Electoral College Gets
a Failing Grade

Mind experiments worked well enough for Erwin Schrödinger to get him a magical cat. Let’s try it here, shall we?

Now, let’s suppose your city government decides that democracy, as most of us know it, is just too dangerous.

Too dangerous.

So a council member comes up with an idea. In each election from now on, individual votes will not be counted individually. Instead, only city streets will get to vote.

City streets.

Oh, your vote will be counted, but it will be counted according to how your street voted. If you and 47 of your neighbors all vote for Candidate X …

(that’s 47 for X)

…but 49 other voters on your street vote for Candidate Y …

(that’s 47 for X, 49 for Y)

…all 96 votes, including yours, will count for Candidate Y.

You might really dislike Candidate Y. You might have volunteered to campaign for Candidate X, urging your neighbors to vote for Candidate X. You might even have a sign on your lawn: “Why Y? Vote X instead!”

No matter. If Candidate Y, the candidate you detest, gets a few more votes on your street than Candidate X, your vote for X will get switched, and it will now count for Y.

And that’s the plan. Any objections?

Okay, so someone objects.

Hey, says the protester, that’s not fair. The longest city street will have lots and lots of city blocks, and lots and lots of votes all bundled up together into one block vote. And the teeny tiny little street with only one or two blocks and only a few voters will get overrun by that long, long street. That leaves little streets out in the cold.

Unplowed every damn winter.

So the city council comes up with a compromise. They’ll count the voters in advance and invent about 20% more. They’ll call them “Street Votes.” The street votes will be divided up by street. Each city street, large or small, will get the same number of street votes to add to their block vote. That should equalize small and large streets, right?

This all doesn’t help you very much if you voted for Candidate X, but your vote for X gets turned around and counted for Candidate Y, You vote for X, but your vote gets counted for Y, because that’s how a few more of your neighbors voted.

There’s a word for that form of government. It’s called insanity.

But it has its defenders. It protects us from the tyranny of the majority, says the mayor. It protects small streets from big streets, says the City Council. It’s nuts, says anyone who has any sense.

Now you know we’re not talking about city streets, right? We’re talking about the United States Constitution as it has been fictionalized in lots of history textbooks. We’re talking about the Electoral College as many of us learned it in school.

This mind experiment might not buy any cats, but it does buy us an interesting body of historical falsehood. It didn’t happen the way lots of folks of my generation were taught. You know the lessons. Tyranny of the majority is averted. Conflict between small states and big states gets settled in a grand compromise by awarding 2 extra votes to each state.

Never happened. At least not that way.

What many of us were taught in school was a lie that started in the late 1800s. It began with publication of research by Professor William Dunning of Columbia University. It hit American textbooks in the early to mid 1900s. It hit the virgin minds of many of us in our classrooms right after that.

It was easy for us as children to believe that the crazy quilt device of choosing a President came from some solid set of principles. We were good little students and we knew teachers were telling us the rock steady truth.

Now that we are adults, we might ponder the fact that the reasoning we learned as children for this patchwork electoral system is as crazy as crazy can be. Then, we might go beyond that and consider the possibility that those writing the Constitution were not, in fact, insane.

Professor Dunning and his band of students were patriots who were emotionally invested in finding ways to deny what their research had to have been telling them.

Horrible truth is often the first casualty of wishful thinking. And they very much wanted a nation still shaken by the Civil War to experience brotherhood and peace. “Love your neighbor,” the scriptures taught. And your neighbors were not simply the folks next door. They were white, Caucasian folks everywhere.

Denial of blatant racism at the founding of our democracy became an easy exercise.

We can find the actual truth, and modern scholars are finding it, by skipping past the Dunning school of history and going to the original record.

There was no transcript of the Constitutional convention. But there were diaries and daily accounts by participants. They were there. They knew.

There was only a brief mention of large versus small states in the debate about how to elect a President. And that brief mention was coupled with the one and only mention of any principle involving distrust of a majority vote for President.

Those two issues were introduced by Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. We mostly remember Mr. Gerry for his way of creative allocating of voting districts. His name was distorted a little when gerrymandering was named after him. We really ought to call it Gary-mandering.

He, and his two issues (large versus small and distrust of a majority vote), were hooted down and were not mentioned again at the Constitutional Convention. At least not in connection with the election of Presidents.

But there was debate about the Presidency, and lots of it. It mostly involved slavery.

That actual recorded, documented, real debate is reinforced by common sense.

Conservatives were for a representative republic as long as there was no chance democracy would interfere with slavery. So they insisted that the President must be elected state by state. Every state would get the same number of electoral votes as they had Congressional districts. Plus they were given two more votes per state – one for each Senator.

Then they got to the real trick.

