So, Um, Why, Again, Is the Electoral College Still a Thing?

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A poster for C-Span Classroom’s 2016 Electoral College Map, or, “Hey, kids! Let’s learn about how convoluted the Electoral College is!” (Image retrieved from c-spanclassroom.com.)

In case it has yet to dawn on you or you failed to observe my mention of it in my last post, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, but only because he had enough electoral votes. This is to say that although Trump has 290 electoral votes to his credit, and potentially at least 16 more assuming Michigan shakes out in his favor, in terms of the popular vote, Hillary Clinton has the edge by more than 500,000 votes. Considering over 120 million ballots were tallied in this election, that’s a fairly slender margin, but it’s a margin of victory nonetheless. Moreover, if the presidency were decided based on the popular vote as opposed to the jumbled electoral math of fifty states with different relative worth, that would mean Clinton would instead be our forthcoming Commander-in-Chief. But despite the fantasies of many, this is not the case. Barring impeachment or arrest, Donald Trump will be America’s president for no fewer than the next four years following his inauguration.

This raises the obvious question, then: why doesn’t the popular vote decide who wins presidential elections? Putting this another way: who came up with this stupid Electoral College business anyway? The Electoral College, perhaps not necessarily in name but at least in function, was discussed as early as 1787, when the Founding Fathers were deciding as part of the Constitutional Convention how to pick a President of the United States. The Virginia Plan, which served as the basis for much of the Convention, proposed that Congress elect the President. Even then, though, policymakers recognized that leaving such matters exclusively to Congress was a shitty idea. Not only did such a system bypass the popular opinion completely, but it ran the risk of the congressional majority voting merely along party lines (as opposed to more ideological reasons), or that such a voting bloc could be influenced by a foreign government (as opposed to, ahem, serving the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, as it does now). Leaving the decision of who would become President exclusively to voters, meanwhile, also had its unpalatable aspects, especially to the Southern delegation, because slavery might become an issue, and that might open up a whole different can of worms. Not long removed from a revolution which necessitated bloodshed, and with unity a priority, this therefore did not seem like an ideal solution.

Thus, in the spirit of compromise, we got a version of what we know today as the Electoral College, a concession especially appealing to delegates from smaller states who were concerned that without a system that places relative importance on individual votes in lower-population areas (today, for instance, a single vote in Wyoming is worth much more in terms of determining the state’s direction for the Electoral College than a single vote in Texas), big states and cities could vote according to an agenda that ignores the little guy, so to speak. It is in this spirit that we consider attempts to do away with the Electoral College, even as recent as a few decades ago. In 1968, ol’ Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon, despite only beating Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey by about 500,000 votes in the popular vote—less than 1% difference—won the electoral vote by more than 100 votes. This seeming discrepancy was enough to give the public some concern, which, in turn, gave members of Congress cause to strike while the iron is hot and try to implement change. Rep. Emanuel Celler, a Democrat from the state of New York, first introduced proposed legislation by the name House Joint Resolution 681 to call a winner in presidential elections based on the popular vote, as long as a presidential and vice-presidential tandem earned 40% or more of the vote. The measure easily passed the House Judiciary Committee, of which Celler was a member, in April 1969, and cleared the House of Representatives as a whole, too, by a fairly wide margin. The bill even had the support of Nixon, the man who just won the election by so controversial a vote differential.

As we know of Congress, however, there was still one final hurdle to clear on the way to enacting law: the United States Senate. Or as I like to call it, “the place where good bills go to die.” Senate Joint Resolution 1, known as the Bayh-Celler Amendment for its namesake from the House, the aforementioned Emanuel Celler, and its co-sponsor from the Senate, Birch Bayh, Democrat from the proud state of Indiana, was introduced to the Senate at large in 1970 after passing the Senate Judiciary Committee 11 to 6. Whereupon it was quickly filibustered (why the filibuster is a thing, too, is not immediately apparent to me, but this is neither here nor there), besieged by conservatives from both parties, notably those from smaller states who saw the Electoral College as an important bargaining chip so as not to have their power ignored in favor of the bigger, more populous states or the national collective. The measure failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to end the filibuster, and with Richard Nixon opting to go no further to try to persuade his Republican brethren to support getting to the magic number of 67, by the time 1971 rolled around and Congress was open for business, the bill was as good as dead. In short, the Bays-Celler Amendment got fili-busted.

There goes Congress again—standing in the way of progress, am I right? Wait, am I right? Might I actually be missing the big picture in railing against the Electoral College, and sounding like all the sore-loser Democrats/liberals who thought the Electoral College was all fine and dandy until their candidate failed to win? Let’s circle back for a moment. As the corresponding article on Wikipedia so neatly outlines, there are several reasons why proponents of the Electoral College argue for its maintenance. They include:

1. Prevention of an urban-centric victory

OK, so we’ve kind of already beat this idea to death. Those in favor of preserving the electoral system we currently use in the United States believe the Electoral College is a safeguard against presidential candidates drawing votes exclusively from cities and bypassing more rural regions en route to the White House. I tend to think this reason for propping up a method based on somewhat complicated tabulations of electoral votes is overblown, however, in that it overestimates how much of the U.S. population resides in urban locales. One vote counting the same no matter where you come from seems fair, and at any rate, the argument can be made that if certain states or regions feel neglected, it is up to their congressmen, congresswomen and governor(s) to demand better representation on a national level. I’m not sure I necessarily subscribe to this last point, mind you, but I do think this justification for the Electoral College can be argued against.

