Monday, June 28, 2004

A Dangerous Innovation

I believe in the Electoral College. The arguments we continually hear against it (it makes individual voters unimportant; it magnifies the powers of the swing states; it destabilizes the country; it hurts moderates?!) sway increasing numbers of people, and may lead in the next few years to a constitutional amendment instating a simple "one person, one vote" system. This would be a catastrophic betrayal of the principles the United States was founded upon, and would foment more dissension than anybody seems to imagine. The ultimate result of the destruction of the Electoral College seems inevitable: civil war.

First, the issue of individual voters: "Every person's vote should count," howl the critics. A California in which every citizen votes is a California that overrules huge chunks of the country: eleven of the eighteen swing states COMBINED. Judging by these Census population projections, in fact, four (of 50, or eight percent) states (Texas, California, Florida, and New York) would utterly dominate a popular election vote with 30% of the overall population; the top eight states (16%) constitute a full 48% of citizens. These "potential voters" should give some idea of the percentage distribution of registered voters per state.

The United States is a federal republic: for political purposes, each citizen is a citizen of his or her state first and of the country second. Elimination of the electoral college would greatly undermine one of the most well-considered parts of the Constitution, one that was most strongly endorsed by both the Federalists and the Republicans (as Hamilton notes in the Federalist No 68). It is true that the Federalists supported the Electoral College to prevent "mobocracy" and that the Republicans supported it (and the odious "3/5 clause") to give their slave states a means of protecting themselves from northern abolitionists.

In suspicion of direct popular votes, Hamilton and I are in agreement. Back when he was sane, he wrote in the first Federalist:
... A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious 

mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden
appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.
History will teach us that the former has been found a much more
certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and
that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,
the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious
court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
The Electoral College provides a buffer of protection against would-be American Caesars. Thankfully, it has never had to serve as such a buffer, but think on this: do pilots quit bringing parachutes onto planes because they've never had to use them? Since no American president has ever been impeached and convicted, is that part of the Constitution anachronistic and ineffective? No Constitutional impediment to tyranny should be removed because it has not been used.

As important as this block is, however, I am more concerned with preserving the federalist republican organization of our government. Let's look at the Legislative for a clue as to why our government has worked up to now. There are two branches: the lower, the House of Representatives, elected popularly with 435 seats awarded to states according to their populations; the upper, the Senate, elected popularly (but formerly appointed) with 100 seats awarded equally to each state. Thus, the small states get a greater veto power in the upper chamber ("completely out of proportion to their population," please note); the larger states get much more control over the bills generated and passed by the house.

In electing a presidential candidate, then, the Founders had to be extremely clever: it was unfair to the smaller New England states to allow outright majority rule, but it was unfair to New York and Virginia to allow Rhode Island an equal power to select the president. The solution was simple and elegant: they combined the two methods and awarded a number of electors equal to the combined total of representatives and senators from each state. Small states had their voices preserved and large states were given fair representation, and everyone was happy (a rare feat in the fractious early days of our republic!).

The growth of the nation's landmass has combined with the explosion of population in two states (California and Texas) to confirm the wisdom of this scheme. Puny little Rhode Island has 5% of California's president-choosing power, despite having a measly little 3% of California's population. This 2% advantage is not, to my mind, detrimental to popular rule, but helps preserve the differences in culture between regions of the country. By comparison, if the electors were awarded based exclusively on the number of representatives per state (as at least one ridiculous site suggests), Rhode Island would have less than 1.8% of California's electors -- an actual penalty for being small!

I need to write more on this subject. In closing for now, though, I'd like to point out a few more reasonable solutions to the problems that do exist: proportional awarding of electors based on the percentage of votes cast for each candidate; appointed, non-partisan bodies to draw up congressional districts, killing the invasive menace of gerrymandering that has spread like kudzu through the count is necessary (on this point, the BusinessWeek editorial cited above is dead on); and, finally, chopping California and Texas into smaller, more manageable, and more culturally homogenous states. Yes, I'm dead serious about that last one. California residents except the Los Angelans, who would probably end up with a severely dysfunctional state of their own, would almost certainly agree, if they gave it some thought.

Other useful references:
  • An Electoral College webzine article on the sometimes critical power of small states.
  • A very useful list of population/elector/representation statistics.


Blogger Cog said...

Not to burst your bubble, but Hamilton hated the Senate, and defended it in the Federalist Papers only in the interest of getting the Constitution ratified. Earlier, Hamilton said to his fellow delegates (quoting from the linked article):

"As states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?"

2:55 PM  

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