who came in second in the electoral college vote became vice-president. Although these days the college is described as giving an advantage to small states (because of the additional 2 votes that each state gets regardless of population), the important (and intended) consequence of the system in 1787 was that it gave disproportionate power to slave states because it incorporated into the presidential election the three-fifths rule which counted 60% of non-voting slaves in calculating the number of representives in Congress each state was entitled to. Similarly, it protected those states in which white men's right to vote was more restricted by property qualifications.

Apparently, the members of the Constitutional Convention imagined that the EC would be a quadrennial convocation of the country's natural aristocracy (i.e., rich white guys like them) who would choose one of their number to serve as a temporary king, with their second favorite to become the vice-president, the heir apparent. They did not contemplate political parties, presidential campaigns, multi-million-dollar campaign chests, primary elections, or poll-guided pandering, all the hallmarks of our modern presidential selection "system." The framers' fantasy lasted for the two presidential elections in which George Washington was elected unanimously. By 1796, when it was time to select Washington's successor, there were two political parties and the dream of the college as a republican version of the Privy Council was over.

For most of the last 200 years, the EC has functioned like it does now. Two major parties compete for popular votes in the states, each of whose electors are awarded, winner-take-all, to the candidate who wins the popular vote of the state. It is the winner-take-all aspect of this system which creates the biggest possibility for electing a president who loses the popular vote, a situation which has actually occurred at least 4 times in American history, most recently in 2000.

In the 21st century, when the democratic principle of popular sovereignty is universally accepted as the fundamental basis for political legitimacy, it is hard to imagine how anyone can defend an election system that allows the loser of the national popular vote to take office as president. After all, when every other office in the country is filled by the candidate who gets the most votes, why should the highest office in the land be subject to a system which sometimes allows the person with the smaller number of votes to win? The usual defense of the college is that it protects small states from being trampled by their bigger sisters, (This argument is made in particularly impenetrable fashion in this 2000 N.Y. Times editorial. The Times has since changed its mind.), but this argument is idiotic. It may be consistent with democratic principles to protect minorities by allowing them to block small majorities from taking certain actions, i.e., amending the constitution or overriding a presidential veto, but it how in hell can anyone justify "protecting" the minority by allowing it to elect the president? What about the majority's rights?

Anyway, small states do not really receive much benefit from the EC as currently constituted. The states that benefit from the system these days are the swing states. Small states like Idaho and Vermont, adjudged safely in the camp of one party, are ignored, while large swing states like Pennsylvania are courted assiduously and pandered to shamelessly. In a national popular election, without the distorting of the effect of the electoral college, every vote would be equally valuable and equally sought after by a rational candidate, no matter how deeply embedded it was among "red" or "blue" neighbors.

Of course, the problems with our presidential election system are recognized whenever it manages to defeat the popular will or comes close to doing so. It hasn't been changed because amending the constitution is extremely difficult; there are enough players who are advantaged by the current system to block an amendment. Recently, however, some smart folks have figured out a way to effectively abolish the EC by individual state legislative action. It's called "National Popular Vote" and it will go into effect once its been enacted by states having a majority of the electoral votes (270). So far 4 states (with 50 electoral votes) have enacted the law. (Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it in California.) So, tell your state representatives to support the National Popular Vote in your state. Tell them its time that the United States caught up with democratic countries like South Africa when it comes to "One (Hu)man, One Vote!"


joreko said...

The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule under which all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state. Because of this rule, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. Two-thirds of the visits and money are focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money goes to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people are merely spectators to the presidential election.

Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The bill would make every vote politically relevant in a presidential election. It would make every vote.

The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 17 legislative chambers (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, California, and Vermont). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring the law into effect.


David said...

Brave Alberto Gonzales sacrificed his political career to maintain the electoral College. Democratic and especially "urban"(code word for persons of color) voter fraud are one of the main reasons cited by Republicans for opposing electoral College reform. Alberto was at the forefront of making it a viable political issue, in spite of scant evidence.