Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Losing the Electoral College

For over two hundred years of US Presidential elections only one time did a candidate win the popular vote but fail to be chosen as President by the Electoral College, Democrat Samuel Tilden in 1876. But then came the 21st Century and in the last five Presidential elections this anomaly has happened twice. If you think this is a fair way to choose our Presidents then you do not truly believe in representative democracy; and you probably live in a state like Wyoming.

In addressing this problem here, I think it is necessary to go into a fair amount of history. If you do not have the time or patience to read through this, you can cut to the chase by going to the last paragraph which links to the most probable way the Electoral College will be effectively eliminated.

There were basically two reasons the Electoral College came into being, one unanimously elitist and one compromisingly elitist. The colonies, the Revolution and the resulting US Constitution were all run by wealthy and powerful white male elites. These men would not give the vote to black slaves, women and many poor and uneducated white males. The elitists decided even those who would be allowed to vote were not capable of doing so intelligently, supposedly because they were so tied to their immediate locale they could not have knowledge of national candidates for President and Vice President and they were so uneducated and inexperienced as to be incapable of discernment. So the elites decided the voters would vote for their local elite who would then make the final decision on the President and Vice President. This was the unanimous elitist reason.

The thirteen colonies had great differences in size, population, slaves, wealth and means of production; but they wanted to unite for mutual protection and benefit. The elitist compromise was a legislative branch of government with two chambers. The Representative chamber would be composed of people actually chosen directly by the voters in a local district of a state, with the number of districts determined based on population and adjusted after every ten year census, and with each state getting at least one Representative regardless of how small the state population.

The second chamber would be called the Senate. The smaller states did not want to get trampled by the bigger states so they won a compromise to have each state get two Senators in that chamber. The elitists also decided the voters were not even sharp enough to be able to select Senators statewide, so the Senators instead would be chosen by state legislatures who in turn had been elected at the local state district level. If this sounds a bit like trickle up democracy, it is. The people eventually wised up and the Constitution was amended in 1913 to allow voters to directly elect US Senators, a change that did not favor any one State over another.

In the Electoral College, each state gets a vote equal to its number of Senators and Representatives, so the smaller states have a disproportionate voice in choosing the President. This was a compromise the large state elites were willing to make, because the office of the Presidency was expected to be a weaker branch of government, with more power concentrated in the Congress and particularly in the House of Representatives. Over time the Presidency has become more powerful than anticipated and the Congress continues to try to rein it in, especially when controlled by a different political party than the President.

The original concept of the benevolent elites looking out for their local voters quickly ran into the reality of partisan politics. The method of conducting elections and choosing electors was left to the states. State political parties soon were able to devise state legislative schemes for getting electors to pledge to vote for a particular party Presidential candidate, typically the candidate gaining the most votes state wide. This was usually done on a winner takes all basis, though rarely some states award electoral votes by Congressional district. Thus the Electoral College morphed into the current mechanical way of whoever wins a state being awarded all the electoral votes of that state.
There has been talk of changing the Electoral College to drop the 100 Senator votes. However, those with power rarely give it up voluntarily, so the small states will not agree to surrender their Senatorial Electoral College advantage. But even if the 100 Senator votes had not been included in the 2016 Electoral College, Hillary Clinton would still have lost.

Ironically the US as the oldest representative democracy in the world and the self-proclaimed shining city on the hill is the only country in the world with the concept of a "popular vote". All other countries simply have elections with a "winning vote", whoever gets the most votes is elected. No other country has been foolish enough to emulate our Electoral College.

Demographers and political pundits tell us the Electoral College now works to the advantage of democrats because they control so many states with larger populations. But the results from recent elections tell us otherwise. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven Presidential elections, but only won the Electoral College four of those times. In the long term the demographers are undoubtedly correct, which should be a persuasive argument to get Republicans ultimately to agree to scrap the Electoral College.

Having the President elected by popular vote should make more people inclined to vote in Presidential elections; as it is now, some people feel voting for President is a waste of time if their state is solidly in the column of one party or the other. Choosing the President by national popular vote should make us feel more united in choosing our President, diluting the feelings of regional differences and the disillusionment of not having a say on President if you are a minority in your own state.

Some political scientists argue that small states having a greater voice in the Electoral College creates some sort of healthy diversity. I totally reject that idea; in a representative democracy those elected are representing people not acreage. It is bad enough we are stuck with a Senate giving unequal representation because of the dated compromise that was made to form the union, The way both chambers of Congress are elected is overdue for re-evaluation, something I hope to be visiting in future Sense postings. Trump now says if there was no Electoral College he would have campaigned more heavily in populous states and won more popular votes. Maybe, or maybe his campaigning more would have produced even more Hillary votes. The point is we will never know until we change the rules to be truly democratic.

Fortunately there is a workaround to effectively put the Electoral College out of business. It is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. In a nutshell under the Compact individual states can vote to require their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote. When enough states to compose an Electoral College majority have approved the compact, it will become effective and we will have Presidents chosen by the actual wining vote of the people. The Compact arose out of the 2000 election and to date has been adopted by states totaling 61.1% of the number of Electoral votes needed to elect our President. So far only Democrat states have adopted the Compact. As demographics swing more states Democrat, the prospects for the Compact will grow. The DNC should make this a priority agenda item. Maybe once the Compact kicks in, the small states will agree that since they have no Electoral power advantage left to lose we might as well "clean up" the Constitution by eliminating the College altogether. 


Blogger Tom Blake said...

Our local free newspaper editor wrote an editorial about the electoral college working as designed and I had some email dialogue with him after which he ran my letter disagreeing with his editorial. Here is the editorial link:
And the link to my letter:

9:21 AM  
Blogger Tom Blake said...

Now that the electoral college chose Trump, here are follow up thoughts. After a couple early Presidential elections with multiple parties and no majority winner, clarification was made to the process of the House of Representatives choosing the President when there was no electoral college winner. The result was the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, providing the House would choose the President from among the three top electoral college finishers, with each state getting one vote in the House. Thus, even if enough electors had gone rogue on Trump to take away his majority, but not enough had switched to Clinton to give her the majority, then the house would have voted between Trump, Clinton, and the largest rogue candidate. Assuming each state delegation in the House voted along party lines, Trump would have won 31 to 17, with two tie states.

7:37 PM  

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