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Abolishing the Electoral College

I'm going into my third year on Medium. I’ve just responded to another Medium contributor who believes the abolishment of the electoral college is the cure for American politics. Probably for the 10th time, maybe 15th, I’ve added my perspectives in the comments section. I seem to be repeating myself. Maybe it’s time to get all my thoughts on this topic under one article.

Predictably, the Medium contributor pointed to the 2000 and 2016 elections as the main reason. That’s when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college, thus giving the presidency to the other side. While claiming to be “democratic,” the anti-electoral-college contributors are obviously partisan supporters of the Democratic Party. They are just using a cheap excuse to suggest the other side was an illegitimate holder of the White House. I suspect if the Democrats had the advantage with the electoral college, these contributors would not say much.

History of the Electoral College

To understand why the abolishment of the electoral college is so trivial, it’s important to understand how it came into being. The Founding Fathers feared that if the 13 colonies were not united, the British would eventually pick off the colonies one-by-one and return them to the British Empire. This was a realistic fear: the British had a big naval base and army garrison in Nova Scotia. And Upper Canada (Ontario) also had a military presence. So the Founding Fathers reasoned that if the 13 colonies were united into one country, the British would be less likely to invade — and less successful if they did.

But some interstate negotiations were required. The smaller states were suspicious of the larger states looking for a quick annexation to increase their territory. So the “smalls” asked for some political concessions from the “bigs” to join the union. There were two such concessions: (1) the Senate would be composed of two senators from each state regardless of population or geographic size, and (2) the electoral college to elect the president would deliver electors proportional to the population of each state plus two more electors for each state. With these two electoral provisions, the smaller states felt they had enough political bias to not be overridden by the bigger states.

This union did bear important fruit for the USA during the War of 1812. There was this little battle known as “The Siege of Detroit” on the outskirts of civilization. The British took this fort in 1812, but somehow the Americans managed to cobble out a big enough military force to drive the British out in 1813. One or two colonies, working by themselves, could not have mustered this take-back-Detroit force. It was a much bigger nation that did this.

Michigan could have been in Canada’s hands today — and maybe all the states to the west of Michigan. There is a big connection between the electoral college and Michigan being in the USA.

Reasons for the Electoral College

So what exactly is this electoral college? To understand that, we need to review the purpose of the House and Senate. The House was to represent the nation on a basis of population, which satisfied the one-man-one-vote principle of democracy. For the sake of this essay, let’s just forget the “one man” at that time really meant “one, rich, white man.”

The Founding Fathers feared a populist legislature. They correctly predicted that sometimes fools would be elected. These fools would know little about governance and could convince rich, white, male voters to vote for them. Rather than let fools have total run of governance for a few years for everyone to see the error of their ways, the Founding Fathers created the Senate to counter the House when it was too full of such elected fools.

Senators were elected by their respective state legislators. Not the people. The theory was that the state legislators were working with each other on a daily basis. Hence, they should have reasonable knowledge about whom, from amongst themselves, best understood the challenges of governance and were worthy of the senate promotion. Being a legislature of the wise, the Senate could prevent the House from wrecking the country when the House was a little too populist. In this way, both conditions of “one-man-one-vote” (thus legitimizing democracy) and wise governors were satisfied.

When it came to electing the president, the Founding Fathers created a similar process as the Senate: an indirect election. The voters would elect the state legislators. Then the state legislators would, from amongst themselves, elect their electors. Then the electors would travel to a convention in Washington—and these electors would make some democratic deliberations for a week or so. Out of those deliberations would come the president and vice-president. Again, the Founding Fathers believed these wiser electors were in a better position to find a good president than the general population (of rich, white men).

One more thing! The Founding Fathers had a disdain for political parties or factions of any kind. They believed that each elected representative should cast his legislative vote on what the representative thought was best for the country or the region he represented. The Founding Fathers felt the British Parliament—the only working democracy at that time—made too many bad decisions because these elected representatives were mostly representing their party, not the people (well, actually the rich, white British men). For example, the British Parliament routinely ignored the concerns of the American colonies because the American colonies really could not provide many votes to whatever party was in power. This oversight eventually led to the American colonies declaring independence. The British political parties caused this movement.

While fairly united in this anti-political-party thought, the Founding Fathers just couldn’t find the mechanism to prevent the formation of political parties. Factions started appearing in the later stages of George Washington’s tenure. Factions became more electable than wise independents. By 1820, the parties were firmly established in American politics.

And this brings us to an important point: much of the good design work done by the Founding Fathers was unraveled by 1820. They envisioned a system of governance without political parties. And now there were political parties. The original reasons for the electoral college were mostly lost.

