J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

We Still Need to Fix the Electoral College

Hillary Clinton won our vote.

“Our” meaning the choice of us the people of the United States of America. Everyone agrees that she won the plurality of the votes we cast leading up to Tuesday, 8 November.

But because of the Electoral College, our choice was distorted, and a man who was demonstrably the preference of fewer Americans will take the Presidency. Under some analyses, the distortion will be strikingly large, turning a 1-2% loss in our vote into a 20% win in the Electoral College. This isn’t the way democracies are supposed to work. As the Declaration of Independence says, the hallmark of legitimate governments is “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Without that consent, governmental powers are unjust.

I wrote about this problem with the U.S. Constitution in 2008 and again in 2012. As I said in the latter posting, I expressed the same worry shortly before the election of 2000, when the Electoral College hadn’t overruled the popular vote in more than a century and the hypothetical under discussion would actually favor my candidate. That would be illegitimate, I said.

So I’m not one of those complacent hypocrites who condemns the Electoral College when it doesn’t go his way and then happily accepts its results when it does.

As I wrote again at the beginning of this month, the first generation of U.S. politicians almost immediately starting gaming the Elector system to benefit their preferred parties and candidates. The Framers’ initial conception of the Electors as independent statesmen who would deliberate on the choice of President for the good of the whole nation quickly went out the window.

With the passage of the Twelfth Amendment blocking the Electors from meeting as a deliberative body able to discuss issues and forge deals, the benefits of representative democracy no longer applied. The Electoral College hung on simply as a vestige of the Constitutional Convention’s compromises to preserve the inflated influence of slaveholders and small states.

Now we’ve had two elections over sixteen years in which the Electoral College frustrated our national choice. Not as bad as two over twelve years in the late nineteenth century, but bad enough that we should realize this isn’t a very rare problem we can safely ignore.

Many politicians have incentives to do nothing. All five of the candidates who won pluralities but were kept from the Presidency have been Democrats, but that party, its policies, and its bases have changed greatly over the last two centuries. The Electoral College’s two most recent distortions are the only ones that derive from the current party rivalries. In 2000 and 2016 the Republican Party found the system rigged in its favor, and its partisans are reluctant to give up that advantage.

Furthermore, since the Electoral College preserves disproportionate power for smaller-population states, those states’ legislatures also have incentives to avoid fixing the system. The National Popular Vote initiative is an easier fix than a constitutional amendment, but still requires legislatures to give up their extra power.

Nonetheless, we need to fix the U.S. Presidential election to ensure that the Electoral College ratifies rather than overturns our national vote. That will ensure our government retains full legitimacy. So the big question is whether enough American politicians will be willing to sacrifice some short-term, unfair advantages for the good of our nation as a whole.


EVR_99 said...

I'm one of those who couldn't vote for either Trump or Clinton. Yet living in NY I knew my vote wouldn't matter in the last 8 presidential elections Democrat candidates have carried the popular vote by a margin of +1.5 million. Yet look at NY State map by county and you would think Trump won it.

While the national vote was close only 12 of the 50 states were decided by less then 5%. Trump won 20 states by more then 15%, Clinton won 9. Margins in 16 states were +25% (Trump 11, Clinton 5).

I played around with a few elections to see if electoral votes for a state were awarded by % of votes received. 2016 would be going to the House Clinton ~266 Trump ~255.

Election with weighted electoral (ie winner of state receive 1/3 with the rest awarded by % of vote Clinton ~254 Trump~271

Election with weighted electoral (ie winner of state receive 2/3 with the rest awarded by % of vote Clinton ~243 Trump~289

I also did above for 2000 in all scenarios it goes to the House.

So I have no answer except to say I'm at peace with my vote, yet not thrilled at outcome. If 50% are happy and 50% are disappointed maybe system does work,ugg

J. L. Bell said...

The first distortion built into the Constitution's Elector system (not called the Electoral College at the time) was that the apportionment of Electors followed the apportionment of House seats, thus using the three-fifths compromise to inflate the influence of areas with large enslaved populations. That of course no longer applies.

The second distortion is how each state has the same number of Electors as total members of Congress, both House and Senate. That inflates the power of smaller-population states.

The third distortion started to appear in the 1790s as one state after another decided to award all its Electors to whichever candidate had won in that state. That left the voting minorities in each such state with no representation at all in the Electoral College.

