Is the Electoral College Just A Way To Silence the Masses?
What exactly is the Electoral College? I will always remember when this topic came up in my sophomore year Social Studies class. As a fifteen-year-old with very little idea of how the world worked, it sounded like a place where politicians went to school or a boot camp on how the elections work. I mean, the name doesn’t really imply much more. That was when my teacher, Mrs. Sheehan, opened a Pandora’s box in my mind that would never be closed. In short, the Electoral College consists of the people who ultimately cast the votes that decide the President of the United States.
Yes, you read that correctly, there is a select group of people who vote for the president. That ideal we are taught as children about having one of the greatest privileges in the world, something that people would and do kill for elsewhere, is a flawed ideal. Not all that glitters is gold.What we have the right to do is take time out of our day to go and vote for someone else that then goes and votes for us. Each state is allotted a specific number of these electoral votes based on their overall population. If the majority of people in a state vote for one particular candidate, then this is how the electoral votes are supposed to be applied. 50.1% of the popular vote equals100% of the electoral vote (Nebraska and Maine are the only two states who allow for the electorate to be split, but it has never happened before and combined they only account for 7 total votes), or at least in theory that’s how it is supposed to work — but we will come back to that later. What happens to that other 49.9% of votes that were cast for the other candidate? They are gone, vanished into the ether as if they never existed to begin with.
Why does such a thing even exist? That question goes back to the very founding of this country and the circumstances of the day. First, was the premise of giving extra power to smaller states. Apparently, at that time — and still subscribed to today — individual numbers should be provided a handicap when beneficial to those seeking power. Second, most people were not well educated. The most common professions were all labor and agricultural related, so there were very few who had any real knowledge of how economics, infrastructure and international relations worked. This bred a fear that the common person could do more harm than good. There was also the underlying fear that a tyrant could more easily manipulate public opinion than a select group of people. To these points, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers:
“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.”
So, the Electoral College was instituted in the hopes that these common folk could vote on issues that were important to them and have a more educated, less corruptible, pool of people decide the presidency. We have come a very long way since then by granting the right to vote to those who previously did not have it, most notably women and African Americans, yet the question of why no American citizen still truly has the right to have their vote counted in this country has gone unanswered, or better yet, unasked.
There are so many flaws with the Electoral College that it is hard to narrow down to those that are the most impactful or correctable. The first, based on the entire history of the Electoral College, is that our own government still does not think most of us are intelligent enough to make that decision on our own, even though we are statistically more educated than at any other time in our nation’s history. When will we be smart enough? Should the benchmark in order to abolish the Electoral College and allow the populous to vote be 100% college education? Advanced political science degrees, perhaps? Where does the imposition of a metric buck the very principle behind the concept of voting for president?
There is also the flip side of the argument that our government does not think we are educated enough to vote for President — that they fear just how intelligent many of us really are. We live in a time where, thanks to social media and the speed at which news travels, information is readily available at our fingertips in real time. We no longer have to take what those in power tell us at face value, but can perform our own due diligence to make informed decisions. It is the fear of an informed populous that causes many nations to restrict social media access, thus allowing them a greater degree of control over the truth.Since our Constitution grants us the freedoms of speech and press, the electoral process remains the one thing the government can still control to ensure that not all of voices are heard.
A third point of view on the Electoral College goes back to a talking point in my article on why we only have two political parties in this country. Resistance to change is a very real concept and emotion. It does not only affect the minds of individuals, but can also dictate the actions of companies and governments alike. Think of how many major companies have gone bankrupt over the years because they either did not see or embrace change when their external environments began to shift. Blockbuster video was a movie and game rental giant for decades, until streaming came along and they were replaced by the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. The same goes for Kodak, which was a household name in photography for generations, now a distant memory behind Nikon, Canon, Epson and others who effectively embraced the digital change. Such is the way it is for our government and how we employ the Constitution almost 250 years after it was drafted. We allow for the constant interpretation and litigation of what that document means, but have not actually passed a new Amendment since 1971 and the last ratification of any existing Amendments was in 1992 (although that was proposed back in1789 and just not approved for 200 years). All of this speaks to the inertia and complacency that makes change so difficult to initiate and embrace.
