Saturday, October 4, 2008

the truth about the electoral college

This Monday, October 6th, is a deadline for voter registration in many cities across the nation & I feel like now is my last chance to impart some knowledge to those still ignorant. I honestly was not voting this election, & not just because my girl Hill didn't get the nomination. But more specifically, after Al Gore lost in 2000, not because of the people's votes but because of the electoral college's votes, I had decided that democracy was in fact not, "for the people," nor was it "of the people" & honey I didn't want anything else to do with politics PERIOD. I was ignorant to the facts, & to the policies & procedures governing this nation. This article, by Dr. William Jelani Cobb is the best breakdown I've ran across of the election system. Whether you vote or not is on you. It's your right, & no one can tell you what to do with it (though many will try). But if you're not voting because you're like I once was, simply ignorant to the facts, allow Dr. Cobb to enlighten you:

The Breakdown:
The Electoral College, that confounding instrument of our democracy, finally explained
Monday, February 04, 2008

By: William Jelani Cobb

In an election year in which almost nothing could be predicted from one moment to the next there is one absolute truth: at some point you will enter a barbershop, barbeque joint or church basement and hear the following statement: "I don't vote because we don't even ELECT the President, the electoral college does" -- which leads to the inevitable declaration that we should abolish the electoral college and general head-nodding all around. But the truth is you really don't want to do that -- and here is why.

The Electoral College is basically the system through which "raw" popular votes are filtered to produce the final results in Presidential elections. When you pull the lever (or, more accurately poke the screen) for your candidate in November you are actually voting for a slate of "electors" who have been chosen by officials in the candidate's state parties. Those electors have been picked, usually after years of service to the party, and are motivated to see the candidate who emerges from their convention win the presidency. Given the fact that it is possible, as Al Gore did in 2000, to win the popular vote and lose in the electoral college, the system has always had the look of a conspiratorial hustle designed to prevent the people from having true political power. But the weird truth is that the electoral college makes American politics more democratic, not less.

Every 7th grader learns that the Constitution has a series of checks and balances designed to prevent too much power from accumulating in the hands of any one set of individuals. But we pay less attention to the fact that it is also designed to filter the power of the masses (or as we like to call them "The People") as well. And that is a good thing. We tend to associate tyranny with an individual, but -- as an Iraqi Kurd or a Roma in Eastern Europe or a brother from Alabama could tell you -- majority rule is not the same thing as democracy.

The Electoral College reflects that tension. It is basically a compromise between those drafters of the Constitution who supported direct election of presidents and those who wanted Congress to choose the president. Under the Electoral College the popular vote is rerouted through a proportional system in which each state gets a number of "electoral voters" that is equal to their total number of Senators and Representatives in the House. Their skepticism about "majority rule" was a product of their political failures and the social upheaval that marked their first years as a "democratic" country.

Having already seen the tyranny that resulted from having too much power concentrated in the hands of one individual, King George III, the Founders moved in the opposite direction and created the Articles of Confederation. The weakness of the central government under the Articles reflected the Jeffersonian belief that "the people" were inherently more fair and just than any set of rulers would be. When Thomas Paine wrote that "Government at its best is but a necessary evil," he reflected the early American skepticism about human nature and the corrupting influence of power.

But by the time the Constitution was drafted a decade later, mob riots and uprisings had made it clear that all the flowery prose and romantic imagery of "The People" was only half the picture. The population at-large was often violently excitable, unruly, prone to act upon their passions and not necessarily all that democratic themselves.

The Electoral College is just one of the "filters" built into the Constitution; Senators, for instance were elected by state legislators, not the voters in the individual states themselves until the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913 allowing for direct elections. But a democratic side-effect of the College was that it made individual votes worth more, not less. In most states the electoral college operates as a winner-take-all system, meaning that if candidate A wins 100,000 votes and candidate B receives 100,001 votes, candidate B gets all the electoral votes in the state. That means that the individual casting that deciding vote is extremely important. Under a popular system candidate A really doesn't lose anything. That one deciding vote doesn't mean much because no matter what candidate A walks away with only .01% less than candidate B. Now, elections are generally not going to be decided by a single vote, but under a winner-take-all system the worth of every individual vote is still magnified.

Aside from that the college basically forces candidates to take a broad array of concerns onto their platform. Under a popular vote system a candidate could win in seven or eight of the most populous states, lose in the 40 or so others and still become president. Under the Electoral College the margins are much more narrow. Anyone who remembers the imfamous blue-state-red-state maps of the 2000 elections knows that Republicans tend to win in lots of states and Democrats in the states with the largest populations. If we were operating on a popular vote system you would probably see Democrats and Republicans fighting it out in those states that have the largest population and ignoring the rest of the country.

If no candidate receives the clear majority of electoral votes -- like the elections of 1800, 1824 and 1876 -- the House of Representatives chooses the president in an arrangement where each state electoral group gets one group vote. And then there is the scenario favored by conspiracy theorists nationwide where a cabal of electors decide to ignore the popular vote altogether and pick their Skull-and-Bones frat brother as President. While the Constitution says nothing about who the electors have to vote for, most states have penalties ranging from heavy fines to incarceration for electors who vote against the candidate who wins the majority in their state.

The reality is that there are more than enough reasons -- felon disfranchisement, voter purges, questionable electronic voting machines -- to be skeptical about the political system. And a degree of skepticism is probably in the best interests of any citizen. But abolishing the electoral college won't get us any closer to fixing American democracy and would almost certainly leave us worse off.

William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D. is an associate professor of history at Spelman College. His third book, now available from NYU Press: To The Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

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