Wednesday, October 27, 2004

After Words

Today is Wednesday, November 3rd, so the elections are over~ or are they? You see, for me, it is actually Wednesday, October 27th and the elections have not happened yet. I do not know who won and I suspect you don’t yet either, though I hope that is not the case. It is my guess that there is quite a bit of contention and I feel comfortable guessing that there some people complaining.

One of the most common complaints in American elections is the electoral college. A perennial gripe and, like disenfranchisement, often demogogued. On November 20, 2000, fresh from the Bush/Gore Florida debacle, Hillary Clinton did just that saying, “We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago...I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it's time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president." But it just is not as simple as that.

Some background: the Electoral College is found in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and traces it’s framework back to the Republic of Rome. A direct popular election would give the Presidency to the largest population centers without serious consideration for smaller states like Vermont. The Electoral College forces the focus on a candidate’s ability to govern without the prejudice of state-based favoritism. Despite warnings by men like George Washington, political parties developed with the support of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others. It did not take long for party loyalty to eclipse state loyalty as people began to identify more as Americans than as citizens of respective states. The 1800 election of Thomas Jefferson was more controversial than the 2000 election of George W. Bush. Both Jefferson and his opponent, Aaron Burr, were from the same party and tied the Electoral vote! It took 36 votes in the House of Representatives along with shady deals to settle the election. Before the next election, the 12th Amendment was passed in 1804, fine-tuning the Electoral College to prevent a repeat of 1800. In the 200 years since then, it has worked efficiently. There have been several strange and hot elections, but the system has worked well to handle them.

One criticism of the Electoral College is the “faithless Elector” which draws on the fear that an Elector can thwart the will of the voters by “voting his conscience” rather than the electorate’s wishes. In the last century, this has happened only seven times and in each instance the outcome of the election was never affected. Most recently in 1988, an elector from West Virginia flipped his ticket, giving the presidency to Lloyd Benson and the second seat to Michael Dukakis. The faithless elector makes a statement rather than tries to alter the results. The appropriate response for this is to eliminate the physical electors and simply count the block of electoral votes for the state.

More often, the College is criticized for not “reflecting the national popular will,” by which they mean that rural people are given more weight than they should (a point that plays well in urban areas) or that the popular vote winner gets all the electors from the state (a sore spot for third party candidates). In essence this is true. The Electoral College ensures that more rural states are represented in elections and does play into a two party system. Third parties generally form around narrow or regional issues rather than larger national themes and, though impassioned, are really too transitory to be able to govern. The Electoral College system forces the two main parties to stand on central positions while also incorporating fringe and third party issues without being overwhelmed by their sometimes radical drives.

Most often, as Hillary Clinton did, critics complain that the Electoral College allows a candidate to win the presidency without winning the popular vote. Again, this is also true, but begs the question, “so what?” Sometimes an alarming claim is really an alarmist claim. Many Presidents did not win the popular vote, including JFK in 1960, Nixon in ‘68, both elections of Bill Clinton, and of course Bush in 2000. The issue here is not that “Al Gore won the popular vote”, but rather having a system that works. In the case of a tie, the Electoral College has very specific and easy steps to decide the issue. In a popular vote, there is only one recourse to a tie and that is a run-off election. Take a moment to imagine the madness of a national run-off. Furthermore, the direct election of a President would remove smaller, less populated states from the equation. Also, the critic’s rhetoric often forgets to mention the impact on minorites - be they racial, gender, or special interests. In a popular election only the votes of the popular majority count.

Hillary claims to “believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it's time to do away with the Electoral College.” Does she really? We elect 2 Senators per state and that just doesn’t fairly represent the population. By Hillary’s logic we need to “do away with” the Senate. The number of Congressmen in the House of Representatives is determined by arbitrary districting, but proportional representation is not truly popular democractic representation so, by Hillary’s logic, we need to restructure the House of Representatives, too. By Hillary’s logic, she and her husband would have been sent packing back to Arkansas twice!

The House of Representatives provides popular representation in the Legislative branch. The Senate provides equal representation in the Legislative branch. The Executive branch is the one that oversees the Legislative by either signing or not signing legislation. In other words, the Presidency defends ‘we the people’ and therefore must represent all the people. The beauty of the Electoral College system is that it protects the vote of each and every person and provides a stable framework for electing that one person who should represent us all. The President must have the support of the people to govern, but that support must also be from the widest cross-section of the population to have legitimacy. Hillary’s popular election will not provide that, but the Electoral College does.


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