POLITICAL OPINIONS #59: ELECTORAL COLLEGE

 

 

INTRODUCTION:

 

Even at its infancy, the democratic process had its critics pointing out its inherent flaws and inefficiencies. Even the legendary classical philosopher Socrates cast his doubts and cynicism regarding democratic forms of government. Per the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

 

“… Socrates “suggests that [the rulers] need to tell the citizens a myth that should be believed by subsequent generations in order for everyone to accept his position in the city”—and to accept the legitimacy of the rulers. The myth—like modern scientific racism and eugenics—divides the citizenry into an essential hierarchy, which Socrates symbolizes by the metals gold, silver, and bronze…” [3].

 

This interpretation of the Socratic stance on democracy demonstrates the longstanding debate on its innate flaws and failings as a form of government. Socrates had company in his follow classical intellectuals including Thucydides known for his historical accounts of the Peloponnesian War. While the criticisms of the classical thinkers may not necessarily be 100 percent applicable to the contemporary American political landscape it does demonstrate that even at its genesis democracy has at its critics.

 

Few Americans would call for the just but totalitarian rule advocated in Plato’s Republic, but rather a different critique has emerged in recent years. Over the years the speculation of institutional failures of democracy in American has become more salient. Particularly in regards to the role of the electoral college in the presidential election. While there has been a myriad of armchair pundits who apathetically chose not to participate in the democratic process due to the electorate, it is now starting to gain some mainstream traction.  The 2000 Presidential Election engendered a significant amount of controversy due to Republican Presidential candidate losing the popular vote, but obtaining the support from the electoral college [4]. While certainly scintillating to many voters not quite at the level of being a full-on flash point.  The public outrage in regards to the electoral vote superseding the popular came to a head after the 2016 election.

 

In the 2016 election, when Donald J. Trump, reminiscent of the 2000 election, won the electorate and lost the popular vote. Which spawned a wide range of investigations ranging from foreign meddling to manipulation of website and social media algorithms [5]. However, I am not composing this blog entry to address such inquiries. I am looking to address whether or not on any rational level we should keep the electoral college.  Per the results of 2016 of a Gallup opinion polls shows that the there was a sharp increase in the number of Americans that believe we should keep the electoral college, that number is still merely 47 percent [6]. Still more than half of the country is in favor of abolishment; therefore, it may be advantageous to explore alternatives. However, I will present evidence from both sides of the argument and then attempt to draw some rational conclusions.

 

Just a disclaimer, I am not addressing this issue out of any partisanship or other motives. I am merely attempting to grapple with a difficult and controversial matter of federal policy and governmental institutions.  Regardless of whether going forward, it is conspicuously evident that the electoral college needs to be abandoned in favor of direct elections, it would be petty to retroactively take action against past presidents. However, I do find it interesting that whenever this issue does come back to prevalence, no one wants to have a serious conversation about policy, but rather shout a linear “Get Rid of its Mantra”. These same individuals did not call for reform when politicians of their preferred political affiliation got elected into the oval office.  In other words, this will be a serious discourse on policy versus a Trump and Bush bashing session.  For anyone who does oppose the electoral college when it is convenient to do so may want to actually think about the issue on a less superficial level.

 

BACKGROUND:

 

The Electoral college was established in Article II, Section I of the United States Constitution, yes it is  Constitutionally legal. Most states have a requirement that the electorate must go with the candidate that received the “plurality ‘of the vote[ 7]. Twenty-six states have a process where they “bind” the electorate to vote for the candidate they pledge to vote for, enforced by fines and oaths. Faithless electors are ones that vote against their pledged candidate, which has happened in 1948, 1956, 1960,1968, 1972,1976,1988 elections. A blank ballot was cast for Colorado in 2000 and seven electorates broke away from the popular vote in 2016. Since 1887  per 3 U.S.C. 15  implement procedure for objections to electoral votes.  Which much be presented in writing with a signature from one senator and representative, a joint meeting being held in Congress.  There are two on record objections 1969 and 2005, both were rejected. There have been two Constitutional amendments related to the  President and Vice president. The 23rd amendment ratified in 1961 where the District of Columbia was granted three electorates [7].

