By Ben Tanosborn
On the eve of the 2004 presidential election I wrote a column referencing the Electoral College which is just as pertinent today as it was then. I am reproducing it here with some modifications to bring the concept up to date, to include 2016 election results. [Archive: Tanosborn blog]
It’s more than a meridian, or a parallel, or a body of water that separate the people of Border States. Politically, in a quantifiable way, the separation is accentuated by the value of their vote when it comes to electing the POTUS himself. Does it make any democratic sense that each vote cast by a person in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, be worth two-thirds more than that of his neighbor across the Missouri River, in Sioux City, Iowa? Or for the vote of those folks in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to be worth over two-thirds more than the vote of the people in El Paso, Texas?
What about the good people of Spokane, Washington… should their vote be worth only three-fifths of the vote of their neighbors in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho? Are they to be mistaken for 18th century slaves and accorded the same value as that constitutionally given to slaves by our Founding Fathers?
Carrying the electoral vote value gap to the extreme: does it make any sense for a Vermonter living in Burlington to have electoral voting power three times (yes, three times!) that of a neighbor across Lake Champlain… in Plattsburgh, New York? Is the lake such a forbidding body of water that it mimics the dividing Pyrenees? The same holds true for the cowpokes in Cheyenne, Wyoming, who hold a three-fold electoral voting power over that of their neighbors in Fort Collins, Colorado. And of course, what can we say about those ladies laboring at the Mustang Ranch in Sparks, Nevada, being more than three times as vote-powerful as their customers visiting them from a short drive away in California? [Well, maybe this latter example has political merit!]
And so it goes around this land of ours. The basic precept of democracy, one person- one vote, goes out the window. Yet, we are so constitutionally-righteous that celebrate the absurd in a way that befuddles most serious students of the body politic, not just here in the US but elsewhere in the world. For lack of good reason, we rationalize keeping the Electoral College system in the most mythical ways. This multi-tier political system might have made some sense for the European Union, at least during a transitional period of decades ago. After all, there you were dealing with multiple, well entrenched cultures, and historically-defined nations. That would have been a far different case than having a multi-tiered system for the United States. Is the farmer growing potatoes in Idaho so different from his counterpart in Maine? The myth of community or cultural preservation is an ogre beheaded long ago. The only possible exceptions are the last two stars added to Old Glory: the non-contiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii. But what might have made sense at early post-colonial times, or during the 19th century, lost its validity more than a century ago.
As for the simplistic notion that without the Electoral College system the less populous states would be ignored by the candidates… hogwash! Take this 2016 presidential election: in this United States of America, whether red, blue or an undetermined shade, little or no time was spent by the candidates on any American geography not deemed to be what was politically termed – and democratically obscene – as “battleground States,” resulting in one more validation of the 80-20 rule, in this case with 20 percent of the population receiving 80 percent of the campaign time, money and dedication.
Although past attempts taken to reform the electoral system have failed, it was not because of lack of merit but a surplus in apathy… topped with a good measure of special interests. Such apathy for a living democracy is easily evidenced by the number of potential voters who cast their ballots in the US: about half in the presidential elections and a scant quarter in State and local elections. It will probably take an election with a resounding victory in the popular vote for a losing candidate before the electoral system is finally overhauled. A plurality of one-half million votes for Gore in 2000 just wasn’t enough; and the 2-million vote separation favoring Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump does not seem to matter given a choice between two unpopular candidates.
But what if a more popular candidate had won by 2 or 3-million votes, and still be denied the presidency because of fewer electoral votes? Wouldn’t we, then, question the system and finally take steps to forever bury such undemocratic and archaic idiocy? Why not then democratize our electoral system for Chief Executive and prevent the prospect of a post-election with a legitimate popular challenge and civil unrest?