Commentary

Exploring the Electoral College

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Why does the USA keep the Electoral College even as we the people question its necessity in the current climate? After all, we’re literate and have access to plenty of information about candidates and platforms. What value remains to the Electoral College? One of the most compelling reasons to retain this “quirky” institution, as some have called it, may be that it saves the USA from months of recounts and lawsuits, though that’s not one of the reasons the framers of the Constitution created it.

Noise about the Electoral College seems to emerge like Brood X, only every four years instead of 17. While weighing the arguments for or against the Electoral College is timely in the heat of an election, it’s not a season of dispassion or rationality. It’s a topic to tackle in a year like 2021 in Montgomery County when we have a respite from elections. It helps us avoid the tyranny of the urgent.

In the next few LWVMC columns, we plan to explore the arguments for and against the Electoral College and to read the thermostat of our citizenry so we can be thoughtful defenders of our democracy.

When it was created, the Electoral College served two functions. First it resolved a dispute between the three most populous colonies, Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania, which championed a popular vote system, and the smaller colonies. The smaller colonies feared they wouldn’t have sway compared to more populous ones.

The rationale stands. States with smaller populations believe the Electoral College protects their concerns and grants them standing. States that feel like “flyover” states, usually rural, might have fewer visits from candidates and their proxies during campaigns. It can feel like the powerful merely deign to visit and that they condescend to rural communities. When candidates do visit, they return to cities that emblemize hard scrap, working class America. It’s why George Bush, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama scheduled multiple stops Scranton, Pennsylvania in 2008. It was otherwise a dwindling city bereft as its coal mines could no longer produce enough to be valuable to companies.

Hoosiers and those in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas feel neglected. The Electoral College offers us all some cache. The catch is that our state is not competitive because we’ve given our eleven electoral votes to one party for most of the past 50 years. In this system, the candidates deign to visit small states because one is from the state or doing a favor. The college provides a sense of parity among states, but how measurable is it? Does it democratically represent the wide range of communities in each state? How much voice and value we get from casting our electoral votes in a block is based on trust that we’ve done it that way for a long time.

The reality is that it’s all math. In the long run, candidates will pursue the votes, either popular or collegiate, spending where they get the most out of their time and money. Populous areas will get more attention, as will competitive districts.

The second problem that the Electoral College resolved was lack of political literacy. It insulated the fledgling democracy from electing a demagogue by having a “wise and dispassionate” group of electors empowered to use discernment as necessary to protect democracy from “imprudent citizens.” At the time, Thomas Jefferson criticized newspapers (and called them a necessity) because they followed no industry-wide ethics. They were governed entirely by profit. Furthermore, pamphlets and newspapers had limited, localized circulation.

Finally, not all landed men were literate. The framers of the Constitution had much to fear after the sycophantry of royalty. Those loyal to powerful men, such as King George IV, could not be trusted. What if a leader surrounded himself with only yes men who wanted to curry favor, power and wealth, rather than do the common good?

We tend to venerate the Founding Fathers as apostles of democracy whose ideas are so indisputable and full of foresight that we dare not tinker with their intentions. Yet we do. The Electoral College changed radically from its root in the two decades after 1800. In those decades, the two party system partnered with states. Both benefited from certifying that all state electors cast votes for the same party. Only two states cast electoral votes by district — Nebraska and Maine.

Regardless, the Electoral College favors reasonably swift results and challenges are constrained by region. Consider the 2000 Election, one of five wherein the popular vote did not align with a win for the presidency. In 2000, the nation waited but only counted hanging chads in Florida. The dispute was contained.

In the same way, the Electoral College gives us the ability to sustain last year’s contested outcomes in Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. We can proceed with democratic transfer of power and not be hamstrung by litigious and endless recounting of votes.

The Electoral College debate has validity, but it is nuanced. While our voters have more access to information, the information is increasingly divided by preference and partisan world views. Furthermore many of us vote as much out of emotion as rationale. We are capable of being “wise and dispassionate” but it’s a struggle. Dispassion is a strange word, almost so unfamiliar as to be obsolete. It requires us to be willing to change our minds. Wisdom is knowing the best way to apply information. It’s not enough to know the candidates and platforms, we have to interrogate our preferences.

Some say the College feels “undemocratic” at times, but it provides some cushion against our hyper-litigious culture and provides relatively expedient and trustworthy results in presidential elections. So should we retain it? In our next column we will explore arguments against it.

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.

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