Last night I met my friend Lynn at a restaurant for dinner and a movie. She started reflecting aloud on the failings of the U.S. Constitution — especially the undemocratic nature of the electoral college system. As a dual citizen, I should have been able to explain how the thing works but, whatever I once knew, I have forgotten. So I tried boning up on the subject today by reading Wikipedia. And now I’ve been on the phone sharing my new knowledge with Lynn, through my tongue seemed unable to pronounce one word correctly. I kept referring to the “electrical college.”
Lynn was convinced that the whole electoral college method had been introduced because of some concern about slavery or the Civil War, but that was evidently not the case. It was written into the Constitution from the outset, meant to ensure that states’ interests would be given considerable decision-making weight, and also that power would be balanced among the three branches of government. But the Constitution specifies that each state may decide how to choose its Electors – the folks who get together in their state capitols to elect the President and Vice-President.
Each state has as many electors as it has Representatives and Senators, and the District of Columbia has three Electors. Each state always has two Senators, but the number of Representatives varies according to its population, as determined by the most recent census. At present there are 538 Presidential Electors, mostly pre-selected by the political parties. Almost always, the ballots are designed to show only the names of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, not the name of the Electors who will eventually cast the vote for them later on. I have never even known the name of any Elector who was chosen to vote for my district in the subsequent Electoral College meeting.
Originally, the Electors voted for the President and Vice-President on the same ballot, with the presidency being won by the candidate with the largest number of votes and the vice-presidency being won by the candidate with the next-largest number. But this system was changed by a Constitutional amendment. Now the Electors vote for the President first, and then for the Vice-President on a separate ballot.
Also, originally the legislature of each state generally picked its presidential and vice-presidential Electors. but nowadays the usual method is to divide the state into electoral districts and have the voters choose the Elector for their respective districts. These districts are not necessarily the same as the congressional districts, since there are always two more Electors to be chosen than the number of congressional districts. In a few states, party conventions nominate the Electors; in other states, the campaign committees of each candidate names the persons who will become Presidential Elector. (I apologize for the awkwardness of my prose when describing these matters, but I can’t help it.)
Anyway, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the Electors gather in 51 separate places (always in their respective state capitol buildings or in the District of Columbia), give speeches, and then cast their electoral votes. On rare occasions a “faithless” Elector fails to vote as he or she had pledged. Moreover, once or twice a candidate has died after the popular election but before the Electoral College met, so that the Electors had to improvise a way to fill the vacant post. The outcome of the Electors’ vote is sent to Washington, where they are tallied at a joint session of Congress on the sixth day of the new calendar year. If no candidate for President receives an absolute electoral majority of 270 votes out of the 538 possible, then the new House of Representatives goes into session immediately to vote for President. Each state delegation has a single vote, and a simple majority wins.
If no candidate for Vice President receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the Senate goes into session to elect him or her.
Long before 2000, the undemocratic nature of the electoral college system had been debated, but in that year Al Gore won the popular vote for the whole United States, but (allegedly) lost at the Electoral College level. (For present purposes, I’ll overlook the more likely explanation for his defeat — electoral fraud in Florida.) There are several ways in which such a discrepancy can arise between the outcomes of the electoral and the popular votes. A number of reforms have been proposed to keep any discrepancies from giving victory to different persons.
Not all of these reforms would require amending the US Constitution, since each state already has the right to determine how it shall select Electors. The simplest reform would be to adopt the “Maine Method,” which was used first in the Maine elections of 1803, 1812, 1820, then again in 1972 and in every subsequent election there. It differs from the system in most other states, whereby after the January electoral college has voted, the “winner takes all” of its state’s votes when Congress counts the votes of the whole country. The Maine approach does not aggregate the Electoral College votes but reports all the variations. For example, consider the situation of California in the 2000 election. Bush won 19 Congressional districts and Gore won 33. Under the present system, the Electoral College meeting in Sacramento assigned all 52 votes to Gore. However, if the Maine system had been used, California’s electoral votes would have gone 33-19 for Gore.
This is what was bothering my friend Lynn. “Democrats would never get elected again if California adopted such a system,” she said. Well, that’s true. But you can bet that no state as populous as California will ever adopt such a system unless other states also agree to introduce the same change simultaneously. In fact, I don’t expect this type of reform to be adopted at all. In the unlikely event that a vote-system change of any kind is accepted, I expect it will arise by a Constitutional Amendment abolishing the Electoral College altogether in favor of a direct popular vote. But I won’t hold my breath.
Reading the arguments about this complex matter has tempered my zeal somewhat. I had believed that the Electoral College was simply an undemocratic mistake made by the Founding Fathers. Today, however, I came to realize that there are tenable arguments on both sides of the question. It was a smart way to strengthen the power of states and even of specific regions of states. When the Constitution was written, local considerations must have seemed more important than they do to me today.
I worry about different matters, including the fact that the United States wields so much influence over the lives of individuals all around the world who are not its citizens — say, Peruvian farmers who cannot sell their crops because of American protectionism, or mothers who leave their own kids in the Philippines and come to the United States to work as nannies. Instead of bolstering the power of state interests by the Electoral College system, I wish there were some way for these foreigners to make their voices heard in American political deliberations.
Unfortunately, I can’t think of any appropriate solution to this; the US can’t give voting rights to all foreigners. We have to go on acting as if sovereignty made sense — as if the world consisted of separate, discrete nations, like a basket of self-contained eggs where all political decisions were made inside the shells. In fact, we are one big omelette.
The truly significant political reforms are those that recognize the multi-lateral, globalized nature of economic and social reality, and that give people everywhere more control over the conditions of their lives.
The Founding Fathers were savvy, bless their hearts. They invented a wise Constitution. But democracy is never finished. It’s like the proverbial carrot dangling from a stick attached to the donkey’s head. We keep pursuing it but we never reach it. I’m glad someone else is concerned about the fairness of the Electoral College. But as for myself, I’d be happy just to ensure that the elections are not rigged — as I think they were both in 2000 and 2004.
But that’s another story.