If you want to get rid of the Electoral College, you don’t understand how it works. I mean the royal “you,” not the partisan “you.” Opposition to the Electoral College tends to break down along partisan lines—especially lately, for some reason—but even President-elect Donald Trump said he’d prefer “simple votes.”
You can hardly be blamed for your ignorance if you went to public school, attended an elite university, or get your news from Yahoo. Some very nice, apparently well-educated people—Barbara Boxer—are peddling absolute Pablum about the Electoral College. “The Electoral College is an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society, and it needs to change immediately. Every American should be guaranteed that their vote counts.”
You are one of them, with all due respect, if you’ve said or thought any of the following.
The American Founders set up the Electoral College as a members-only club for white, male property owners.
You’re right. Only white, male property owners could serve as electors. Only white, male property owners could vote, for that matter. Women, the poor, and—with special brutality—slaves were treated like dogs who might be lucky enough to get a scrap from their master’s table. From our twenty-first century lives, we can’t begin to register that sort of inhumanity.
But this isn’t Social Justice 101; that class is down the hall. This is America 101. This class is the awe-inspiring story of tragically flawed people who somehow managed to win an unwinnable war and devise—despite their racist, sexist, classist limitations—a document like no other: our Constitution.
They rose above powerful cultural blinders to set forth an ideal that transformed man’s relationship to government and to his fellow man. What is seen by some as their hypocrisy—all men are created equal—is really a testament to their vision. Nobody’s mad at John Lennon for singing “Imagine” about a world that didn’t exist. Why are we mad at the Founders for envisioning freedoms for all that were unimaginable at the time?
The Founders knew the Electoral College was “not perfect,” but Alexander Hamilton deemed it “excellent” in that it united “in an eminent degree all the advantages” of our new union. It decreed first and foremost that the people, not permanent ruling bodies, were in charge. It was the people who would elect the men who would elect the president.
Why the middlemen? Because it was “peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.” Or, as Ben Franklin put it, “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner.”
The people were to elect the “most capable” men as electors, which designation sets on edge the teeth of our modern, egalitarian, would-be utopia. Would it sound better if we said the “most qualified” men? Even in our paroxysm of sameness, we allow (in theory) only qualified people to vote: 18, American citizen, of sound mind, etc. What qualified men as electors in 1787? How about literacy and education?
That our earliest recorded literacy rates are from 1870 says something about literacy rates 80 years earlier. Thomas Jefferson called for a public school system after the American Revolution, but it wasn’t until 1852 that the first compulsory school laws were enacted. We can wring our backward-looking hands that education was afforded only white children—to boys and later to girls from wealthy families—or we can put on our big girl panties and accept that human social development is messy. Like it or not, white, male property owners were the most qualified to be electors at that time.
The Electoral College was all about slavery and protecting slave owners’ rights.
No, it wasn’t, and shame on whomever taught you it was. Maybe it was one of the elite college gang like Professor Akhil Reed of Yale University. Described as a specialist in constitutional law, he “is among America’s five most-cited legal scholars under the age of 60.” When asked why the Electoral College exists, he responded:
In my view, it’s slavery. In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time because a huge percentage of its population was slaves, and slaves couldn’t vote. But an Electoral College allows states to count slaves, albeit at a discount (the three-fifths clause), and that’s what gave the South the inside track in presidential elections.
How does a specialist in constitutional law miss the word “compromise” in “three-fifths compromise”? How does one of America’s most-cited legal scholars fail to consider that five-fifths (that’s one) and three-fifths weren’t the only options available?
It wasn’t pretty that day around the Constitution. Northern and Southern states fought bitterly over how to count slaves, who couldn’t vote, in population numbers. Since population numbers determined legislative power, Southern states of course wanted to count slaves like they counted everyone else. Abolition-conscious Northern states wanted to eliminate slaves from population counts completely.
Northern states argued that if Southern states could count their property (slaves), Northern states could count theirs (horses, chickens, etc.). Because executive fiat by phone and by pen had not yet been invented, the two sides had no choice but to compromise. That’s why it’s called “the three-fifths compromise.”
As Reed points out, the three-fifths compromise “discounted” the value of slaves relative to white men, but it enhanced the power of slaves relative to white men in reducing by two-fifths the South’s power to preserve slavery legislatively. The Electoral College set the stage for legislative abolition of slavery, so you can say it was about slavery if you want, but tell the whole truth.
Food for thought: had the Southern states gotten their way and counted each slave in full, slavery would have been much harder to eliminate. Yet from our twenty-first century, poorly informed lives, we would likely have praised their full count cause as noble.
A system that ignores millions of Americans’ votes can’t be fair.