 

 

 

WHY NOT DIRECT ELECT:

 

It is fair on a basic rational level to question the validity of having the final result of the Presidential election determined by an institutional body rather than the voters. However, few who express their ire for the quiddity of such perceived injustice ask what the reasoning is for having the electoral college in place.  While the founder fathers were far from perfect morally, I hardly believe they would haphazardly implement restrictive policy with no rationale. Especially when you consider their recent extrication from the claws of English colonial rule. I am going to dare to ask the question that seems to elude many and what is the true purpose of the electoral college and are they a possible safeguard for the democratic process?

 

In a very general sense, there are two key reasons why the drafters of the United States Constitution built-in the institution of the electoral college. The first reason being as creating a safeguard between the Presidential selection process and the voting public. The second was to work as an equalizing force to give more balanced voting representation to states that have lower populations [8]. The safeguard between the voters and the selection process is justified in the  Federalist papers, it is speculated that this section was written by founder James Madison [8].  Madison wrote Federalist Papers #68:

 

“…. The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to a lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. And this will be thought no inconsiderable recommendation of the Constitution, by those who are able to estimate the share which the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration. Though we cannot acquiesce in the political heresy of the poet who says: “For forms of government let fools contest That which is best administered is best,” yet we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration…” [9].

 

In a sense, the founders feared the tyranny would hijack the voting interest of the public and erode the integrity of the democratic process. As grandiose and abstract as that sounds, essentially, they are conveying that the electorate is a barrier between external manipulation influencing voter behavior. Considering the dismally low literacy rates of the voting public back when the Federalist Papers were drafted it does seem a little more valid. However, it may not be a stretch to say that their high amount of veracity to keeping this institutional safeguard in the present day. While most Americans are literate in the direct sense, we do have new modern threats to the external influence of voter behavior. Threats include excessive campaign advertisements funded by political action committees, lobbyists, and even data collection and algorithms directing the user to specific kinds of media content. Just remember the whole Cambridge Analytica controversy and you get a pristine picture of the last example. Which really illustrates how the tools of manipulation may have changed, but the sophists are still at bay. In regards to the notion that people have a higher standard of educational obtainment being used to justify abolishing the electorate is debatable. While most Americans may be able to read they are not literate when it comes to policy. If nearly forty percent of Americans polled in a 2006 Ohio University poll believed that Saddam Hussein worked closely with Al Qaeda prior to the U.S., one could certainly be incredulous of the judgment of the voting public [10].

 

The argument for the electorate balancing out representation for states with lower populations does seem to be quite straightforward. The question can be posed that if we truly have a democratic form of government if the East and West coasts are the ones determining our elections. While middle American and the Rustbelt is politically left in the dust. It becomes more problematic in the sense that Presidential candidates give more focus to states with larger populations. This also translates into appointments and other state-specific accommodations [11]. While it easy to argue the potential for institutional corruption when you live in a city like Los Angeles, however, it does not account for the disadvantages of someone living in Cheyenne.  In a sense, it would whittle down our two-party system to a one-party system. Natural the coasts will back the DNC. Which would install one party with a different figurehead in the Executive branch of government.

 

ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE:

 

While the intentions of the Founding Father’s reflected the moral sentiments of the Scottish Enlightenment ( a bountiful dose of Lockean goodwill), could they have been misguided? It is easy to contemplate if the very same institutional safety net created by the framers could be used the create a whole new form of injustice. Many opponents of the Electoral College languish at the institution’s inefficiencies and proclivity for tampering. Which are certainly valid concerns, however, much of these qualms are fair weather grievances versus actual principled calls for reform. The often come at the heels of concern generated by partisanship rather than a genuine conviction for policy reform. The same individuals calling for relinquishment and adjustment to this process did not seem to have a problem when Barrack Obama won the electoral vote back in the 2012 election [12]. A quick retort would be that he did also win the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. That is certainly a fair argument in a very superficial manner, it does not stifle the accusations of partisanship. If you truly believe the Electoral College is flawed shouldn’t your support for abolishment be unwavering? Rather than a concern that is only pertinent when it serves a political candidate you dislike.

