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Electoral College Reform

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Offline Phil

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Electoral College Reform
« August 02, 2020, 02:09:37 PM »
With 40% of U.S. presidential elections in recent years being overturned by the Electoral College, it is clear that the system is broken and needs fixing. Otherwise people will get used to their voice not counting and won't even bother to vote. A one-party state and dictatorship inevitably follows. That is the game plan of the fascist (Republican) party. Let's take a look at how the Electoral College came to be (something very few people understand), and how it might be fixed. The idea is to understand why it's here, and consider whether any of those reasons are still valid and necessary, over two centuries later.

Why is there an Electoral College, in the first place? Frankly, the framers of the Constitution never intended for the common rabble to directly elect the president. They didn't trust them not to elect some orange-haired rabble rouser, and reserved selection of the president to be a power of the States (i.e., the elite leadership). Remember that the states appointed their Senators, too, in the original Constitution. The states, not the people, were to hold the real power. The House of Representatives was just a sop to the common man to let him think that he had a say in the government.

A number of explanations are commonly given, all of them incomplete or misleading. If you weren't asleep in your civics or U.S. History class, you might remember learning that small states were given extra weight to their vote in the Electoral College — but that glosses over the fact that an Electoral College had already been decided upon. The extra voting power was to entice small states like Rhode Island and Delaware to join in and ratify the Constitution, as they feared their voices would otherwise be drowned out by the larger states (if the number of presidential votes equals only the number of representatives, which is proportional to population).

Others will tell you that the format was set up to preserve and protect the institution of slavery. This is only partly true, as a result of the House apportionment being set up to boost southern state representation by counting a slave as 3/5 of a person (10 slaves count the same as 6 white people for the purpose of House seats, even though they can't vote). That the Electoral College vote for a state was their Representative count (plus Senators, to placate the small states) indirectly made the Electoral College somewhat protective of slavery, but that wasn't the overriding concern.

There were three major reasons for the Electoral College, in effectively taking away the vote for president (the only national office, or at least, the only important one) from the common rabble and giving it to the states:

  • The common people were not trusted to make a level-headed decision. It was feared that they would subvert democracy by voting for demagogues rather than good solid elites of the ruling class. So, there was to be no direct national vote.
  • The states were not trusted to give an accurate vote count, if the popular vote was to be added together. The Founding Fathers feared a scenario such as this: "Hey, Rhode Island, congratulations on the mayor of Providence winning the presidency with 5 million votes from his home state. Oh by the way, your last census two years ago showed 35000 free, property-owning, white men over 21 (the only voters) in your state; could you please explain the discrepancy? RI: Hey, we grew a lot in the last two years. Yeah, that's it, we grew a lot!". OK, maybe no one would dare try something so blatant, but you never know. Cheating could be a lot more subtle, and still tip the election. The framers didn't want to get into fights like that, so they decided that each State's vote count would be fixed in advance, proportional to their population (with senators soon added to placate the smaller states). They left it to each state as to how their vote would be determined (most eventually went with popular vote winner-take-all).
  • The process was not to be automatic, as it is made to appear on election night with projected winners of states, but was to involve real people meeting after the election to physically cast votes. This was done so that electors could be free to not vote for the declared "winner", but to act as a circuit breaker (to use modern terminology) and elect a more reasonable man. Until recently this was quite routine, but in recent elections, many electors have been cajoled, bullied, or bought off to change their vote.

The Electoral College, frankly, has become an embarrassment to our claims to be a representative democracy, and something needs to be done about it. People outside the U.S., as well as a lot of people within the country, can only shake their heads in amazement and dismay each time the popular vote is overturned by what appears to be a bizarre and anachronistic mechanism, this "College", more suited to an age of silk knee breeches, powdered wigs, slavery, and total male dominance. Can (and should) it be tweaked to make it more representative and fairer, or should it be abolished and replaced by a direct national vote (no states involved)? After all, the argument could be made for the latter that this is the only real nationwide office, and the people should have the real power.

One problem today is that small states' power in the Electoral College has become far greater due to the House being frozen at 435 members, which gives disproportionate leverage to tiny states with only one Representative (plus two Senators). This is far from "one man, one vote". One thing that might be done is to give a multiplier to the representative count to even out each state's Electoral College vote per number of citizens (as well as for House business). See Updating the House of Representatives for more discussion on evening out the House's representation.

Another solution (or step) would be to eliminate the two Senate votes, and get closer to number of Electoral College votes proportional to population, which was the original intent (before small states threw a tantrum and had to be bought off). To fully implement this, weighting would have to be applied, as with the House of Representatives.

How Electoral College votes were to be apportioned was left to each state. All but two (Maine and more recently, Nebraska) chose to go with winner-take-all, which distorts the election process. Why should a Republican bother to put much effort into campaigning in California, or a Democrat in Texas, when it's a given that their huge block of votes will go to their opponent? If most or all states split up their Electoral College votes in some manner, all states would become competitive and it wouldn't pay to concentrate on just a handful of battleground states that could go either way. Of course, this also increases the chances that no candidate will get the required majority in the Electoral College, especially if there's a Third Party candidate, which would throw the election to the House. Ranked choice (instant runoff) voting in the Electoral College could help here, to ensure that there is a majority vote-getter. How states voting (as opposed to individual voters) would select their second, third, etc. choices would be straightforward (first, second, third place finishers), unless those states had implemented ranked choice themselves, which could result in the elimination of all but the top two candidates.