You’re so right! Let’s make sure all our military absentee votes are counted! All valid absentee ballots are counted, but for military personnel serving overseas, “valid” is a moving target. Literally. Service members arrive and depart duty stations frequently, and postal service to and from military bases is often delayed, often arriving sans postmark.
A Department of Defense post-2008 election survey found “the overwhelming incidence of voting failure by [uniformed and overseas] voters [was] in ballot delivery and return failure.” Nearly 300,000 absentee ballots were cast but not returned. The general electorate returns cast absentee ballots about 91 percent of the time; the service personnel protecting and defending our freedom manage to succeed only 67 percent of the time.
In 2009, Congress passed the MOVE Act, which required states to send overseas absentee ballots 15 days in advance of domestic absentee ballots. This has been only partially effective. In 2010, 14 states had one or more counties that failed to comply, and two states sent overseas ballots less than 30 days before the election, affecting 45,000 absentee voters who requested ballots in those states. The Voting Section of the DOJ issued no enforcement penalties to any of them.
The military vote may or may not lean Republican, but it shouldn’t matter. If you’re willing to leave your family, risk your life, forego material comforts, and defend your fellow citizens, you deserve to have your vote counted no matter what. If we’re concerned with fairness, let’s start there.
The Electoral College makes my vote worthless unless I live in a battleground state. The same handful of states have all the power all the time.
This is such low-hanging fruit, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. It doesn’t matter whether you call it a state, a tribe, a planet, or a concept. Certain areas are more divided politically than others, and those areas will naturally draw more attention from candidates.
It isn’t the Electoral College doing this; it’s human nature and the physics of election wins. If you’re holding your breath in New Mexico that a popular vote will magically transform your state into a resource-rich, politically vibrant enclave, I’m sorry. It doesn’t work like that.
If you currently live in a battleground state, don’t get too comfortable. Over the long haul, states move in and out of electoral importance. New Jersey was a swing state and is now safe. California was “safe” Republican until 1988 and is now the epitome of “safe” Democrat. Should you be muttering, “Not fair, I want my vote to count now,” congratulations, you are the one JFK was talking about when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
The winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is not in the Constitution and isn’t what the Founders envisioned.
Really? It seems to me they envisioned just about anything and everything:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress. (The Constitution, Article II, Section I, Clause 2)
“…in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct…” I see no asterisk that says “except for winner-take-all systems.” If you don’t like winner-take-all systems, take it up with your state legislature; they’re in charge of that ride.
We need the National Popular Vote bill to make every vote count.
The National Popular Vote bill is to elections what Obamacare is to medicine. They are each misguided attempts to be fair that hurt far more people than they help. If the National Popular Vote bill passes (and it is already 61 percent of the way there), we will go from the frying pan into the fire.
Do Jane in Utah and Joe in Duluth want the national popular vote? We’ll never know, because no one is going to ask them. The people will not be allowed to vote yay or nay on the measure. This is a state legislature by state legislature slog that will eat its own when it reaches the magical majority number of 270 electoral votes. Citizens in the remaining 269 electoral vote states will no longer (supposedly) give up their power to the Electoral College; they will (definitely) give it up instead to the states who wanted to get rid of the Electoral College.
Ask Jane how important Utah’s electoral votes were this time around. Ask her if she voted for Evan McMullin (don’t really, that’s impolite) hoping the Mormon Mafia would thwart Trump’s win. There was real concern that Utah with its six little electoral votes could throw the whole election. Clinton paid for ads in a state that hasn’t voted Democrat since 1964.
Ask Joe how the Electoral College worked for him this time. Clinton won Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes by 43,785, a margin of 1.5 percent. Without the Electoral College, Trump would have campaigned very differently: “If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily.”
If there is anyone left who doubts he would have, my hat is off to your dogged delusion. Trump would have campaigned only in big bang for his buck states, and that does not include Minnesota. Thanks to the Electoral College, the majority of Minnesotans who voted for Hillary saw their state’s votes go to her column. Without the Electoral College, Joe and his buddies would have watched their state’s votes go automatically to the winner of the national popular vote, likely Trump.
As it is now, a Republican in California or a Democrat in Texas has little hope of influencing the national election because they have little hope of influencing their state election. Oh well. In the newer, better tomorrow promised us by a popular vote, even fewer Americans will have influence.
Looking at the 2016 results, because Clinton won the popular vote, every single state whose electoral votes went to Trump would be required to give them to Clinton. The National Popular Vote bill closes a gap by driving a Mack truck through it.
Perhaps, just perhaps, I am unfairly judging the anti-Electoral College crowd as ignorant. It’s possible they understand it only too well, which would explain why they want to get rid of it. But not before 4.3 million of them petition it to make their dreams come true.
The military absentee ballot section of this article has been changed to reflect that many such ballots are counted. An earlier version of this article said otherwise.