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December 19, 2016

Electors and the Electoral College

Well, not surprisingly Trump won the vote of the actual electors who make up the electoral college; but this is a year full of surprises and I wouldn’t have been surprised to be surprised. An effective revolt of “faithless electors” would have been a terrible thing even if it led to what many of my friends want – one more chance to keep Trump out of the White House. We need to make sure that voters are not disenfranchised. Note: being on the losing side of an election is NOT the same thing as being disenfranchised.

There are two separate issues: whether electors should be individuals who can make an individual decision to ignore the popular vote in their states and whether the popular vote should be reallocated according to the number of electors each state has.

Individual electors

No. Should be done away with by constitutional amendment. You knew which Presidential candidate you voted for; did you know who the electors were that you chose to cast your proxy vote? I certainly didn’t and I live in a state where there are only three electors for each candidate. California has 55 electoral votes. If we are going to trust electors to choose our President than we would have to know a lot about each elector we’re electing. In California there would be more than 100 candidates for the electoral college even if there were only two candidates for President. A California voter would have to know something about every one of them before selecting him or her to be one of his or her 55 choices to make his or her choice for President of the US. That’s absurd.

We could go to electing electors by districts rather than at large; Maine effectively does this. But why should we have to figure out how someone else is likely to vote for President when we already know how we want to vote?

The fact that Alexander Hamilton said that wise electors would protect us from unsuitable Presidents -  or  something like that - tells us more about Hamilton than about what our political system should be. Democracy was an anathema to him as to many founding fathers; he would’ve preferred a much more imperial Presidency than his hero George Washington thought wise; he did not at all trust the wisdom of the crowd.

Electoral Apportionment

The system of awarding each state the same number of electoral votes as its total number of house members and senators was part of the same constitutional compromise between small and big states which resulted in each state having two senators but a number of house members proportional to its population. Remember it was the individual states, not the people directly, who ratified the constitution. The small states wouldn’t have joined a union where they would’ve inevitably been outvoted by the big populous states; the populous states weren’t willing to deal on equal terms with their much less populous brethren. That compromise still stands today. It means that the Senate, where even tiny Vermont has two votes, can block an action by the popularly apportioned House. It means each citizen in Wyoming has about 3.5 times the voting power for President as a citizen in California. And it means a candidate can become President without winning the popular vote – as we’ve just seen.

However, the winner-take-all system adopted by all states except Maine actually increases the power of the large states – at least those large states which are battlegrounds in any particular election. It is obviously a lot more important to harvest California’s 55 votes than Wyoming’s 3.

I don’t have a strong opinion on whether we should go all the way to direct election of the President by popular vote. Unlike Hamilton, I do believe in democracy. On the other hand, I think that the states are more than relics – even though the federal government has become increasingly dominant and essentially put most states on the federal dole. I do think states can be better at delivering services; I do think states are laboratories and we want them to be able to try different approaches to problems like persistent poverty and drug addiction. Keeping the electoral college apportionment helps keep balance in our federal-state system.

What do you think?

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