 

It is quite conspicuous that the substrate for the arguments against the Electoral College is contaminated with petty partisanship and debates that quickly fizzle out once the election results cycle becomes lukewarm in the news cycle. Despite these major flaws in motives, there are some truly compelling arguments against preserving this institutional process. The only possible way to provide a proper analysis of this topic is to present both sides of the proverbial coin. The contrast provides the best compilation of information to draw strong conclusions.

 

The first grouping of arguments criticizing the Electoral College address imbalance that it creates in regards to voter representation.  It eliminates the “one person, one vote” metric through allocating more to smaller states. Not only does this artificial manipulation appear to be less transparent than a majority vote, but it also can cause the candidate with the popular vote to still lose. [13] Not only does it seem counterintuitive to the quiddity of democracy, but also has the moral shortcoming not having the true winner being elected. Which compromises the trust of the public. The electorate striding to even the tide by providing more representation to more rural states have created another problem. The potential for there to be an institutional advantage for a preferred political party of rural states [13]. There is certainly some compelling evidence to say at least at the anecdotal level there may be some truth to this notion. It is well noted that there is a strong conservative streak in among the body of electoral representatives [14]. This proclivity the Conservative leanings of the rural states, which are the ones that receive the most amount of electoral acknowledgment has been noted for decades [15] [16].

 

The second subcategory of arguments can be perceived as the Electoral College’s potential impact on voter participation. The Electoral College disincentivizing voter turn out extends beyond the common assertion a perceived futility of action.  A more oblique speculated cause being that political candidates focus more attention on competitive states, such as swing states. The lack of campaigning attention leaves constituents in less pivotal voting districts and states less incline to vote. Interlocked with this point is that issues pertinent to voters are covered more extensively in “competitive” states. Again surmised to adversely impact voter turn out. Due to the stiff competition faced in “battleground” / “swing” states the creates the incentive for the use of electoral fraud to even the odds versus going by the merits of the popular vote [13]. Such potential for institutional corruption weakens voter confidence and circles back to the notion of perceived futility decreasing voter turn out.

 

The third variety of arguments against the Electoral College echoes the sentiments of the mainstream media.  That is the notion that the Electoral College fails to filter out unqualified or incompetent candidates. Now, some may be inclined to argue this systemic failure is far from a new phenomenon. In light of Trump’s ascent into the apogee of political power, a hyperbolic sense of unhinged panic has swept our country.  Magnifying previously glossed over political shortcomings, the difference being Trump is more brazen. Almost to the extent of flaunting it. Some argue that when the drafters implemented the Electoral College it was designed to stifle such a populist movement of that of  Donald Trump, which it failed to do [17]. In subtracting the variable of blatant partisanship and outrage over his cavalier abandonment of political correctness is a fair assessment.  He has no previous political experience,  no understanding of the interworkings of political institutions, no real grasp of economics, foreign affairs, etc and he still obtained the electoral vote.

 

FLAWS IN THE ARGUMENTS FOR ELECTORAL COLLEGE:

When examining the validity of an argument as it is imperative to present the counter-arguments, but to also expose any blind spots. Even arguments that appear to be airtight have logical and factual shortcomings. In order to comprehensively present the Pros and Cons of an issue, we must look at the failings of both sets of arguments. Out of the necessity of intellectual honesty, I will explore the pitfalls of the arguments of the Electoral College.

 

One of the premiere arguments in favor of the Electoral College is that it serves as a bulwark from the constituents putting the wrong individual in power.  Essentially a preventative measure against a populous movement putting an unqualified candidate in power. When put into the context of when the Constitution was drafted, this argument makes a lot of sense. Literacy was not prevalent and it was quite common for special interests to use bribery to influence voter behavior. Even our first President and Founding Father George Washington resorted to enticing voters with free alcohol [19].