Changes to the Electoral College

Since it is almost American sacrilege to tread on the work of the Founding Fathers, the political parties have somehow managed to manipulate the early constitution intentions into something else that serves the interests of the political parties. For example, the names on the 2020 presidential ballot were Joe Biden and Donald Trump, giving the appearance of a direct election. But legally speaking, the voters are actually voting for electors who say they will vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump. But the names of those electors were not on the ballot. Somehow this preserves the indirect electoral intention of the constitution. Then some kind of law was passed that “state legislators electing their electors” really meant “state legislatures nominating their electors that the voters had chosen.” But the voters did not choose the electors. The political parties did. If you are not a little bewildered by this electoral sleight of hand, you should be.

The concessions granted to the small states played an important part of the early history of the USA. Whether these concessions are relevant today is another discussion. But they are the current set of rules. If the USA is to be democratic in nature, the rules must be played out as they are. If the rules are not that great anymore, then the Founding Fathers did include a reasonable amendment process in the constitution to make such a change.

So why is this “abolishment of the electoral college” not given more traction? These days, we could blame the Republicans, who do not want to give up their little electoral advantage. But we sure do not see too many Democrat legislators working towards this goal either. Both Maine and Nebraska have given up their winner-take-all-the-electoral-college-votes to provide a more fair representation of the people’s will. But no other state wants to be more fair.

I have two hypotheses for why this rule is not changed. First, today’s American legislators are too busy putting out fires (or maybe starting fires?) to spend time working on a broken foundation. Second, the electoral college process—applied over the other 48 states—is not an overly undemocratic institution. Hence the political will for this reform is really not there.

“Not an overly undemocratic institution?” many Medium readers will try to shout me down, “In 2016, it put Donald Trump in charge when he did not win the popular vote! And Trump is an idiot.” And that is all the logic they need to make their case for abolishment of the electoral college.

The Basketball Analogy

Let me explain further. In 2016, Ms. Clinton (or her electors) got 65m votes. Mr. Trump (or his electors) got 62m votes. If we had a high school basketball game with a score of 65 to 62, could we really say the winning team was vastly superior to the losing team? No, we can’t. The two teams seem to be equal in talent and skill. Next week, the other team might win. Likewise if another basketball game goes 81 to 74, can we say the 81 is vastly superior to the 74? No, we can’t.

So here’s my point. Donald Trump was a viable contender in both 2016 and 2020. You may not like this concept or condition or conundrum. But he was a viable contender for the presidential job. If you fail to understand that point, then you are not understanding the dynamics of American politics well enough to help advance the USA. In fact, you just might be making things worse.

If the USA had a popular vote for president in 2016, then Mr. Trump would have likely lost. But he still put in a strong enough showing in the Republican primary and general election to show his style of politics is indeed viable for future electoral success. That message would not have been lost on Mr. Trump 2.0. Like it or not, if the political landscape in the USA has evolved to give Mr. Trump 62 m votes (now 74m votes), it will be only a matter of time before a similar figure emerges on the political scene. If you can’t see this trend, you might be making things worse.

Fickleness of American Democracy

When two candidates are fairly equal contenders, all sorts of things can happen a week before the election to flip the result one way or the other. A little misspoken word, a little scandal (true or not), a little electoral cheating, a little health issue on the campaign trail, a little Russian interference, an unexpected crisis, a great negative political TV commercial, $10m surge in Facebook ads, etc. can all cause a million “soft support” voters to not make the trip to the polls to cast a vote for their somewhat favorite candidate on election day. They will convince themselves to say: “my preference is not worth my time to vote.” One million is not much in a voting pool of 230m or more voters. But it’s enough to flip the coin the other way in a close election, regardless of whether the electoral college or popular vote is the mechanism.

But should history really be written by people who are better at managing coin flips on election day? Or maybe just getting plain lucky? 

Pointlessness of Changing the Electoral College

Changing the electoral college into popular vote will not make that much difference in the long run. For example, the parties will still be beholden to those who donate time and money to the parties. And the parties will still be composed of too many individuals who have more ambition than skills for governance. And these individuals are still climbing over one another to increase their own status, influence, and power within their party. These three features of American democracy will not go away if popular vote replaces the electoral college in presidential elections.

A Better Change Inspired by the Founding Fathers?

The Founding Fathers put together some rather silly things in their constitution: like rich, white men being the only voters. But they had some great ideas for governance: like an electoral system with no political parties and indirect elections. We should be discussing these ideas in the 21st century. Instead, we discuss things like the electoral college.

In my opinion, the discussion about the electoral college is only a smoke screen so that we—the people—will not start thinking in a political-party-less direction. The two American political parties do not want this kind of discussion—as such a change will make them irrelevant. From my perspective as someone who has invented a partyless system of governance, this smoke screen seems to be working very well.

So now my position on the abolishment of the electoral college is formally posted on Medium. The next time I encounter another article with this silly idea, I need only post the link to this article. Cheap clickbait, yes! At least posting this link will save me time when I run across an anti-electoral-college article. Writing individual comments does not seem to be bearing any fruit.

Published on Medium 2021

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