The fourth distortion, not that it matters, is that the total population, or total vote, divided by 538 is rarely a whole number, so there's no way to exactly represent the electorate's view.

Since the Twelfth Amendment gave us the current system, there have been many more voting methods developed and tried out. Parliamentary systems as in Canada and Britain. Party slates as in Israel. Run-offs to ensure a winner with >50% support. Weighted voting. Ranked voting. It's significant that very few countries have adopted the American system, and none have adopted anything like the Electoral College.

It's true that in any competitive political race, nearly 50% of people will be disappointed in not getting their choice. But it's an even bigger problem when the system leaves clearly more than 50% of people disappointed.

Kashi said...

Thank you J. L. Bell! This blog post is appreciated! So, shall we begin to fix the system?

Brian Crock said...

I have always enjoyed your blog, but now I'm second guessing everything you write. We are Constitutional Republic, not a pure democracy. For someone who writes about the founders, I'm appalled by your views regarding the Electoral College. Also, don't take me for some Trump clapping seal. You just lost a lot of credibility!

Anonymous said...

The vote difference in this election is less than 500,000. Without the Electoral College, New York, California and cities like Chicago and Philadelphia would elect the President year after year. The Electoral College gives each citizen a representation. It also helps to protect against those juridictions who fail to keep their voter roles up to date allowing the dead and others to vote. It also helps to protect the rights of the minority from the majority - each state gets at least 3 votes. The Electoral College forces the candidates to visit more of the states. If you have the stamina to do the work, you will win the election.

J. L. Bell said...

First, as of this evening, the vote difference in the 2016 election isn’t clear. Officials are still counting in the populous cities on the west coast. Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in the popular vote has doubled since the day after the election, and I’ve seen an estimate from the New York Times that it could end up being “more than 2 million.” So let’s wait for actual evidence before trying to argue based on a number.

More important, in a vote any margin is supposed to be decisive. It would make sense to require more than 50% of our electorate to approve a winner, either through a run-off or weighted ballot or other system. But in no system does it make sense to choose a candidate who demonstrably has less popular support.

J. L. Bell said...

Our government derives its power from and is based on the approval of the people. Why should it matter where we the people choose to live? Under a popular vote, the influence of each part of the country is exactly equal to the number of people who live there. Sure, candidates would spend more time in New York and California and Illinois, and less in less populous “swing states” like New Hampshire and North Carolina. That’s because there are more people in New York and California and Illinois. There are likewise more people in Dallas than in Van Zandt County, Texas, so Texas politicians no doubt spend more time in Dallas, yet every person’s vote for governor of Texas counts the same.

Under our current system, candidates focus their time on “swing states.” According to the National Popular Vote website, 94% of the campaigning this year occurred in just twelve states out of fifty. The argument that the Electoral College “forces the candidates to visit more of the states” is therefore unconvincing.

J. L. Bell said...

The Electoral College distorts the vote in multiple ways, as I detailed above. That violates the one-person, one-vote principle. The anonymous commenter above says, “The Electoral College gives each citizen a representation,” but that’s mistaken. The system gives citizens different levels of representation based on where they live. That commenter also claims the system “helps to protect the rights of the minority,” but the minorities of voters in most states get no representation at all. A popular vote would provide every voter with exactly as much representation as every other voter. Minority interests would be protected by constitutional protections, the judicial system, the layers of federalism, and alliances among interest groups, just as they are in every other area of our government.

The claim that the Electoral College “helps to protect against those juri[s]dictions who fail to keep their voter roles [rolls] up to date” is another fallacy, probably based on one party’s specious claims of widespread voter fraud. Nothing about the Electoral College system motivates more ballot security. If we want federal elections to be conducted at a high standard across the nation, then the first standard should be one-person, one-vote.

J. L. Bell said...

Brian Crock argues that “We are [a] Constitutional Republic, not a pure democracy,” as if other constitutional republics don’t have direct elections of their chief executive. We are in large part a representative democracy through Congress. We have a judiciary that can rein in other branches of government. The Constitution provides some explicit protections for individuals. It has no provision for a national referendum. All of those things already make us not a “pure democracy.” But we have a flawed constitutional republic when the election process for our highest office can distort the will of the people and negate the consent of the governed.