It certainly seems in the context of a world where education is scant, marauding tactics run rampant.  However,  while theoretically the electorate may be designed to protect against such the passion of the people,  the byproduct, in reality, is far from desirable. In our bipartisan political system, the members of the electorate body tend to have an alliance to one of the two parties. Which expectedly influences their voting patterns. Many Republicans disapproved of President Trump, however, even those incredulous in the electorate still voted for him. It should be noted the number of  “faithless votes” or the electorate breaking rank with the constituency of their district is rare. In the 2016 election, the electorate reflected rather than deflected the sentiments of the populous Conservative movement. The electorate did not impede this shift in the political climate as originally intended but rather allowed a conventionally unqualified candidate to become president [18].

 

Another core argument supporting the Electoral College is that prevents rural states from losing influence in national elections. Which would appear to be a substantive rationale until you are confronted with the facts of the 2016 Election. The Republican and Democratic candidates spent 87 percent of the campaign in one of the 12 “battleground” states.  By the end of the election, there were approximately 27 states that were never visited by a mainstream presidential candidate. The majority of those neglected states were rural states [18] Not only does this demonstrate that the Electoral College does not necessarily give balance or deference to rural states in regards to campaign attention. This also has profound ramifications for voter turn out and participation. It has been shown that voter turn is higher in the swing states that receive more campaign coverage [20]. While we cannot infer causation from such correlations it is still a notable pattern to pay attention to.

 

The third erroneous argument reinforcing the Electoral College is that it strengthens the perceived legitimacy of the winning party. The media coverage of close elections creates the illusion that the victor won by a significant margin. For instance, Ronald Regan won the popular vote by about 51 percent and the electoral vote by over 90 percent.  Bill Clinton won the electoral vote twice with having less than popular vote. No doubt he lost some votes the relative success of Ross Perot as a somewhat significant third-party candidate. This artificial perception of significant victory influences public opinion and enables the president to more easily act about their political aspirations. [18]

 

LOOPHOLES IN THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST MAINTAINING THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE:

While the arguments in favor of the maintain the  Electoral College have blind spots, there are plenty of follies in the opposing arguments as well. In the spirit of equity, I must expound erroneous assumptions of those proposing abolishing the Electoral College.

The first  Achille’s Heel in the arguments against the Electoral College regarding it not satisfying the “one person, one vote” metric is a two-pronged attack.  For one, the United States does not function as a direct democracy, but rather a Presidential Republic. In such a system the government has institutions that strive to create a balance between state and individual representation. Understanding that aspect of the nature of the U.S. government nullifies this argument unless substantial Constitutional and institution restructuring occurs [13].

 

The second prong in this counterargument is that the assumption the imbalance of smaller state representation is disproportionate. It is often said that the Electoral College favors representation to less populated states that lean towards the Republican Party.  However, many academic argue the opposite due to the fact that more populated states are more pivotal in the outcomes of elections [13].

 

The flaw in the argument for relinquishing the governmental body of the Electoral College pertains to the objection to the candidate not having the majority popular gaining their seat in office. Which first of all is an anomaly that very rarely happens in the United States [13]. It has only transpired a grand total of five times throughout the course of the history of the Electoral College. Starting with the Election of 1824 with the electoral victory of John Quincy Adams and most recently 2016 victory of Donald Trump [21]. Just from an objective standpoint five times in the course of 242 years is far from statistically significant nor cause for reasonable concern. Which leads me to believe that the few Americans who are concerned are more so out of partisanship than a genuine concern of equity.