One last thing to take into consideration on why we may struggle to remove this archaic institution ties back to that original fear Hamilton wrote about. There is concern, and rightfully so, that the masses may not always vote for the just or noble cause, choosing instead self preservation the same way our political parties do. Throughout history, there have been numerous occasions where the inherent good of humanity has been overshadowed by these choices, or lack thereof. How many millions of people stood by and did nothing during the period of slavery in America, or voted to oppose the abolishment thereof? Why did most of Europe choose not to stand up to Adolf Hitler sooner and prevent or postpone the atrocities of the Holocaust? This can be seen as safety in numbers, or there may be logic in the mob mentality that comes with polarization. Whichever may be closer to the truth, it seems Edmund Burke had it right when he said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
But regardless of the rationales behind it, the fact remains that our Constitutional right to vote is more smoke and mirrors than anything else. One of the biggest impacts the Electoral College has on the theory of democracy is that We the Peopleare not actually counted and heard by our numbers. This system is a way to cast aside millions of votes in every election — and it is completely legal and supported by our own Constitution. Without going into specific numbers, imagine for a second if every state’s electoral votes were decided by just one popular vote. Far fetched, yes. But there was also a time, like when I was in high school and was told that it was highly unlikely for a president to win the popular vote yet lose the election, but that’s no longer outlandish either — having happened twice in our last five elections! In fact, in the election of 2016 there were six states where the vote was decided by a margin of less than 2% and not too far off from my embellished scenario. This resulted in a candidate who received nearly three million less votes becoming our president. So back to the example, just think about how many millions, or tens of millions, of individual votes are being flushed down the drain because one person tipped the entire Electoral College in favor of one particular candidate. How does that align with a concept that every vote counts? Surely, not if yours was one of the ones forgotten after the Electoral College had their way.
In some states, it is already known well in advance of the election which way the Electoral College is going to vote, the so called red and blue states — colors denoting which political party historically controls that state. For example, New York has been an uncontested blue state for over thirty years and has only supported a Republican candidate six times since the Great Depression. That basically means every Republican in the state is wasting their time going out to vote. It is a fore drawn conclusion that their votes won’t count in the national election. What’s more, this also directly controls how presidential candidates allocate their time and money on the campaign trail. Democratic candidates don’t need to spend time in New York because they already have the win, and a Republican would be wasting valuable time that could be spent elsewhere knowing that they have already lost. But where do they need to spend their time and money if we now know that a good portion of the states has already decided?
Before moving on to the next topic for consideration, it is important to point out that all of the prior references to red and blue states, wasted time voting and votes getting flushed down the drain are only relevant to the presidential elections. But there is another pearl of wisdom in the mechanics of this. Since the populous does get to vote for city, state and local elections there are no certain outcomes at these levels. Even in a state as Democratic as New York, we have elected Republican Senators, Representatives, Mayors and Governors. Oftentimes, the existing political parties will not even realize which way certain districts will vote, or how they have switched over time. So, those votes that meant nothing in the presidential election could actually provide valuable information to the respective parties when analyzed later. For instance, places like the Bronx are not known for having any type of Republican presence, but if the polling data showed that certain Bronx districts had a high turnout of people voting for a Republican candidate, then the party could make the conscious decision to spend more time and money there in an effort to win coveted seats in the House and Senate.
Now we can focus on the next fundamental issue with the Electoral College — the “swing state,” or competitive state. These states are exactly what the name implies, electoral votes that have historically not been guaranteed to either party, and whose votes could change based on the individual candidates that are running. Because swing states are where elections can be won or lost, it is also where most of the candidates’ time and money are spent while campaigning. For the record, most of the swing states, like Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine (no offense if you live in one) are fairly insignificant in terms of population numbers and economic output when compared to the likes of New York, Florida and California. But because the Electoral College seeks to give them a greater say in voting power in comparison to their larger counterparts, they wind up receiving an undue amount of attention, and the exact opposite of what the intention of the system was winds up happening. Now, the power has been stripped from millions of voters in states that contribute far more tax revenue and per capita military service to the country as a whole. In essence, you are left with a popularity contest akin to a prom king that appeals to the issues affecting the smallest percentage of our overall population.
The last issue to seriously contemplate in regards to the Electoral College is the prospect of these votes not being cast the way populous of the state has indicated, flawing the system even further. The term “faithless elector” exists to describe members of the Electoral College who decide to vote against the will of the people. To use New York as an example again, which we now know has historically cast its electoral votes for Democratic candidates, a faithless elector would disregard the will of the people and either vote for the Republican candidate or possibly abstain entirely. Surely, this should not be allowed to happen, right? The same was also said about the possibility of a candidate winning the popular vote and losing the election. And there have actually been 167 instances of faithlessness through the year 2016. In the 1796 election, John Adams was awarded the presidency over his rival Thomas Pinckney due to the Electoral College voting contrary to their duty. If it has happened this many times in general and already impacted one outcome, there is nothing to guarantee it will not happen again, or become the norm for that matter.
If we truly live in a free democracy where the will of the people is the driving force behind our government, then why does this system make it seem like the polar opposite is at play? If no one ever stands up and questions the why behind this antiquated system there is far more to risk than simply being stuck with it. With no question or oversight, there is nothing to stop the system from being corrupted further to the point where members of our esteemed Electoral College are sought out by the financiers, corporate wallets, and special interest groups to be swayed with deep pockets. When every vote counts, We the People are truly united and have the proper representation that our taxation is supposed to afford us.