Both Sides Debate: The Electoral College

In our new column “Both Sides Debate,” contributors from the left and right will tackle the same topic, so that you, the reader, can see the arguments from both sides.

First up, we have Ed Hanratty, who will be discussing the drawbacks of the electoral college.

Bobby Pardo’s piece in favor of the electoral college will follow this week.

So without further ado, let’s dive in.

The media’s focus on America’s division for the better part of the 21st Century has predictably led to the quadrennial debate over the role that the Electoral College plays in selecting who will be the next President of the United States after Americans cast their ballots on or before the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years. Almost exclusively, the argument is framed as “Electoral Votes” versus “Popular Votes” — something that twenty years ago, very few Americans outside of campaign headquarters, high school history classes, or think tanks rarely discussed. 

What was once banished to Ivory Towers and term papers now finds itself squarely up for debate in the public square — and with good reason. The United States of America has, as of November 3, 2020, held 59 Presidential elections. Exactly five have resulted in separate winners of the nationwide popular vote and the winner of the majority of electoral votes: 

  • 1824: An election in which four candidates received at least 11% of the popular vote, John Quincy Adams was elected President by the House of Representatives as required by the Twelfth Amendment when no candidate receives a majority of EV’s. Andrew Jackson defeated Adams’ popular tally by over 10%. 
  • 1876: You think you’ve witnessed close elections? Republican Rutherford B Hayes narrowly beat Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden by ONE electoral vote, while Tilden secured a 3% edge in the popular. 
  • 1888: The first warning sign that it was possible for a massive Electoral College win coexisting with a popular loss, when Republican Benjamin Harrison beat Democrat Grover Cleveland 223-168 but lost the overall vote by less than 1% 
  • 2000: After going the entire 20th Century having the two outcomes in perfect harmony, we had Bush vs. Gore. Florida. Recounts. Supreme Court. No need to open that wound. 
  • 2016: Democrat Hillary Clinton establishes the largest differential of popular votes by a candidate to lose the Electoral College, with 2.8 million more votes than Republican Donald Trump. 

Five of Fifty-Nine elections — that’s not an unusually high disparity for comparative purposes, but two out of five is a lot less comfortable when you consider the relatively short gap between Bush’s first term and Trump’s only one. 

Adding fuel to this fire is that in the last seven presidential elections, the Republican Party has only won the popular vote once (President George W. Bush’s reelection bid in 2004), yet they controlled the White House for twelve of the twenty-eight years spanning 1992 – 2020. Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett “I Like Beer” Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett have all been appointed to the court by a president who did not earn the vote of at least half of all American voters. 

That’s two-thirds of the highest court in the land. 

Now, the argument in the cheap seats is usually “Well those are laws, get over it”. 

Fair enough. But we used to have laws prohibiting the production of alcohol. Well into this century we had sodomy laws on the books intended to prosecute homosexual activity. We had laws prohibiting a woman from securing a mortgage without her husband’s approval. Laws allowed for the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. And of course, Slavery was legal (which, as you’ll see, has a direct tie to the Electoral College). 

Over the course of American history, when values and mores evolved, laws did as well. That’s not philosophical or partisan, it’s just a simple fact. So is now one of those inflection points in time where we can muster the courage to change the fundamental way that we have decided fifty-nine elections? It’s going to take a much stronger argument than the electoral college gave us Brett Kavanaugh. 

You be the judge. 

The American Constitution Remains A Brilliant, History-Altering Document 

The biggest mistake we often make when debating the structures and laws of this nation is not only attempting to interpret the intentions of the Founding Fathers but deifying them in the process. We have to come from the base understanding that they — like us — were human. Flaws and all. 

That’s not to say that the foundations for government that they set forth weren’t brilliant. They were. They were revolutionary, forward thinking, and they literally changed the course of human events, as they predicted they would in the Declaration of Independence. 

But think about where they were coming from. Subjects to the Monarch of the most powerful Empire of their time. It’s easy to just assume Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown and voila! America is born! That’s not the case. 

King George III held on to his desire to retain (and punish) Britain’s American colonies longer and with more vigilance than the members of Parliament who controlled the purse strings for his military deployments and engagements. Naturally, the architects of America wanted to include every safeguard against American-born tyranny taking root in their new nation. 

The Electoral College, with no direct tie to popular voting and the ability of electors to choose whomever they damn well pleased, was part of that. 

As was America’s original sin

America’s total population at the time of the Constitutional Convention was an even greater schism between urban-industrial and rural-agricultural then we see today. Using population as the ultimate electoral basis all but guaranteed that southern colonies (and eventually states) would be perennially at the mercy of their more populous northern counterparts — and that was before the debate over whether or not to consider enslaved persons as “people”. 

The result was the ghastly and wholeheartedly unjustifiable “Three Fifths Compromise” which declared that each Enslaved American would count as 60% of a full human. You read that right. It’s still in the original document to this day in Article 1, though it was amended after a bunch of violent conservative extremists tried to overthrow the government because they didn’t like the outcome of the 1860. 

