Electoral Change

So I’ve changed my mind about something political. I have to admit, this is something I didn’t think was possible. I didn’t think any of us could change our minds at all. But thanks to an article in my local paper, I did. It’s about the Electoral College, the arcane tool used to elect presidents (and vice-presidents) in the United States. The Electoral College is a group of people, 538 to be precise, who cast ballots every four years for the offices of President and Vice-President. When American voters cast our votes for “president,” we are actually casting votes for particular electors, who are supposed to then vote the way we’ve told them to.

I used to be a big fan of the Electoral College. The main reason for this was that I thought it was an attempt to keep a good balance between states and the federal government, since the United States is (in my understanding) a tension between one nation and fifty nations. That tension is built into our government from the ground up: Congress has two houses, one which is fair if we are one nation (the House of Representatives, where each member represents roughly the same number of people), and one which is fair if we are fifty nations (the Senate, where each state gets two members, regardless of that state’s population). The Electoral College, in my eyes, was perfectly balanced with the makeup of Congress. The number of electors each state has for President is equal to the number of Senators plus the number of Representatives that state is allocated.

Is the Electoral College fair? Not quite, but it’s exactly as unfair as Congress. Residents of small states (in population) have more representation in both Congress and in the Electoral College. The reason for that is because every state is, in one sense, equal; whereas, in another sense, every person is equal. That’s the tension of the United States. If you want to abolish the E.C., you have to also abolish the Senate.

I was never sold on the “winner-take-all” nature of the Electoral College, how all of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes go to the statewide winner, even if that candidate won by a fraction of a percent. However, that’s a decision for each state to make. At least two states do allocate their electoral votes more proportionally. I think that’s a great idea, but it should be up to the state legislators, not the federal government to mandate that.

That’s how I used to think. Then I learned a lot more about the history of the Electoral College. The article I read in my local paper is good, and this article from the New York Times is even better. The gist of it follows. (Please read one of those articles for a better description).

The Electoral College was part of the compromise that created the United States, the compromise between Southern (slave) states and Northern (non-slave) states. When the states determined their populations, slave states were allowed to count three-fifths of the number of slaves as people. But of course none of those slaves were actually eligible to vote. So this meant that the vote of a white man in a slave state was worth significantly more than that of a white man in a free state. And it wasn’t because of some fancy notion of “the tension between one and many nations” like I always believed. It was explicitly on the back of Black slaves. Certain white men gained power over other white men because of the disgusting exploitation of Black people.

And in a sickening irony, it actually got worse after the Civil War. The thirteenth amendment guaranteed the vote to freed slaves, but that guarantee was blocked by the governments of all of the former confederate states. Jim Crow laws made sure that no Black person voted legally in the south for almost a century. And yet…now that they were free, Blacks were now counted as full people in the population count, not three-fifths. Which meant that the vote of a white man in a Jim Crow state had even more power than it had had during slavery. Again, certain white men gained power over other white men through the exploitation of Black people.

And it’s still happening in more subtle ways today. Voter suppression still happens, and while it may not often be explicitly against people of color, the reality is that people of color are still disenfranchised at a higher rate than white people. It’s often easier to vote in rural and suburban areas, and more difficult in poor areas of cities. Coincidence? I don’t know. Mass incarceration of people of color disenfranchises a whole swath of the population for a period of time, and in many cases, it’s very difficult to get that right back even after being released.

What I never really put together was that the Electoral College uses two different numbers: the total population, and the total number of voters. Obviously the number of voters in a given election will always be less than the total population, less even than the total eligible voters. That’s the normal question of voter turnout. I never realized, though, that there are also other reasons why the number of voters is less than the population: because many people are deliberately kept out of voting. You want power? Keep the number of people who actually vote as low as possible, while also keeping the population number as high as possible. The Electoral College is a system that enshrines that plan.

I’m not sure if the Electoral College is still being deliberately used today to hold onto white supremacy, but it was designed explicitly with that in mind, and it still does damage to this very day. So I’ve changed my mind. Abolish it! Yes, there would now be a mismatch between the way Congress and the President are elected. And yes, there would now be less of a balance in the tension between one and fifty. But that’s not as important to me now. Fairness to those white people like me have trampled on for centuries is more important to me now. Abolish the Electoral College!

But I’m not sure I’ve yet changed my mind about something else. I still think that people can’t change their minds about politics. Despite the fact that I just did. There’s a cognitive dissonance there. I’ll have to work on that at some point…

Photo by Tanner Larson on Unsplash.

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