The Founders indeed feared democracy more than we do—all those poor men! women! blacks! Indians! eighteen-year-olds! They particularly feared that a wider vote would bring on a demagogue: someone making impossible promises and incendiary claims to win over the people. This year, the people chose not to follow such a demagogue, but the Electoral College handed him power anyway. So much for that mechanism protecting us from the Founders’ great fear.

J. L. Bell said...

Kashi asks whether we’ll begin to fix the system. I hope so. I advocated for change on this blog in 2008 and 2012 as well. The National Popular Vote initiative (already adopted here in Massachusetts) looks like the most feasible method. Constitutional amendments would be harder, but could produce an even fairer system, ensuring the President has received majority approval.

As for the defenders of the Electoral College, I suggest they try to enact equivalent systems in their states. Make the case for its advantages over a popular vote. Let’s see how far that effort goes.

Ben Hoben said...

The missing piece from this argument is that this election was contested based on the electoral college system & both candidates strategies reflected this. To say that she got more votes means that she was the choice of more people isn't necessarily true. Had this been a popular vote election the campaign would've been done in a completely different manner. No-one can know who would've came up on top if the rules had been different at the beginning. I'm guessing there are a lot of voters in deep red or blue states that simply don't care enough to vote when they know how their state is going to go anyway.

I'm not saying who would've won, I'm just saying they competed under the rules that were in place but to measure them by something different really doesn't work.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that the 2016 election would have played out differently without the Electoral College rigging. I've never claimed that the two candidates' vote counts would have been the same if they had campaigned differently.

On the other hand, "To say that she [Clinton] got more votes means that she was the choice of more people isn't necessarily true" is wrong. That's exactly what votes represent.

Ben Hoben said...

You are correct that it's "exactly what the votes represent" of those who chose to vote on November 8th.

But you don't know that she was the choice of more people or not, only of those who voted. You can't state that as absolute fact. We will never know if she was the choice of most people since the election was run on a state by state basis. She may very well have won by the 4% the composite of the polls showed the day before who knows.

J. L. Bell said...

The same could be said for any election without 100% turnout, however. We don’t know what the other potential voters might have chosen, and by the same logic we can’t say for certain how much support the winning candidate or position had.

Indeed, these days we often hear about some small number of voters having “buyer’s remorse” when they see how an election turns out. And it’s well known in polling that asking people a few weeks after the election how they voted will produce lower numbers for the loser, and sometimes higher numbers for the winner.

So I think that the most reliable measurement of public opinion is still an actual election. And in this election, Clinton was the choice of more people by a significant margin. Does that mean that if we held a national popular vote and campaigned by those rules she’d still be our choice? That if we forced all American to choose she’d still be our choice? That if a runoff pitted the two top candidates against each other she‘d still be our choice? No, we don’t know those things. But we do know she was the choice of the Americans who voted in last week’s election.

daffern1 said...

Mr. Bell, it saddens me to see you once again go down this path of interjecting your modern political views into what is such a wonderful blog on early America. Obviously, it's your blog so it's not my place to tell you how to run it, but with everything that's going on in our country it's a shame that there seems to be no place to go where we can come together rather than be riven apart. You're a gifted writer and I bought your last book. I enjoy the information you present on early American history here.

We are today living with the results of the unintended consequences of previous generations of Americans' attempts to "improve" the Constitution based on conditions that were unique to their time. Direct election of senators, the federal income tax, the broad interpretation given to the Interstate Commerce clause, the lack of adherence to the enumerated powers, a politicized judiciary, a politicized bureaucracy, a Legislative branch that has abdicated it's responsibility to craft laws and control the purse, and the rise of an Executive branch wielding powers far, far beyond anything envisioned by the Founders have all resulted in what we have today: a Country that is less fair, where we are subject to more arbitrary regulations and more highly taxed than the one from which the Founders revolted.

Your call to eliminate the Electoral College is unpersuasive. It is a reaction to an election whose results you don't like. The idea that Hillary Clinton won the election based on the popular vote would have merit if we could have any confidence in the fidelity of the vote. Since we can't seem to agree on how to ensure that qualified voters are the only ones who actually vote, the popular vote is only an approximation. How many illegal aliens voted? Obama seemed to encourage illegals voting in his interview with a "Dreamer" journalist. How many dead people voted and why does it seem previously registered republicans only vote democrat after they die?

