It’s time to make a choice: do we want democracy or a dangerous tradition? A few efforts were made, after the last split between electoral and real, i.e.,popular votes, to shrivel the Electoral College and make sure it never stands between the people and their will again. Now it’s time to get serious and stay serious.

Consider this: how do American advisors sell our system overseas to the “less enlightened” nations where we are endlessly “spreading democracy”?

Dictator: so how does democracy work?

American advisor: “Well, you hold elections, the people vote, and sometimes the loser gets to be President.”

Dictator (with interest): “So democracy is a sort of crapshoot?”

American: “No, no, no! It’s ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’…except every now and then, it’s not.”

Dictator: “So the idea is not too much democracy? We’re way ahead of you. We have none at all.”

Weak Defenses

I’ve heard arcane defenses of the electoral college, repetitions of the supposed danger that people in small states would be overlooked, that they’d miss out on the joy and thrill of politicians coming to town. But people in small states currently have and would continue to have exactly the same vote as anyone else in the country. In fact, small states have too much power already; even microscopic states already lord it over the rest of the country with their two senators. Alaska with fewer than a million people has the same power in the Senate to determine our national fate as California with thirty-eight million. Is that fair?

Suspicious Origins

A little historical research makes the original motives for the electoral college disturbingly clear. States rights, before Americans had any real loyalty to the nation, loomed large. Slavery with its vast population of black people and far fewer white overlords was at the heart of it. So was the fear, after Shay’s Rebellion, that indebted masses would vote for someone who’d cancel their debts, leaving bankers, never a majority, without advantage.

Many states once prevented people from directly voting for their own senators. Instead, state legislators chose the senators. Do we miss that?

Our history shows some amazing doubts about democracy. Not surprisingly, the purpose was often spelled out as an effort to diminish the influence of everyday people because, elites, their “betters,” would be unlikely, it was thought, to elect a demagogue or extremist. Huh. We’ve prohibited ministers from voting (so much for Huckabee), and insisted that all candidates swear to their belief in God. We’ve specified that the governor of certain states must be Protestant. In eight out of thirteen states, the legislature, instead of the people, chose the governor. How many of us would be voting today if the cut-off point for property ownership was 500 acres, Tennessee’s former requirement? All those laws have come and gone. There’s nothing sacrosanct about the electoral college.

We’ve made progress. Most Americans believe strongly in full democracy. What a terrible blow to have that belief shattered by yet another reversal. As a nation, we face too many serious problems to discourage citizens from participating in government as forty-six percent of potential voters did most recently.

Yes, We Can Change the Electoral College Threat

The difficult route requires a Constitutional Amendment (although an amendment, the 12th, established the Electoral College in the first place, so it’s hard to see why that’s impossible once we get a better Congress). An easier workaround requires a sufficient number of states whose electoral votes total 270 to give all their electoral votes to the popular winner, thus rendering the results of popular and electoral voting the same. In California, former Senator Barbara Boxer regularly initiated abolition of the electoral college, and at this point, as Eric Black points out on his blog, “… nine states have already passed it. And since California (55 electoral votes) is one of those nine and Illinois (20 EV) is another, those nine combined control about 132 electoral votes, almost half of the 270 that is necessary to create an Electoral College majority.” On the state level, Assemblyman Evan Low recently endorsed it. We could let Representative Low know we appreciate and support this. And we could keep the movement going!

Too much is at stake. We cannot afford to send the message, especially to new voters that “Your vote doesn’t really count.” We cannot send a message to the world that the will of the people matters…well, usually.

The Electoral College is one of the last barriers to true democracy. It has to go.


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