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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Sunday, May 26, 2019

Being More Equal Than Others in the Electoral College

The Nevada legislature just voted to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, another step to ensuring the Electoral College count reflects the actual vote of us Americans. This initiative has obviously started to worry defenders of the Electoral College because they’re attacking it.

This week USA Today published an opinion piece by an activist from Oklahoma named Trent England with the attention-seeking title “Killing the Electoral College Means Rural Americans Would Be Serfs.” Its presentation of both contemporary facts and history is unconvincing.

To start with, the essay never explains how it defines “rural Americans.” Different government agencies classify parts of the country in different ways, and we Americans tend to define our own home areas differently still.

England’s discussion slips back and forth between “rural” areas and small-population states, the ones overrepresented in the Electoral College. Those aren’t the same. Some small-population states have few rural areas, like Rhode Island. All large-population states, such as California, Texas, New York, and Illinois, have significant numbers of voters living in rural areas. In most cases, those people’s votes are entirely diluted by the current Electoral College system.

Americans living in rural places, whether in small states or large, deserve to have their votes counted equally with those living in more urban areas. Of course, there are fewer rural Americans than metropolitan Americans now. The U.S. of A. has been a majority-urban country for a century, as the 1920 census showed. England has therefore taken on the challenge of showing that a minority of voters should be, in George Orwell’s words, more equal than others.

England argues that small-population states deserve disproportionate power through the Electoral College based on the production of certain commodities:

Rural America produces almost all our country’s food, as well as raw materials like metals, cotton and timber. Energy, fossil fuels but also alternatives like wind and solar come mostly from rural areas. In other words, the material inputs of modern life flow out of rural communities and into cities.
This is a selective way to measure economic output. Rather than focus on raw commodities, we might just as well ask where those materials are turned into goods with the most value. We might ask which states do the most trading with other countries, or produce the most new patents. We could measure overall economic production without privileging certain kinds. Or we could, you know, count every person’s vote equally.

A little digging into the essay’s claims about economic importance shows reasons for doubt. For instance, it states “wind and solar [energy] come mostly from rural areas,” with a link to an essay at Real Clear Energy, part of a right-of-center network of news sites now mostly owned by Forbes Media. But that essay doesn’t actually say what England claims it does. It talks (in loaded language) about how rural states and rural electric cooperatives are participating in the shift to clean energy. Somehow that’s been turned into a claim that those areas produce most such energy.

Likewise, the claim that “Rural America produces almost all our country’s food” is linked to a Vox article titled “40 Maps That Explain Food in America.” Those maps show many things, such as the typical age of farmers in different regions and how close the average McDonald’s is. None of those maps show where “almost all our country’s food” comes.

But for the sake of argument, let’s accept that certain foods, other agricultural commodities, metals, and energy are so important that the people who live in the top-producing states should get extra power in national elections. Does the Electoral College provide that? Not really.

  • Of the top five food-producing states, three (California, Texas, and Illinois) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College. This looks like a measurement of agricultural output. Including seafood and imports with the rest of our food would, of course, raise the ranking of coastal states.
  • Of the five states producing the most solar energy, four (California, North Carolina, Arizona, and Texas) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.
  • Of the five states producing the most wind energy, three (Texas, California, and Illinois) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.
  • Of the five states producing the most oil, two (Texas and California) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College. North Dakota recently jumped way up on this list, and if the Electoral College really rewarded such productivity it should gain more political power as well, but of course the Electoral College doesn’t do that.
  • Of the five states producing the most coal, two (Pennsylvania and Illinois) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.
  • The essay doesn’t define what “metals” it values, but of the five states producing the most minerals, three (Arizona, Texas, and California) are disadvantaged by the Electoral College.

In sum, there’s no correlation between the current Electoral College system and extra power for “rural” Americans producing more of certain commodities. Claiming that the Electoral College protects the interest of those voters therefore seems fallacious.

TOMORROW: Lessons of history.


Don Carleton said...

Fine analysis, John Bell, you make the pivot to current affairs from an 18th-century specialization quite nicely! Keep it up!

rvaccare said...

Yet another political post that has absolutely nothing to do with the American Revolution, Boston, or 1775. How about you stick to what we subscribed to read. There are thousands of places on the Internet to read about politics. Don't be superfluous.

J. L. Bell said...

Yet another comment from someone who hasn't learned that the American Revolution was largely about political self-determination, that the Electoral College is a relic of those times that has ended up distorting that goal, and that defenders of the Electoral College (like this opinion writer) often misuse the Framers and other aspects of history in their arguments. All those things make this posting entirely relevant to the subject of this blog.

Furthermore, no one should be so entitled as to feel that reading a blog for free gives them a right to dictate what its author chooses to write.

rvaccare said...

I will happily unsubscribe from your blog. Enjoy your echo chamber and developing scheming subplots to inject your political views under misguided interpretations of founding intent. Internet tripe like this is a dime a dozen.

J. L. Bell said...

This comment reveals that the commenter wasn't really upset by a current political issue with historical roots popping up in a history blog. He or she was upset by the appearance of facts and arguments supporting a political position that he or she didn't agree with.

ProBonoPublico said...

If the Electoral College favoured progressive causes, said progressives would defend it to the death. But, at the moment, it does not. How soon the winds of politicks do change, though...be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it.

J. L. Bell said...

Progressives by definition seek better, fairer government while conservatives by definition prefer the current or recent political and economic system. So I doubt a progressive defense of the Electoral College would be as fervent as the conservative defense, in which people often come right to the edge of admitting that they don’t believe in popular majorities as a basis for government.

Every time the Electoral College has overruled the popular vote, from Andrew Jackson to Hillary Clinton, the popular-vote leader has been a Democrat. That pattern had lasted over nearly two centuries even as the electorate and the political parties have changed drastically. It’s possible that at some point in the future a Democrat will benefit from the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. I wouldn’t be surprised if Democratic Party leaders then insisted on “following the rules” and seating their candidate just as Republicans have in this century, but such an event might actually prompt needed reform.

As I’ve pointed out before, I’ve advocated on this blog for fixing the Electoral College under Presidents from both major parties.