What about a simple nationwide, direct vote for president? This would cut the states out of the picture completely (except for administering the vote). Here we get back to the temptation to fudge the vote. If you think such vote rigging can't happen any more, look at Illinois in 1960. The Cook County Democratic machine literally "dug up" enough votes from people who were actually dead, to tip the state over to John F. Kennedy, and it was the margin of victory in the Electoral College. The Republicans have never forgotten or forgiven this, and it has shaped their policies with respect to voting rights ever since. Any sort of direct popular vote would have to be conducted under extremely close scrutiny, and might have to be run by some absolutely pure non-partisan agency (Federal) or agencies (state). Politicians are loath to give up partisan power, and would fight this to the bitter end.

States still treasure what little sovereignty they have left, and will be loath to give up more, especially if it means conducting a voting process separate from all other elections. Perhaps that wouldn't be a completely bad idea (presidential election on one day, all others on another day, perhaps months apart), but it's already hard enough to get people to vote on just one day a year, and holding two separate elections would be even harder (and more expensive).

Any of the changes listed here are likely to require a Constitutional Amendment, which would be bitterly opposed by whoever would lose power as a result.

There are a number of efforts under way to try to correct the situation, including the National Popular Vote Compact, an informal agreement among a number of states to cast their Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner, which is effectively a direct popular vote without needing a Constitutional Amendment. I'm sure that if such a state overturned its citizens' votes to go with the national winner, there would be blood in the streets.

At first (late 18th century into the early 19th century), selection of a state's presidental electors was a mixed bag, using the popular vote in some states, some states appointing them by the legislature and/or governor, and some by congressional district. Eventually, after a few decades, the states (with one, and then two, exceptions) went to winner-take-all based on the popular vote. Remember, nothing in the Constitution guarantees a vote by the people for President — any state can take it away at any time! It's just a tradition.

In a presidential election, typically 10 to 12 "battleground" states get all the attention and campaigning, and virtually all other voters are ignored. These are the states which could be tipped either way (are closely divided), and states which are closer to the Blue or Red ends of the political spectrum are simply written off by the expected losers in those states. Ironically, almost no one likes the way the Electoral College currently works, yet no one can agree on how (or even whether) to reform it. It's likely that abolishing the Electoral College, or at least, making it much more answerable to the popular vote, could lead to more moderation — less extreme candidates — as candidates would have to broaden their appeal to a true nationwide majority of voters, and not just concentrate on their "base" in a handful of states.

One purpose of the Electoral College was to permit overturning of the election if an orange-haired demagogue won the rabble's vote. Perhaps this could be kept by keeping human electors (WITHOUT "faithless elector" rules) but requiring 80 or 90% super majority to overturn the popular vote. If there is a formal process for overturning the vote, "faithless elector" punishments would not be applied. How could states insulate electors from pressures to change their pledged vote? Should electors be some sort of pure elite, or should they be ordinary people?

So, what should be done? Keep in mind that someone is going to lose power as a result of any changes, and any Supreme Court is going to overturn changes unless there is a Constitutional amendment. Can the Electoral College more fairly represent the will of the people with minor tinkering (weighted vote strictly proportional to population, super majority required to overturn the popular vote)? Or should it be abolished entirely, replaced by ranked-choice direct popular vote? We are just as susceptible to voting in populist demagogues as any other people, at any time, so it might be a good thing to have a way stop that. On the other hand, repeatedly ignoring the will of the people can only lead to bad things — from political apathy and low voter turnouts to outright dictatorship. And what is the role of the individual states in determining the President? Are we past the point of being a loose confederation of semiautonomous republics and more fully integrated into a nation-state? If so, should states even exist, except as a convenient, intermediate-sized, government division?

I'm not going to take a position on exactly what should be done, as I'm not sure myself. All I know is that something needs to be done before the people lose the rest of their faith in the process and either violence erupts or we become a de-facto One Party fascist state.

Some interesting articles:
« Last Edit: October 11, 2020, 02:09:12 PM by Phil »

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Offline Phil

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Re: Electoral College Reform
« Reply #1: October 11, 2020, 02:32:59 PM »
Based on some questions and comments I've gotten about the above article, I think a recap and summary is in order.

  • The Constitution specifies that the states vote for President, not the people. It is only an illusion that the people are voting for President!
  • Each state is assigned a number of Electors roughly proportional to their population (equal to their House representation), plus two Senators as a sop to small states. This was done so that there could be no arguments over popular vote totals.
  • Each state gets to decide how its Electors are chosen. Although all currently allow citizens to vote, and assign Electors on a winner-take-all basis (except for two states which are somewhat apportioned), the Constitution is silent on the subject. It is Constitutionally legal for a state legislature, or even a Governor, to simply appoint Electors regardless of how the population feels about it.
  • The Electoral College is not an automatic process like it appears to be on Election Night. It consists of real people casting real ballots. Subject to "faithless elector" laws, they are free to change their minds and vote for someone else, especially if they feel that the common rabble fell for a charlatan.
  • With 40% of recent popular votes overturned (possibly 50% after the upcoming election), it is time to do something about the Electoral College, but what?

Banning "winner take all" votes would certainly give more voice to the political minorities in each state, but increases the risk of throwing a hung election to the House of Representatives. Would candidates be more centrist under such a scheme? Certainly, evening out voters-per-electoral-vote would be a great step forward, by eliminating the Senators from the count, and using a weighting factor. Finally, almost anything other than an informal national popular vote Compact would require a Constitutional Amendment.

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Offline Phil

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Re: Electoral College Reform
« Reply #2: October 17, 2020, 05:19:30 PM »
'Tis the Season, and all that... a nice article going over many of the points raised here, and adding some additional history and statistics: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/reference/united-states-history/history-electoral-college-could-be-reformed.