Washington warned us of the dangers of factionalism. He was right. We would be a lot better off if we citizens gave our allegiance to our Country and our Constitution, and not the Democrat or Republican party.

God Bless America

J. L. Bell said...

Daffern1, I called for reform in the Electoral College in 2008 and 2012 and on 1 Nov 2016, as the links in the posting above show. To state that I do so only as "a reaction to an election whose results you don't like" is false and insulting.

Your suggestion that "illegal aliens" and "dead people" provided Hillary Clinton's winning margin in the popular vote (more than 1 million as of this morning) shows that your comments are not grounded in reality.

Thank you for buying my book. The history in that book is closely tied to why I value our democratic republic and want to see it function properly. The Electoral College injects chaos into our political system, not fairness and not order.

EVR_99 said...

J.L. I'd be curious to know how you feel about the primary system. If I remember correctly in 08 Clinton actually received more votes then Obama. Does this mean she should have been the candidate?

Even though Clinton margin is around 2.3m, percentage wise its still only half of Tilden, and far off of Jackson percentages. Even using Wyoming rule she got crushed (with/or without counting 2 from the senate).

If an election in the future had a President-elect who only won 20 states and won the popular vote by just 1.5%. I think people's twitter feeds would be full of complaints.

J. L. Bell said...

There was indeed a dispute from 2008 about which Democratic candidate won more total votes, hinging on whether to count votes from some states where one candidate campaigned and the other didn't. I don't recall all the details. And I don't think that the totals from primaries matter because those are separate races run over an extended period, with some candidates dropping out along the way. (If primaries had weighted voting, with the votes for candidates who drop out reassigned to voters' second choices, then a total might be meaningful.)

There's also the argument, which I'm not fully convinced by, that the nominating processes are determined by the political parties rather than the government; hence, those parties can decide how the primaries run, how delegates are apportioned, or even whether to have primaries at all. Some political scientists argue that primary elections have ended up weakening the parties and their candidates because party leaders have less freedom to choose a strong candidate for the general election; I disagree that weaker party leaders are a Bad Thing.

I don't think the elections of 1824 or 1876 are what we should be aiming for. The former had four candidates winning over 10% of the vote, meaning no one came close to 50%. The result brought on a complete breakdown of the party system and an angry Andrew Jackson. The latter led to an irregular bargain that put the popular loser in the White House at the cost of civil and voting rights in half the country. (So much for the Electoral College preserving the rights of a minority of the population.) It seems odd to suggest that Clinton should have to be more percentage points ahead of her opponent than Tilden was when the point of a normal election is to be percentage points ahead of the other people running at the same time.

I'm sure that people would complain about a candidate winning by only 1.5% of the popular vote—people whose candidate ended up 1.5% behind. But winning the majority of citizens' votes is still the fundamental goal of any democratic popular election. The fact that more of those citizens might have chosen to live in the more populous of our unequally populated states shouldn't be relevant to a national office. The principle of "one person, one vote" remains most convincing, and paramount. If we have a country want to add more conditions to winning the most votes, then (a) those conditions should be in accord with the principle of equality; and (b) the system might have to recognize that sometimes no candidate will fulfill them all.

There's a much stronger argument that 48% of the vote shouldn't be enough for a candidate to take office, that there should be a run-off round or weighted voting to ensure that the winning candidate demonstrates that she's received over 50% of the people's support. I would favor that as part of U.S. electoral reform.

daffern1 said...

It will take a Constitutional Amendment to achieve what you want and there's no incentive for the smaller States to go along with a popular vote. You may be able to convince some of the States that have winner take all to go to the sort of arrangement Maine uses, as "winner takes all" isn't specified by the Constitution, and that may address some of your concerns.

The fact of the matter is the Electoral College is a good thing. It forces candidates to forge a broader coalition of large and small States by addressing a wider variety of concerns. A Country dominated only by Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New York invites another Civil War.

The Founders were rightly concerned by mob rule and a tyranny of the majority. We don't govern ourselves by plebiscite and I hope we never do.