 

Addressing the shortcomings of the argument that the Electoral College adversely impacts voter participation. Argument resting firmly on the notion that due to Electoral College only states with sufficient pull in the electorate receive sufficient campaign coverage. However, it is also fair to say that if we eliminated the Electoral College there is no way to prove that this same problem would not still transpire. Regardless of whether this institution exists or not candidates are going to continue to focus on the regions that will be most advantageous to their victory[13].  Getting rid of this safeguard is merely going to deference to the coastal states, in the end, would just shift the location of the extensive campaigning and media coverage. While a different side of the argument, it can also be said that we have no concrete evidence that abolishing the Electoral College would disincentivize voter fraud [13].  While it seems natural to want to liberate the voting processing from red tape and bureaucracy, it cannot be argued in certain terms if untested.

 

The final blemish in the argument against the Electoral College is regarding it impeding clear and decisive election results. It does appear as if this argument isn’t full proof nor does it completely hold water. The fear being that Electoral College will further support the bicameral party system by shutting out third party candidates for the sake of decisive elections. In the 2000 Election Ralph Nader received a meager 3 percent of the popular vote. While Ross Perot received only 19.4 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election cycle. Neither election had to go through a congressional assessment to determine a winner.  But it also should be noted that such minuscule popular vote numbers would in no way significantly impact the voting partners of the electorate [13]. Even if we were had transitioned to direct elections Perot and Nader still would have not had even a glimmer of hope of winning.

 

DISCUSSION:

While the skepticism and the passionate outcry to eliminate or reform the Electoral College is easy to sympathize it is generally underscores the actual mechanics of the institution. In all honesty, most of these fervent surges in the interest to reform this institution seems to be shortlived and conflated with political opportunism.  Seldom does a winning party or candidate call for reform of the electorate. Outside of the obvious being that it would run counter to their best interest, it easy to be complacent of its shortcomings. The mantra of  “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix” seems to be a suitable colloquialism to exemplify how those who benefit approach this topic. The sincerity of the majority of the critics of the Electoral College is certainly something I am suspicious of. From my anecdotal observations, it would appear that it only becomes a hot topic when the Democrats lose a Presidental Election. However, I never once heard a Democratic president in office call for reform of this governmental body.  I would dare to question that if an institution is inequitable,  wouldn’t it be so regardless of the outcome? Hence, why the vast majority of outrage in the 2016 election is more of an indictment of the candidate than the process. The same sentiments can also, in theory, be echoed for the  2000 Presidental Election as well.

 

It is no surprise with the lack of serious and sincere discussion regarding the Electoral College, that we have little in the way of alternate procedures for electing the President. If the methodology is flawed then how would the opponents suggest we proceed?  It is easy to express grievances, however, it takes on a whole other level of commitment to postulate a solution. The founding fathers devised the Electoral College without the intention of it being dominated by two parties. George Washington even warned about the perils of political parties creating discord [22]. Due to changes within the American political climate, there are unforeseen consequences now impacting the electorate. It serves as safeguard beyond the original function, now serving as an apparatus for balancing the voting influence of more populated states. If we eliminate this institution how can we ensure that one party does not dominate? Then again should we be controlling for equality of outcome? But we do run the risk of creating an extended democratic presidency by allowing the Left-leaning more populated areas unchecked voting influence. Which would negate the prospect of term limits due to each subsequent president pushing the same policy, just a different name.

 

The lack of a concise plan from opponents of the Electoral College only compounds matters. Eliminating this governmental body only creates more answered questions. It can be said that while it is a flawed system at least we understand the risks of it, due to it being tried and tested [13]. I never purport that maintaining the status quo is always the best policy. However, considering the rare circumstances under which the candidate with the popular vote does not receive the electoral, it is not a serious concern. At least statistically. If this had shown a stronger pattern of transpiring, I would advocate potentially abolishing the electorate.  I suppose to some extent I see a greater danger in relinquishment creating a political ruling class. In other words, our already scant array of choices of political affiliation being eliminated to one. Again circuitously connecting back to my point of making term limits a pointless concept. I am unsure if it worth to dwell in uncharted waters if this is a potential byproduct of eliminating the Electoral College.

