Texas

The Electoral College at 205 Years of Age

When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, one of the key concerns was the election of the President and Vice-President. Contrary to popular belief, the current electoral system was not established to provide equal representation among sparsely and densely populated states. There were only about 4 million people in the U.S. in 1787. Today the United States of America is the third largest population in the world with over 314 million.

The Electoral College, or “Electors” as it is referred to in the Constitution, was itself a compromise system. The Electoral College is an example of federalism as much by accident as by intent. One suggestion under consideration at the time was that Congress should elect the President. The risk there, of course, is that the President would be beholden to Congress, not to the people. James Madison, among others, favored a direct election by total popular vote. However, as he himself wrote, that was an equally unworkable construct due to the restricted voting rights in slave states. Thus was born a compromise known as the Electoral College.

Query: Is this electoral system relevant in today’s world? Unfortunately, it seems that this question is only raised in earnest every four years, during a presidential election. Yes, this is 2012, an election year. Yes, I am adding my voice to this issue, even though it cannot be resolved at this time.

Therein lies the paradox. It is precisely because we are in the midst of an election that the issue is of concern, and the issue will fade from view once the election is over—unless we have a repeat of the 2000 presidential election. Democrats cried foul when Al Gore won a substantial majority of popular votes, but George W. Bush was elected by a single electoral vote. Would the Republicans not have been just as vociferous had the tables been turned? Of course they would. Such is the disingenuous nature of politics. Nobody wants a repeat of that election. Now, then, is the time to seize upon a public interest, and lay the groundwork for a post-election debate.

Everyone in America is well aware of a troubling fact: There are only a handful of states that will determine the outcome of this election. In principle, every vote counts. In reality, every vote does not count equally.

The all-important swing states are created because states like California and Texas are solidly Democratic and Republican, respectively. At least for now. These two most populous states in the nation, together representing 89 electoral votes, are not “in play”. All the attention of the Obama and Romney campaigns is on nine states, each with only a handful of electoral votes: one with only four, and two with only six.

Proponents of the current system suggest that this balances the influence of smaller states; the presidential campaigns must visit these states regularly to court their votes. These states cannot be treated as “fly over” states during the election process. That suggestion does not hold up to scrutiny. There are several other sparsely populated that also possess only a handful of votes each. Yet, these are not swing states. New York and Florida each have 29 votes. Florida is a swing state. New York is not.

What would be the advantage of a popular election? Actually, it would balance the needs and interests of the entire electorate much more than the current system. Each candidate would obviously need to campaign in the large states. To begin with, even though these safe states lean predominantly one way or the other, their votes would be tallied collectively with every other state.

It is conceivable that Republican votes in a Democratic-leaning state might “swing” the election as much as the nine states do under the current system. The same holds true in reverse. The smaller states could not be ignored, because the total of their votes also might alter the outcome of the election. That evens the importance and power of every voter in every state.

I live in California. I am grateful everyday. For one thing, I am not subjected to the barrage of campaign ads that citizens in swing states must bear. And yet, whether my candidate wins or not, I want to know that my vote counts in this presidential election. I suspect that many citizens in Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Alaska, etc. think the same.

The Electoral College system may have been historically necessary, even if only to secure passage of the Constitution. This process of indirect election of the president is no longer viable. Regardless of how politically divided the country may be today, whoever is elected President of the United States must represent all the people. Maybe all the people should have a voice in who wins.
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