J. L. Bell said...

Daffern1, there are a number of misconceptions in this latest comment. First, the National Popular Vote initiative discussed on this very page is a way of ensuring that the winner of our collective vote also wins the Electoral College. It wouldn't be necessary to amend the Constitution. More states could assign their Electors the way Maine and Nebraska do, but that would still violate the "one person, one vote" principle and open the door for runners-up taking the Presidency.

Contrary to the claim that the Electoral College forces broad coalitions, a candidate can win under that system by winning a bare plurality in just 11 out of 50 states. Or by winning a bare plurality in the most overrepresented states, and thus less than 30% of the electorate. You know what system would require broad coalitions? A popular vote. Because that would require winning support from 50% of us Americans, and we're a broad, diverse bunch.

Your list of five cities shows that you haven't done the math required to make that argument. (You have, however, excluded Houston and Dallas, which are bigger than Seattle and San Francisco. That hints that you're not actually worried about big-city dominance—only dominance by cities in states that don't vote your way.) Even if all the people in those five cities’ metropolitan areas (including suburbs and exurbs, including people who aren't allowed to vote or don't vote) voted for one candidate, they would total to about 52,000,000 votes. There were 134,000,000 votes cast this year.

The Framers were indeed concerned about mob rule. They were also concerned about slave revolts, and the Electoral College was designed in part to ensure the slaveholding states had disproportionate power. American values have evolved, though some of us have evolved more than others.

Strangely, for someone worried about the "tyranny of the majority," you show no worry about a "tyranny of the minority," in which a candidate who is unquestionably not the first choice of us American voters gets to take power. I suspect that's because you've never been in the situation when your preferred candidate came in first in the popular vote but not in the Electoral College.

daffern1 said...

Mr Bell, believe me I know what it's like to be a minority bullied by a majority. You seem perfectly willing to make politically driven assertions about people who disagree with you.

I stand with Madison and the rest of the founding generation who thought long and hard about what would best work based on their study of governmental systems in the historical record and also taking into account human nature. We are suffering now from the unintended consequences of previous generations who sought to improve on the Constitution (the 16th and 17th amendments come to mind, although there are other things as well); and as a result, we live in a Country that is more highly regulated, more highly taxed, and less free than that which the founders revolted against.

And my listing of certain cities wasn't intended to be a complete list, rather to convey the concept that we will cease to be the "United" States of America if only the liberals on the coasts and certain other population centers have the ability to force their will on the rest of the country who don't share their "enlightened" values. It's one of the reasons the founders believed in limited government. You should be able to live your life according to your beliefs without having to be forced to do otherwise by me, and the same holds in the reverse for me. I strongly feel that the present troubles we are experiencing - the reason for such vitriol in our political discourse - is because the stakes are so high in each election. The present government is so powerful and all pervading in our lives that one side or the other uses it at a means to force its will. Neither side has the grace to just leave the other alone.

And we already have a "tyranny of the minority" when minuscule groups of people such as transsexuals and transvestites can force the majority to kowtow to their desires. But I suspect that may be the sort of enlightened tyranny of which you approve.

J. L. Bell said...

Daffern1, your first comment on this site said my posting was “a reaction to an election whose results you don't like” even though I’ve written the same thing publicly for more than eight years. You suggested that “illegal aliens voted” and “dead people voted” at numbers large enough to affect the outcome. So you have no credibility to complain that anyone else might “make politically driven assertions about people who disagree with you.” You started this conversation by doing just that.

You say, “I know what it's like to be a minority bullied by a majority.” You don’t explain what you mean by “bullied,” but it seems to mean some combination of (a) losing elections because a larger group of people voted on the other side, and (b) having to publicly tolerate people you don’t respect. That’s not really being bullied. That’s living in a functioning democracy with a respect for human rights.

In a functioning democracy, nearly everyone has the experience of being on the losing side of an election, as well as on the winning side. The Electoral College creates what Al Gore called “that little-known third category” in which one candidate has the most popular support but another takes office without what the Founders called “the consent of the governed.” Your latest comment says practically nothing about the Electoral College, though, even though that’s the topic of this posting. It doesn’t even acknowledge that the Electoral system you’re trying to defend is not what the men at the Constitutional Convention envisioned at all.