 

When really examining the issue of eliminating the Electoral College it really runs parallel to the discussion about Direct Democracy. In a sense eliminating this institution would make this portion of the political process an example of direct democracy. Most will admit that here in the United States it has worked very well when it comes to voting on referendums at the state level.  However, the question becomes would this be a functional policy or a mangled mess on the national level. It is well documented that Switzerland had adopted the practice of direct democracy nationwide with relative success. Researcher  Simon Geissbuhler’s paper: Does direct democracy really work? A review of the empirical evidence from Switzerland demonstrates how this system has worked.  Geissbuhler’s research concluded that in direct democracy the voter, not the institution ended up being the balancing force. Essentially when the legislator moves too far to the right or left on a policy the voter behavior becomes more centrist [23].

 

Geissbuhler’s findings do seem to run counter to the speculated fears of direct democracy devolving into mob rule. A few variables to keep in mind is for one that Switzerland is a lot more homogeneous of a culture than the United States. When the majority of your few citizens share the same ideas and perspectives it is a lot easier to avoid discord. However, direct democracy could be detrimental to many of the rights that are Constitutionally protected. If we were to eliminate much of the checks and balances in the American Legislative process and left it up to the voting public, we could easily end up nullifying important amendments.  What is important to remember is that the First Amendment was not drafted to protect popular speech, but rather unpopular speech. So by opening up the process of Constitutional Amendment to the masses in a sense, we are surrendering individual liberty for the convictions of the crowd. I could easily see how in a knee-jerk reaction to the Overland Park shooting the general public potentially abolishing the Second Amendment. Keep in mind that back in 2009 the Swiss citizens voted for legislation for a nationwide ban on Minarets on Mosques [24]. Such prohibitions here in the United States would be a direct attack on religious liberty. Would certainly be contrary to our founding principles.

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] https://peterclark7979.wixsite.com/website/home/political-opinions-59-electoral-college

[2] https://vimeo.com/307932748

[3] http://www.openculture.com/2016/11/why-socrates-hated-democracies-an-animated-case-for-why-self-government-requires-wisdom-education.html

[4] https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-2000

[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/presidential-election-2016-results-timeline-controversies-quotes-seats-maps-polls-quotes-a7398606.html

[6] https://news.gallup.com/poll/198917/americans-support-electoral-college-rises-sharply.aspx

[7]. https://history.house.gov/Institution/Electoral-College/Electoral-College/

[8] https://www.historycentral.com/elections/Electoralcollgewhy.html

[9] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed68.asp

[10] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmarshallcrotty/2013/09/26/why-general-knowledge-matters-and-why-we-should-test-for-it/#60d1fdf14be3

[11]http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/view_from_chicago/2012/11/defending_the_electoral_college.html

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/elections/2012/results/president.html

[13] Thinking About the Political Impacts of the Electoral College, Benard Grofman & Scott L. Feld, 2005, Published by Springer.

[14] https://www.uakron.edu/bliss/docs/state-of-the-parties-documents/Stonecash.pdf

[15] https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-urban-rural-divide-more-pronounced-than-ever/

[16] http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/04/the-urban-rural-divide-matters-more-than-red-vs-blue-state.html

[17] http://www.harvardpolitics.com/united-states/the-case-against-the-electoral-college/

[18] http://time.com/4571626/electoral-college-wrong-arguments/

[19] https://about.bgov.com/blog/that-time-george-washington-bought-an-election-with-160-gallons-of-booze-and-other-presidents-day-stories/

[20]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255970024_Battleground_states_and_voter_participation_in_US_presidential_elections_An_empirical_test

[21] https://www.factcheck.org/2008/03/presidents-winning-without-popular-vote/

[22] https://www.constitutionfacts.com/founders-library/first-party-system/

[23] Does Direct Democracy Really Work? A Review of the Empirical Evidence from Switzerland. Geissbuhler, Simon (2014).

[24]. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/world/europe/30swiss.html

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: invertedlogicblog

I am an armchair philosopher,libertarian,an other gear in the machine, a truth seeker and skeptic.

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