Let that thought digest: when deciding exactly how we would count people for representation for the birth of the Electoral College, we had to “compromise” over whether or not Africans and their descendants would be classified as people. And that compromise was “Not really”. 

For many, that alone is more than enough justification to thank the Electoral College for its service and move on. After all, this idea was cooked up almost 250 years ago in a day and age that most could never comprehend living in. 

And as with every other word written in the Constitution, the founders gave future leaders the ability to change anything they choose through the Amendment process — as referenced above. Changing the election of the executive is no more of an insult to the men who founded this government than repealing the Three Fifths Compromise or instituting an income tax were. 

The Colonial Era was Not a Transient One  

At the time the documents were drafted, there was a very good chance you were going to die in the same state in which you were born. Our western frontier had yet to be acquired. The fastest mode of transportation were horses. The only way to communicate with someone who was not within shouting distance of you was via a letter that you hoped would one day arrive. 

So naturally, the lifelong interests and desires of those in Massachusetts were going to differ greatly from those in Georgia. There was an argument that could be made that the geographical layout of the original thirteen colonies necessitated a system in which the interests of each state were paramount to the interests of the collective population — especially when the vote was granted primarily to white, landowning males. 

That’s not the case today and hasn’t really been for over a century. 

Do you still live in the same state you were born in? (Full disclosure, I do.) What about most people you know? Are you not able to instantly send a message from your phone in Phoenix to somebody in Charlotte? Boston? London? Moscow? Cape Horn? 

Yes. Washington State may have slightly different needs than, say, Kentucky on issues like transportation funding or exporting goods. But folks in both Tacoma and Louisville need healthcare. They need Social Security to remain solvent. They need FEMA when disaster strikes, and they both send their sons and daughters for overseas deployment when America asks them to. 

It takes 558,500 Kentuckians to earn one electoral vote. 

It takes 634,583 Washingtonians to earn the same. 

In what practical or logical way does that make sense in 2021? 

Contemporary Republicans Would Likely Benefit from Direct Elections

I’m not naïve to think that this debate, like everything from plastic potato genitals to the future of fossil fuels, is above the partisan divide. I’m sure if you randomly selected 5 Republicans and 5 Democrats and asked if the EC should be abolished, the results would be a 5-5 tie split on partisan lines. But conservatives completely miss the point with their most prominent argument: Candidates would focus on the bigger population centers and ignore the heartland and rural areas by instead focusing on campaigning in highly dense areas. 

Really? Ted Cruz is going to pour all of his resources into New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago? Do people honestly believe this? The GOP lost cities around the same time the Democrats lost our breadbasket. It has zero bearing on the electoral college. 

The much stronger likelihood is you would see Republican campaigns slipping into blue states in order to drive up their turnout. 

If you’re a conservative living in the North Country or Southern Tier of New York state, your friends and neighbors are likely to be Republican voters as well. But you will never — NEVER — see a presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, campaign in your area or advertise on your local television networks. It would be the biggest waste of time and money in the history of campaign politics. There simply aren’t enough people to turnout for the red team that would come close to making a dent in the blue team’s massive margins downstate and in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse markets. 

But with a direct election, it would behoove the Republican Candidate to not only visit your area in an effort to turn out the vote but also buy local media that could cross over to neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania counties that look an awful lot like yours. 

Democrats pack up from South Carolina the minute their primary is over and don’t return until after New Hampshire four years later. They’re not winning the state. But you can take it to the bank that savvy strategists see the inherently strong Democratic demographics in cities like Charleston and would adjust campaigns accordingly. 

Arkansas saw a measly 56% voter turnout in 2020. The national average was over 66%. The Republicans left 10% of the Arkansas vote. Over 100,000 votes. 

Georgia turned into a Ground Zero this election over less than 13,000 votes. 

Direct Elections Would Inspire More Attention Than We See Today 

When someone tries to reiterate the bogus claim about shifting power exclusively to the cities, ask them how it’s any different than today. 

Florida and Ohio have turned from purple to red. Virginia and Colorado have turned from purple to blue. But the entire fate of our country, at the end of the day, ends up in the hands of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia. What good does that do for the conservative in Utah or the liberal in Vermont? Nothing. 

I know that “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is a strong, albeit intellectually vapid argument. Over the last two decades, we’ve collectively witnessed 9/11, two wars, a financial crisis, more devastating storms than one can count, a global pandemic, and an insurrection. I get that a quirky way of choosing a leader, concocted by a bunch of brilliant revolutionaries back in the days before electricity is hardly at the top of any voter’s wish-list. 

But the electoral college is broken. And it’s not representative of who we are. 

The sooner we relegate it to the history books, the quicker we move towards forming that More Perfect Union that our founders tasked us with. 

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