Instead, you’ve shifted to expressing broader complaints about American culture. Your comment about “liberals on the coasts and certain other population centers” confirms that you’re no longer addressing principles of how to balance majorities and minorities in a democratic republic. Instead, it’s simple resentment about a particular set of politics you disagree with. But why should what you call “the rest of the country”—apparently the minority living outside “the coasts and certain other population centers”—be able to “force their will” in some way on the majority in the choice of a President?

Obviously you see a lot wrong with the U.S. of A. today (and since the start of the twentieth century, at least). However, your belief that we’re “less free” than people in the eighteenth-century British Empire appears to be the product of a very narrow perspective. Let’s look at that society and ours through the eyes of a woman, or a black person, or an enslaved black woman, or a poor Englishman not allowed to vote. Yes, in the eighteenth century such people didn’t have to pay income tax, but they were less free in most ways.

Finally, your example of a “tyranny of the minority” looks an awful lot like an attempt to justify a “tyranny of the majority” against fellow Americans you dismiss as “minuscule groups.” And whom did I just read saying, “The Founders were rightly concerned by mob rule and a tyranny of the majority”? Why, it was you!

daffern1 said...

Here's the deal Mr. Bell. I admire your scholarship on 18th Century matters but we'll never agree on current politics. And it's your blog so you'll always have the last word. Whatever you believe makes no difference to me as you and I are nothing but bytes to one another. One of the things that I've discovered in this current political season is how it is that people who have much in common, like our Whig and Loyalist forebearers, could view events in such diametrically opposite directions. I've read the history of our Revolution but I never really understood, until now, how fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, neighbors, and friends could hate and demonize one another to the point of fighting and killing each other. So that's an interesting learning point.

I wish you every success with your 18th century endeavors.

God Save Great Washington.

Anonymous said...

This has been a great discussion and I hope it does not end just yet. As the last comment references, honest people can have very different views and viable political systems must be capable of accommodating numerous beliefs and motivations without fracturing.

I propose for discussion that the electoral college acts as a forcing function to protect citizens from a unalterable tyranny of the majority that the founders feared would result from radical democracy. A forcing function is a constraint that is introduced to reduce behavioral errors harmful to an overall system such as a lock-out system or stop-sell on Wall Street to prevent runs. In this discussion, the electoral college constrains unfettered domination of a majority over a minority based on pure numerical superiority.

As has been noted, the constitution establishes a federal republic with an executive branch, bicameral legislation and judicial branch to maintain a balance of powers. Democracy is not mentioned. This brilliant and heritable system of institutions and forces has maintained practical stasis between strong political forces with but a few exceptions. This stasis has done a pretty good job of maintaining an even balance between interests while simultaneously advancing individual freedoms and material well-being. The needle rarely moves too far due to this system of stasis and balance of powers.

Consider that the electoral college, as a forcing function may be one of the institutions that has contributed to that stasis. When you take the personalities of the two highly controversial candidates out of the equation, the message that the electoral college conveys is that it is a forcing function that represents a large portion of the American populace that feels underrepresented politically, culturally, and increasingly economically. Consider the contributor above who, on 11 Nov stated that the electoral college “forces the candidates to visit more of the states.” That is the very point and failure to understand that proves the necessity of a forcing function.

Elimination of the electoral college may balance the raw numbers, but, as with the Whigs and Tories; the numbers are not the whole story. One writer above talked about being "bullied." The near monopoly that one party exerts within the sneering and smug news media, entertainment industry, academia, and governmental institutions can feel like bulling. The ability to finance a $1.2billion campaign in addition to the support of these institutions is staggering and seemingly irresistible. Honest people can disagree but for now, the electoral college may provide the only forcing function to keep the apparatus of government in a healthy state of stasis in the face of such coercive forces.

172Tanker said...

As Mr Bell so persuasively describes in The Road to Concord, the ministries’ support for expansion of the span of government in the 1760’s and 70’s at the expense of local jurisdiction was perceived by Whigs to be unconstitutional and an expression of contempt and disdain. When the Whigs objected they were directed to be silent and just pay their taxes as they were not as smart as those in London. "You are not oppressed! You have virtual representation in Parliament because we are so much smarter than you." That is what the blue electoral film surrounding the coastlines and internal metropolitan areas of the country seem to be repeating to the hinterland. Tribute is always resented; be it to Rome or to District One as in Hunger Games.

