President Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in Denver tonight for the first of three debates that are to be held over the next two weeks. They will not be speaking to the entire country. They will not be speaking to the 47%. They will not be speaking to the 53%. More than likely, they will be addressing the concerns of people living in a handful of states, particularly Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada and Iowa.
These are the so called “swing states” in which neither candidate has a commanding lead. He who picks up the most votes in these states will almost certainly be the next President of the United States. Considering that my vote would be from New York, I may as well not vote. Here’s why.
The framers of the US Constitution were big fans of democratic governance in so far as it was not monarchical. The kings of Europe were bad. The American yeoman farmer was good, but not good enough to be trusted with a direct vote for the highest office in the land. And so they created the electoral college.
How it works
The Electoral College is made up of representatives whose only job is to vote for the President. The membership is basically equal to the total number of representatives in Congress. There are currently 538 electors: 100 (number of members in the Senate) + 435 (number of Representatives in the House) + 3 from Washington D.C., which has no Congressional representation.
Whichever party/candidate garners the most votes in each state, typically gets all the electors from that state. This system is not a federal mandate as Maine and Nebraska award electors based on the most popular candidate per Congressional district. The federal government empowers states to decide how to allocate electors. In our country’s early history, it was no uncommon for state legislatures to decide how to allocate electors – this is a Republic after all! For the most part, we have a winner take all system based on state-wide popular votes.
Why it was created
- The “lower” chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, distributes its membership as a proportion of population. Big states get more representatives, smaller states get fewer. In the “upper” chamber, the Senate, each state gets two Senators, regardless of population. The reason for the latter was to prevent the bigger states from bullying the smaller states. The electoral college was primarily intended to over-represent the smaller states and protect their interests against a tyranny of the majority.
- The masses cannot be trusted with a direct vote. It wasn’t just yeoman farmers, but also poor immigrants, free blacks and vast swaths of other uneducated plebeians. Just in case they voted the wrong way, the electors, chosen by the parties, would be able to vote for the correct candidates. When an Elector votes for someone other than the candidate who won the popular vote in the state, s/he is deemed to be a faithless elector. Many states have criminalized faithlessness and no significant instance of faithlessness has occurred for decades.
Why it persists
The reason for this is simple. The Electoral College grants a disproportionate vote to smaller sates. In order to get rid of the Electoral College, a Constitutional Amendment must pass both houses of Congress. The chances of states like Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas willingly giving up such power is slim to none.
I was wrong. A Constitutional Amendment is not required, as I explain in a later post:
Why it sucks
- In solid blue states like New York, the fact that all the Electoral College votes are going to go for Obama anyway, potential voters from both sides of the political spectrum are discouraged from actually going to the ballots in November. The same goes for potential voters in solid red states like Alabama and Louisiana. Essentially, a big chunk of the American population is being told to stay at home while people from more important states vote.
- A system that was designed to protect the interests of smaller states has resulted in a perpetual campaign that focuses the overwhelming majority of political attention on swing states – those that are neither solid blue or red. Folks in New Hampshire and Ohio are sick of being pandered to once every four years. As a New Yorker, I could only hope that one day, I too can be pandered to.
In 2000, Al Gore received more actual votes than George Bush but fewer electoral votes. Bush won the election. It would be difficult, based on Gore’s popular vote victory to say that he should have won the election. So many voters stayed at home precisely because the popular vote is meaningless – who knows how many would have turned out in a direct election.
In 2008, Obama defeated McCain by a margin of 52.9% to 45.7 percent – a difference of just over 7%. In the Electoral College, however, Obama won by a margin of 365 to 173 – a difference of 35%. Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable about this disparity?
The Electoral College marginalizes the votes of people in all but a handful of states. A Floridian vote is clearly more valuable than mine. As Orwell said, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.