2. Maintenance of the federal character of the nation

I feel like, to an extent, this is saying #1 in a different way—by giving a minimum number of electoral votes to a less populous state, this enhances the value of each vote alongside the value of a vote in a more populous state, given the winner-take-all paradigm. In turn, since each state’s electoral count matters in the general election, individual states are empowered to make laws on voting and voter enfranchisement—provided, of course, these news laws do not violate existing constitutional principles. I’m admittedly on the fence on this one. I do think there is merit in voters in states like Alaska, Montana, and North and South Dakota feeling as if their vote matters more and that their state’s agenda is not being disregarded. That said, having so many different laws on voting from state to state seems to make things woefully fragmented when the process should be the same for each person casting his or her ballot. As tends to be the case, it’s a fine line to walk between states’ rights and the need for a national consensus.

3. Enhancement of the status of minority groups

I’ll just quote this directly since this is the sum total of this particular argument:

Instead of decreasing the power of minority groups by depressing voter turnout, proponents argue that by making the votes of a given state an all-or-nothing affair, minority groups can provide the critical edge that allows a candidate to win. This encourages candidates to court a wide variety of such minorities and advocacy groups.

I may be oversimplifying, but what this sounds like is an excuse to pander to Asians, blacks, Latinos and other minorities. Not thrilled with this justification, in that event.

4. Encouragement of stability through the two-party system

I’m sorry, but before I even get to explaining this bit, let me preface by saying that by allowing Donald Trump to secure the Republican Party nomination and win the presidency, we’ve kind of turned the notion of “stability” of the two-party system on its head, no?

5. Flexibility if a presidential candidate dies

Gee, um, great?

6. Isolation of election problems

The argument here is that if fraud in significant numbers occurs in one state, its effect on the election can be blunted by the limit of electoral votes that state receives. Then again, in instances like Florida’s need for a recount in 2000, the likes of which were enough to decide an election, the counterargument is that this doesn’t really isolate that state’s problems. Ah, 2000 Presidential Election, will your manifold historical lessons never cease?


If the above defenses of the Electoral College are the best we have to offer, the associated benefits are questionable on their merits alone. Great—we have the Electoral College so we, um, don’t forget farmers in Butte, claim we carry hot sauce in our bags, vote for the lesser of two evils, have a back-up plan in case someone dies, or limit the damage when a given state screws the pooch. In light of the criticisms of this institution, moreover, these merits are even more questionabler, and that’s not even grammatically correct!

Besides, as noted earlier, the seeming fairness of the “one person, one vote” setup should the popular vote prevail, the trappings of the Electoral College are such that 1) candidates will spend inordinate amounts of money and time on “swing states,” 2) because of the winner-take-all nature of deciding states, turnout is discouraged in those states in which a result in favor of one major party is presumed likely, further encouraging candidates to ignore non-swing localities, 3) if fraud and other forms of voter disenfranchisement do occur, it’s harder to know because of the emphasis on electoral votes, 4) American territories like Puerto Rico have no say because they don’t get electoral votes, 5) third parties, who might offer credible alternatives in case both the Democratic Party and Republican Party representatives suck—as in this election—are SOL, and 6) we have to justify graphics and touch-screen maps to plot out possible Election Day scenarios just to see who can or will win. As a voter in the state of New Jersey, I felt and still feel that, beyond voting for down-ticket major-party candidates and specific ballot initiatives, my vote for president was essentially meaningless, since Hillary Clinton was almost certain to take the state. You know, besides the notion Jill Stein wasn’t going to win. It’s the principle of the thing, dammit!

Going back to the notion of proposals to overturn the Electoral College as “loser talk” and criticisms of protests of Donald Trump’s win around the country as mere whining, though I’m understandably biased on each count, I think these challenges are not unfounded. Regarding the former, the Electoral College seems to be, among other things, a vestigial holdover from the formative days of the United States when slavery was widespread and the Founding Fathers, while encouraging democratic principles, seemed intent on limiting the power of the general electorate to do damage in terms of electing terrible political candidates. When some of today’s lawmakers (e.g. Louie Gohmert, Steve King), however, are evidently intent on taking America down an anti-gay, anti-minority and otherwise regressive path, the supremacy of discretion of elected officials over the public, as in the belief that whites are inherently superior to other races, appears unfounded.

Concerning the latter, meanwhile, right, there weren’t Republican protests when Barack Obama was elected. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, though. Obama ran on a platform of hope and belief in the American spirit. Trump ran on a platform of absent policy goals, fear, hate, ridicule and wanting to go backwards to a mythical time when the United States was “great.” These shows of defiance, such as the symbolic safety pin people have taken to wearing, I believe, are or should not be levied against the democratic process itself, but rather a candidate that made divisiveness a cornerstone of his campaign. In other words, this is a show of solidarity with those groups that stand to be most negatively impacted by President Trump’s policies. Besides, it’s better to let dissenters get their protests out now, rather than do what Republicans have done for the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency: undermine his credibility right down to suggesting he was born in another country. Death by a thousand paper cuts, I know, but it’s still character assassination—and perhaps more insidious for how drawn out the process of chipping away at his legacy has been at the hands of the GOP, often in overstated terms.

Chances are no progress will be made in the foreseeable future on abolishing the Electoral College. After all, our current system achieved its desired result: producing a winner. When the W is all that matters given the winner-take-all electoral format, and when candidates like Donald Trump can evidently say and promise anything to secure enough people’s votes, there arguably won’t be enough impetus for change from either the general public or our appointed lawmakers. Which is a shame, because the Electoral College, like so many potentially unfair American institutions, deserves to be revisited and scrutinized.

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