Monday, December 19, 2016

The Electoral College 2016

The electoral college meets today in each state to elect the President of the US.  The mainstream media treats this as a mildly embarrassing technicality, a constitutional provision written by elitist slave owners and misogynists who wanted to create an escape clause in case of a "mistake" made by the electorate in the selection of a powerful national leader.  So powerful is this bias that electors who vote their conscience are disparaged as "faithless," or "rogue" electors.  

The current US Supreme Court, usually led by justices who have made a fetish of following the "original intent," of the Constitution, as though this were a sacred obligation discernible only by the most gifted legal minds (I'm thinking Scalia here, and his surviving acolyte and rubber stamp, Clarence Thomas), have been curiously silent about clarifying what states can do to minimize this constitutional provision.  States, for example, are allowed to punish "faithless" electors, almost certainly in violation of original intent, without a peep from a Supreme Court that has no difficulty permitting the sale of modern assault rifles to certified lunatics as part of the original intent of the writers of the second amendment.

The Supreme Court's unusual neglect of the way the electoral college functions is a reflection of a wider feeling that the college is somehow less democratic than many of our other institutions, and it is difficult today to find strong support for it.

Here are two reasons we the people should reflect seriously about doing away with the electoral college.

1.  The problem is not with the electoral college, the problem is with the way it is practiced.

Do you know the names of the five electors from New Mexico?  Which one did you vote for?  Do you know that person?  Do you trust him/her to vote in a wise manner?  So prevalent is the disdain for the electoral college that the electoral machinery in most states makes it extremely difficult for voters to know who is representing the "will of the people."  If the selection of presidential electors were more public, with media face-time to explain their voting philosophy, and typically resulting in sending our best writers, esteemed former top officials, and the like in a truly competitive process, it might well provide a welcome change of pace from the usual breathless coverage of presidential elections as currently crafted in predictable news cycles and sound bites from highly self-interested parties.  Would you feel better about the electoral college if you had a serious chance to look over prospective electors in a public process?

2.  Even more important, the will of the people in a presidential election in a state is not always clear.

The elections in Ohio and Florida in 2000 (and in later elections as well) have become classic textbook cases (and there are many more) of messy elections in which the will of the people is not clear from the numerical results of the official count.  In both cases the Secretary of State was controlled by persons who proved over and over to be bent on maximizing votes in a partisan direction.  And in both cases voter suppression techniques were aimed at black voters in ways that have been documented, with credible estimates that the anomalies and outright brazen tactics had a decisive effect on the official outcome of the elections.  The "hanging chad" situation in Florida in 2000, in which voter re-counters had difficulty determining a voter's intent, also comes to mind.  Does it make sense under such circumstances, to insist that all presidential electors should vote lock-step for the "winner" of the election?  Did the founding fathers have things like this in mind when they created the electoral college? Almost certainly so.

One major proposal for change of the electoral college is to have each congressional district determine 435 of the 535 votes in the electoral college.  The other 100 votes, presumably, would be "winner take all" votes (two for each state) for the vote-count winner of each state.  I have looked in vain for the presidential vote in 2016 by congressional district, but I am told by my friend Rod Adair, an outstanding demographer who has followed these things for half a century, that almost certainly Trump won a majority of these districts due to the games people play in redistricting in most states.  And Trump clearly won 60 of these votes (Clinton only won 20 states).  So this proposal would not have changed the results of the 2016 presidential elections.  But it would have had the effect of encouraging presidential candidates to think in terms of congressional districts rather than states.  It would also put a lot of pressure on the normally outrageous gerrymandering of congressional districts every ten years.  Voters might insist, as they have in California, on getting a much more partisan-neutral system of redistricting than the highly partisan circus we normally see.