Conservative slaveholders insisted that the number of electors, as well as the number of Representatives in Congress, must be determined by counting all residents. Those residents included slaves.

So slaveholders would cast votes for themselves. Plus they would cast the votes of their slaves. That would rig the vote enough to give them power for at least the next four score and seven years, give or take a Civil War.

Liberal delegates from the North didn’t exactly say no. They pretty much said Hell No! Eventually the two sides compromised. Southern conservatives would have their votes amplified by counting their own votes plus the votes of 3/5 of the slaves, slaves not being allowed to vote on their own.

The 3/5 philosophy resurrected this year with the refusal of Republicans to vote on President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The unspoken thought seemed to be that the Constitutional role of nominating Justices by the first African-American President was only valid for 3/5 of his final term.

For the most part, the patchwork system of electing a President, the anti-democracy system that came from stacking the deck toward slavery, has none-the-less coincided with the votes of … well … voters. But not always. In four cases, the candidate who got the most votes did not get the White House. The candidate rejected by voters became President instead.

One argument is often advanced by those who paraphrase those who, in turn, paraphrase one recent biography of James Madison. The argument didn’t start with this biography. It was invented and echoed in the late 1800s by followers of Professor Dunning. We still hear it occasionally quoted by conservatives. It is that majority rule was to be mistrusted because “democratic polities were prone to fits of passion.”

I suppose that someone, somewhere, will argue that the calm and reassuring followers of Donald Trump saved us all from those fits of passion.

Like most arguments supporting the electoral system, the Madison quotes turn out to be factually untrue. Madison argued for codifying rights, rights eventually contained in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. In that regard he felt that majorities could not be trusted to preserve liberty, because “democratic polities were prone to fits of passion.”

In fact, historian Paul Finkelman and other scholars have documented Madison’s passionate arguments during the Constitutional Convention that direct majority election of the President was the only path to what was right and just.

He eventually accepted the electoral system, but he said it was for one reason, and one reason only. Direct election would be unacceptable to slaveholding conservatives.

Perhaps, someday, some combination of states will elect a liberal President that has been rejected by actual voters. Until then, conservatives will embrace this occasional obstacle to the ideal of a democratic republic. For now, it is unlikely that the Constitution will be amended to rid us of this holdover from slavery.

Other alternatives do exist. One that may eventually succeed is state action. California has passed a conditional law. If and when enough other states join to form a majority of electors, California will join with them in pledging that national majority of electors to whomever has gotten a majority of the national vote. At that moment, the Electoral College will still exist, but the ability to distort American democracy to a hoped for coincidence will end. So far, ten states have passed that agreement.

President-elect Donald Trump recently endorsed the idea of directly electing the President:

I would rather see it, where you went with simple votes. You know, you get 100 million votes, and somebody else gets 90 million votes, and you win. There’s a reason for doing this. Because it brings all the states into play.

Donald Trump, November 13, 2016

One day, with luck, we might actually neutralize that peculiar institution, an institution that remains a final gift from slavery.

Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or RSS
to get episodes automatically downloaded.


2 thoughts on “Electoral College Gets
a Failing Grade”

  1. My intelligent conservative acquaintances love the “it protects the small states from the big states”/”it protects the non-urban voters from the urban voters” argument for the electoral college, though they consistently ignore me when I point out that Congress already does a fine job of representing states (and less urban areas within states) unequally and that the president must work with it. Seeing no progress with that line of argument, I note instead that the electoral college isn’t even fair internally, as the smaller states get more electoral votes by population than the larger ones, such that my vote in New York is only worth 1/3 that of a vote in Wyoming. I am still ignored.

    I try to be charitable when interpreting others’ intentions, so I assume that their support for an electoral college in general is tied to a consistent desire on their part for the states, rather than the people, to determine who governs. The ideas that our federal government should not in any office be required to reflect the will of the majority and that people should be effectively punished for congregating in particular states and around particular cities is ridiculous to me on moral and practical grounds, but at least they are consistent in this matter. However, I see no good case for unfairness–for stacking the deck even further against the more populous states–even within this states-over-people system. And so I can only imagine that their continued support for such a system comes from a selfish desire to retain a chance to win, that their guiding principle is victory rather than fairness.

    I suspect, as you do, that it will take a similar liberal victory for conservatives to change their minds. But I am not optimistic about its likelihood.

    1. Well of course you are ignored, Ryan. Conservatives need the Electoral College to win, so any logic and reasoning has to be ignored in favor of winning. Aside from reelecting Bush (and isn’t there a reelection advantage?), Republicans haven’t won the popular vote since 1988. The country is becoming more socially liberal, but Republicans are not. Without the EC, they don’t have much else going for them. Thank goodness they are there to protect us from ourselves.

Comments are closed.