An Anti-Democracy Screed

A Republican-backed initiative would apportion California’s electoral votes by congressional district, rather than “winner-take-all.” This is a great example of no one having any principles other than “I want to win!”

Who do you suppose I’m talking about with a sentence like that? The answer: everyone. The Republican backers of the initiative would clearly not have proposed it if California were a Republican-leaning state. And the vehemently opposed Democrats would have no problems proposing the exact same thing if it were the other way around (as they have in other states like Colorado). Neither side is presenting any real arguments. The Republicans are trumpeting, ironically, the familiar Democrat “every vote should count” rhetoric (even though it’s really “certain votes should count more than others”), and the Democrats are even worse with their main argument: “Buh, whuh… fwuh… that would make us lose the presidential election!”

It’s too bad because there are real issues to be considered here. It all starts with a little thing I like to call The Electoral College…

I suspect most people have no idea why it exists, or have some vague notion of the Founding Fathers not wanting to give real political power to Johnny Everydude. And for all I know that’s true. But I also realize that the Electoral College is more relevant now than it was 200 years ago.

Our country is big. Big and sprawling and geographically diverse, with a lot of people. And the population is nowhere near evenly distributed on all that land. A few super-concentrated cities house most of the country’s population. But even so, there are still A LOT of people who don’t live in big cities. And these people have generally different concerns and governmental needs than those living in drastically different environments. It’s the precise reason we have a bicameral legislature, with representatives from every area of the country, addressing the needs and concerns of that area’s citizens (ostensibly, anyway). Areas of greater population density are given more voice in the House, but the Senate, with 2 representatives for each state, ensures that as broad a swath of the citizenry as possible retains a strong voice in governement.

The Electoral college operates in the same way. Each state is assigned the same number of votes as it has representation in congress (2 senators plus however many reps). What does this mean? Every state, even those with relatively small populations, gets to contribute to the national election. Without this system, what incentive do candidates have to go to the time and expense to make campaign promises to citizens of Alaska, with its approximately 0% of the national population?

Well, you may ask, who cares? Why should candidates have to care what 0% of America wants? Because 0% is about three-quarters of a million people. And that, by anyone’s standards, is a pretty substantial disenfranchisement. Which, according to election-time pundits, is a bad thing.

county_map.gif

You may have seen the county-by-county election results map of the 2000 election. You’ll recall that Gore (blue) won the popular vote (no one disputes this). But look how much geographical area he carried (the most populous cities). It’s not a stretch to imagine a national election, decided by popular vote, in which candidates can essentially ignore Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and huge parts of many other states. If you spend all your time and shore up support (by whatever means possible) in New York and along the West Coast, along with a few other choice locales, you’ve got it made. And that leaves us with millions and millions of U.S. citizens with what amounts to no say in national politics.

That’s the genius of our constitution. It really is an astounding document in its foresight (it’s a shame that politicians spend so much of their time trying to subvert it for their own purposes). When the electoral college was devised, the country was much smaller and less dispersed (though transportation made it seem larger). But even then the framers realized that inclusion is key to a healthy democracy (even if that democracy is a republic).

It’s uninformed to say the electoral system cheapens your vote. You’re vote has a very direct effect on who your state’s electoral votes go to (technically the state’s legistlature decides how the votes are alloted, but almost all have it set up that the entirety of the electoral votes go to the candidate who won the most votes in the state).

That’s the point of the electoral college. I may have oversimplified it, but that’s how it stands.

Now there’s room for real disagreement. Perhaps it’s more equitable and in line with our national values to switch to a purely popular presidential election, at the expense of a few hurt feelings in the boonies. We’ve got new issues to deal with: California is roughly the same geographical size as the United States was when the system was instituted. I don’t know the answer. But I know that we must understand the underlying reasons for something before electing to change it.

And I also know that, without a massive overhaul of the nation’s political climate, no such rational, public discussion will occur. I would be very surprised to see, during my lifetime, any serious proposal for election reform driven not by politics, but by principle.

Postscript: I missed this op-ed published the same day as the original article. It says essentially the same thing about the electoral collage as I did, only better, and yes, it’s a partisan opinion in favor of the initiative.

The beauty of all this is suitably displayed by this letter to the editor, in which the writer upbraids The Chronicle for posting the op-ed without identifying the author as a Republican (duh.) former state senator (he identifies himself as such in the third sentence). The writer goes on to dismiss the former senator’s opinion, without actually addressing the ideas presented, because he belongs to a political party. Oh, what a tangled web.