Sunday, October 2, 2016

President Should Be Chosen By Direct National Vote

It being a presidential election year, pretty much all that the news media is talking about is the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It's long been a tradition for the news coverage of the campaign to completely ignore any of the genuinely important issues facing the nation and instead focus on nasty personal insults and scandals each side tries to pin on the other. In this regard, the current campaign differs from those of the past only in unprecedented scale of the slime and the unprecedentedly unorthodox campaign style of one of the Republican candidate.

There is one way, however, in which the 2016 election will be no different from those of the past. The winner will be decided by the anachronistic monstrosity that is the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is the 18th Century system worked out by the members of the Constitutional Convention to select the President. As readers of my blog well know, I stand in awe of the men who wrote the Constitution, which I consider perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of the human race. But that doesn't mean that they were infallible, for they made a number of mistakes while crafting the document. Of all their errors, however, I think the most egregious one which remains uncorrected is the Electoral College, whose undemocratic structure is a blight upon American democracy that must be erased.

Under the Electoral College system, each state receives a number of electoral votes equal to the number of representatives they have in both houses of Congress (since every state has two members of the Senate, this always comes out to the number of representatives they have in the House, plus two). However, because all but two states cast their votes on a winner-take-all basis, the candidate who actually gets the most votes in the nation as a whole does not necessarily win the election, for he or she might win several states by large margins and narrowly lose certain critical states, all of whose electoral votes will go to the other candidate.

We saw this clearly in the 2000 election. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote handily, getting half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush. But because of an infinitesimal Bush victory in the state of Florida (itself the dubious result of an intervention by the Supreme Court), Bush received that state's electoral votes, which was just enough to allow him to win the Electoral College and thus to become the President. Whether Al Gore would have been a better President than George W. Bush turned out to be is, of course, open to question, but the fact remains that the candidate who was the clear choice of the American people was not the one who actually ascended to the office.

On four occasions in American history (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000), the candidate who received the largest number of popular votes lost the Electoral College. In other words, in about one out of every fourteen elections, the candidate who receives fewer votes actually becomes President. On five other occasions (1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004) a shift of a relatively tiny number of voters would have handed the victory to the candidate who would still have lost the popular vote. Those who say that the Electoral College is not a problem because it usually reflects the popular will have not read their history books.

Another major problem with the Electoral College is that it gives an individual voter in a smaller state a disproportionately larger influence on the outcome of the election than an individual voter in a large state. This violates the fundamental one-person-one-vote principle that should be at the heart of any representative republic. For example, Wyoming has about 570,000 and three electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 190,000 people. California, by contrast, has 37,500,000 people and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 680,000 people or thereabouts. Doing the basic math, we can see that a voter in Wyoming has nearly four times the influence on the outcome of the presidential election as does a voter in California. This goes against the principle of "one-man-one-vote", which is one of the foundations of our republic. It's not fair, it's not democratic, and it shouldn't be tolerated.

These two problems would be sufficient by themselves to justify eliminating the Electoral College. But there are many other problems with it as well. One is that it causes presidential candidates to focus all their attention on a small number of "swing states", which are go conceivably go either way in the election, at the expense of those states which are considered reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, the powers-that-be pay attention to the things that matter to voters in states like Ohio or Florida, while voters in Texas and New York are out of luck.

Consider this. There are roughly the same number of Cuban-Americans in the United States as Vietnamese-Americans. However, the issues important to the Cuban-American community get huge amounts of political attention, while the issues important to Vietnamese-Americans are largely ignored. Why is this? Well, Cuban-Americans tend to live in Florida, a key swing state, whereas Vietnamese-Americans tend to live in California and Texas, which are not swing states. Neither community is inherently more important than the other, but the Electoral College creates an artificial importance for one over the other.

Even in swing states, attention is disproportionately focused on the larger ones, as they have more electoral votes. A farmer in Iowa (which has six electoral votes) or a convenience store owner in New Hampshire (which has four electoral votes) are not seen as important as a mechanic in Florida (which has twenty-nine electoral votes) or a contractor in Virginia (which has thirteen electoral votes).

The Electoral College also effectively disenfranchises millions of voters in every presidential election. Because nearly all the states use a winner-take-all system to allocate their electoral votes, it means the losing side in any given state may as well have not cast a ballot for president. A Republican in New York or a Democrat in Texas effectively has no say in who is elected President, and this goes against the ideals of a representative republic.

The Electoral College is an outmoded and obsolete piece of constitutional machinery. Whatever justifications the Founders might have had when they wrote the system into the Constitution in 1787 have long since faded away and the system should today be done away with. This could be achieved by a constitutional amendment, which would be very difficult. But because the Constitution allows the individual states to decide for themselves how to allocate electoral votes, it can also be achieved more quickly and with greater ease by individual action by the various state legislatures.

The National Popular Vote movement provides a surprisingly easy way out of this morass. Legislation is being enacted by individual states, whereby their electoral votes shall go to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the individual state, with the legislation taking effect as soon as the number of states equivalent to the winning number of electoral votes have enacted identical legislation. Several states have already passed the necessary legislation, and bills are advancing through the legislative process in most of the other states. But progress is painfully slow and needs to accelerate. There's nothing keeping you from picking up your phone right now and calling your state representative's local office to advocate for it, by the way.

The President of the United States should be chosen directly by the people. Every individual citizen should have an equal say in who becomes the chief executive. It doesn't matter whether it is by constitutional amendment or through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, but it needs to happen if America is to live up to its ideals of democracy.

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