I am sure many members of IndivisibleCT feel–maybe strongly–that the electoral college has to go. I disagree and this post explains why.
In this debate there are two sides–the abolitionists and the keepers. I am a keeper, even though the abolitionists have a cooler name. I think there is danger in getting rid of the electoral college and we have more pressing things to do.
Some (But Not Too Much) Background
Our nation evolved out of 13 separate colonies with different histories, governance, and cultures. In 1787 people had a stronger attachment to their states than to the national government. Everything was closer, the states had different needs. But the states and the people in them were part of a new nation so there had to be ties there as well. The result was compromise. The Connecticut Compromise came first. It gave us a “national” House of Representatives with members proportional to state population and a “federal” Senate where each state, big or small, has two Senators. That took care of our representatives but left open the question of presidential and vice-presidential election. There were conflicting ideas on this question. Some wanted a national model – election by popular vote of all adult white males who owned enough property to qualify. Others felt that the elected congress was the right group to choose the president. The electoral college was the compromise between those two positions. So today there are 435 “national” members of the college plus one for DC and 102 “federal” members, two for each state plus DC. The compromise clearly favors the “national” component over the federal component by 4 to 1.
Of the 57 presidential elections, 7 have produced a controversy over the electoral college. The election of 1800 resulted in the 12th amendment and cleared up some sloppy constitutional language. In the 1824 election the House of Representatives decided among the three highest vote-getters in the college. Two elections produced conflict (1860 and 1876) but this was over racism and slavery. And in 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral college. Few got very concerned about it. Cleveland, when asked, said, “it was mainly because the other party got more [electoral college] votes.”
In the 1968 election, George Wallace tried to split the vote of Nixon and Humphrey to make a deal for white supremacy when it reached the electoral college. It got serious enough that a group of electors, some of them Democrats, offered to cast their electoral college votes for Nixon if he won a popular plurality but fell short in the college. Wallace’s move failed. This election produced a vigorous debate, much like the one we are having today. More recently, the 2000 election, famous for its “hanging chads” and the furious battle over the Florida recount, produced a new rising of the movement to abolish the college. There is strong sense of deja vu in today’s debate.
Danger and Distraction
Why is abolition of the electoral college dangerous in my view? We should keep the electoral college because it is a central component of federalism and federalism is one of the strongest forces we have to oppose tyrants and dictators. I hear you say, “Wait… in 2000 and 2016 the electoral college allowed just that… potential tyrants and dictators got in… so it has to go.” My argument is that abolition makes another George Bush or Donald Trump more, not less, likely.
Federalism is a system designed for small places to thwart the goals of large places. A Wyoming voter has almost four times the presidential electoral power of one in California. Why is that a good thing? Because it allows the voters in those small states to stop or impede actions taken by politicians in big ones. Politicians in big states have big advantages – they can raise piles of money, they can get to their supporters more easily, and they have better media access. If you want to campaign for Congress in Wyoming you need an airplane. Having your cousin Dave drive you around the state as Bill Curry did in his two campaigns won’t do it. Big places have built-in advantages in the marketplace of ideas and the arena of political action. Federalism and the electoral college temper that a little. It is a compromise between a majority of the voters and a majority of the states. It has worked well in almost all our elections; only four out of 57 have caused any issues that are not related to slavery or a poorly constructed constitution.
People get very worked up about who is going to be the next president every four years. We can all get behind a presidential candidate no matter where we live. But your governor and the people who represent you in your state legislatures have a greater direct impact on your life. We get properly upset about a Betsy DeVos as a proponent of charter schools but how your state legislature and governor deal with charter schools is much more important. We get justifiably outraged when Donald Trump proposes deep cuts to the National Park Service but there is one national park in Connecticut and 65 state parks. States really matter. In 2014 I paid $128 per million people in federal taxes to support the needs of all the people. And that includes our bloated military. For my state contribution I provided $2,815 per million people. Sure, anyone who visits Gay City State Park from Virginia gets some benefit but look at the disparity. We need to protect our states; along with the courts they will keep us safe and a little saner over the next four years. Sometimes I am upset that I don’t live in a state where my resistance to Trump would have more impact but then I stop myself. Do I really want to live in one of those states? States matter and I don’t want to weaken their political power.
My last argument is a tactical, pragmatic one. We cannot afford this distraction right now. Amending the constitution is a long, involved process and will take a lot of work and political capital. I would rather spend it fighting bad health care bills, getting military spending down, trying to keep our air and water clean, and making sure that the midterm elections in 2018 produce some positive change. It may seem like a good cause at the right time, but it isn’t. We have many battles to fight, many fires to put out. We can’t afford this one and even if we won, it might hurt worse. There is a possible middle course but it is even worse; I will write about that later.