Today's emergent political class and its imbedded media act as did the Tories who confused ridicule, derision and contempt with good ideas. The two latest candidates for president illustrate the point and it is likely that more people voted against a candidate than for one. What is notable in the current season is that a sizable portion of the population found someone to sneer back and ridicule in a manner much as they had been ridiculed.

Things did not work out well for the Tories and the Crown because there was no forcing function to drive both sides towards an acceptable stasis of power. As one MSNBC commentator said at 3:30 AM election morning 2016, "Maybe we should have been listening to those people." That idea would not have been considered a possibility without an electoral college. Sadly, listening seems to be off the table as vilification and revision to old canards are revived as pundits fall back on old labels and prejudices.

Declaring the electoral college “rigged, flawed, and a distortion” while simultaneously dismissing the possibility of voter fraud does not fairly address the perceptions of both sides. Consider that the electoral college may be that forcing function that maintains the stasis of government that the Tories were unable to find. Recognition that honest people have different and equally valid views on a one-on-one level as this blog has demonstrated is a positive step to fix the system. Sneering is not.

J. L. Bell said...

The 10 December anonymous commenter wrote, “In this discussion, the electoral college constrains unfettered domination of a majority over a minority based on pure numerical superiority.” That’s not how the Electoral College works, or has ever worked. Most of the time the present system amplifies the popular vote, turning a 51-55% majority of voters into a 60-70% majority of Electors. The Electoral College offers no protection for vulnerable minorities; when in the decades-long life of Jim Crow laws did it protect the Americans oppressed by that system?

From a historical perspective, any argument that the Framers wanted the Electoral College to function as it has since about 1865 is sadly mistaken. First of all, the record of the Constitutional Convention is clear that the Electoral College was created in part to preserve the power of white slaveowners, and that no longer applies. Second, as I’ve written numerous times already, the Electoral College was gamed almost immediately, and in the early 1800s its rules were rewritten in a way that prevents it from being the deliberative body that “Publius” described.

Since 1865 there have been only a handful of times when the Electoral College overruled the popular vote. Those must be the years it protected minorities from tyrannical majorities, if that theory holds water. So how did the Electoral College serve America by keeping Grover Cleveland away from the Presidency in 1888, but not in 1884 and 1892? What minority was protected by the election of 1876, which led to the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow? And if the danger to be avoided is providing too much power to one party, how was it beneficial for the Electoral College in 2000 and 2016 to give the Presidency to the same party as the Congress even though we the people voted the other way?

This anonymous commenter wrote, “Consider the contributor above who, on 11 Nov stated that the electoral college ‘forces the candidates to visit more of the states.’” I did consider that comment and on 12 Nov replied, “Under our current system, candidates focus their time on ‘swing states.’ According to the National Popular Vote website, 94% of the campaigning this year occurred in just twelve states out of fifty. The argument that the Electoral College ‘forces the candidates to visit more of the states’ is therefore unconvincing.” It would have been nice if the new commenter had noticed and responded to that fact.

This commenter tips her hand with such statements as “The near monopoly that one party exerts within the sneering and smug news media, entertainment industry, academia, and governmental institutions.” She’s expressing a common resentment of one wing of American politics, the wing that happens to have benefited from the Electoral College’s recent distortions of the popular vote. Instead of offering arguments based on solid philosophical and historical bases, therefore, I fear she is simply trying to justify an outcome she prefers and wishes to preserve.

J. L. Bell said...

172Tanker stated, “When the Whigs objected they were directed to be silent and just pay their taxes as they were not as smart as those in London. ‘You are not oppressed! You have virtual representation in Parliament because we are so much smarter than you.’ That is what the blue electoral film surrounding the coastlines and internal metropolitan areas of the country seem to be repeating to the hinterland.”

This comparison is ludicrous. The North American colonists had no representation in Parliament while the “hinterland” of America is represented in Congress on the same basis as everywhere else. Small-population states (many, but not all, in the “hinterland”) are even disproportionately powerful in the Senate. The only arguments parallel to “virtual representation” in today’s U.S. of A. involve the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other non-state parts of the country having limited or no voting representation in Congress.

If people actually want every American voter to be treated with equal respect, then every American vote should be counted the same. That’s a very simple principle, which we adopted long ago in every other type of election, and which other democratic republics follow. It’s sad to watch people toss it overboard in an attempt to justify a distorted election that falls their way.