Monday, 1 August 2016

Intrigue in the Electoral College

A friend recently asked me why the Electoral College system for electing the president is a good tradition or a sustaining democratic feature. I’m not sure I’m the best person to defend its continued use, but I can contribute what history and context I know, and talk about why it appealed to me as a subject for a novel.

My novel, the thriller, Faithless Elector, is a fast-paced, topical thriller. It is not didactic. It is, if the independent reviews are any guide, a fun (thrilling?) read. I was lead to write the story when I learned details about the Electoral College system and the possible actions of Faithless Electors. It seemed ripe for mischief and intrigue. As I contemplated the seeming contradictions and weaknesses of the Electoral College, I thought, “what if…?” and the novel was born, its outlines taking shape quickly.

For the details (and believe me, the devil is in them!) I had to become a student of the Electoral College and its history, and I have begun blogging about it. In the current era, there have been three Faithless Electors (1976, 2000 and 2004). While no Faithless Elector has ever changed the presumed outcome of an election, the possibility exists.

Added to the possibility of mischief involving Faithless Electors, there is the fact there have been four times in the nation’s history (1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000) when the popular vote winner did not win in the Electoral College voting, and thus did not win the presidency. On the face of it, this seems mad.

Moreover, the current winner-take-all system we know, whereby the candidate who receives a plurality (not necessarily a majority) of the votes for president in a given state receives ALL of the Electoral votes that state is allocated is not a Constitutional requirement, but the product of political parties writing their own rules state by state (Neb and Maine have proportional rules). That all the votes go to the candidate with that given state’s plurality disenfranchises those voters who did not support the winner.

Additionally, the proportionality of EC votes is skewed toward small states. For instance, California has 38,800,000 residents, and it has 55 electoral votes, or about 705,000 people per elector; and Wyoming, with 550,000 people, has three electoral votes, or about 183,000 people per elector. This means that a Wyoming resident has 3.8 times the voting power of a California resident. Sixty-five Wyomings could fit in California, meaning that if California were scaled in a proportional way it would contribute 195 votes to the electoral college. The winner-take-all (except ME and NE) further amplifies this scenario.

So, the Electoral College is anti-democratic. It disenfranchises voters directly and indirectly. Its rules are arcane and prone to mischief and manipulation.

Why do we have it?

The compromise that arose from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia did not survive the first contested elections of 1796 and 1800. In 1800, after a tie between Jefferson and Burr the deadlock in the House was broken on the 36th ballot, but only after Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton made known his preference for Jefferson, in words that ring eerily salient today: “In a choice of Evils let them take the least – Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”[more]

Responding to the problems from those first elections, the Congress proposed the Twelfth Amendment in 1803—prescribing that electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, and to replace the system outlined in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3. By June 1804, the states had ratified the amendment in time for the 1804 election.

Initially, the Electoral College provisions conceived a set of knowledgeable persons, gentlemanly statesman of the political class who would put nation above self-interest. We have only to look at the 1800 election, where it is clear those involved were motivated more by what would be better for their state and their party than with the concerns of the nation to see how hollow that conception was. I am not casting aspersions on those Representatives, the 1800 election was a political struggle, with the clamor and rancor we would recognize today between contending visions of what is best for the nation. But it was hardly statesman-like.

When people defend the Electoral College as a way of putting country over the self-interest of the popular will, they are hearkening to a pre-political time that never existed, or more cynically, they are defending and advocating the ability of a small group to impose their self-interest on the majority. For all the criticism political parties routinely get, they are the only way non-political people (the majority) can have influence. The enduring recession has exposed how easily moneyed interests can manipulate rules at the heart of the Constitution itself.

The novel, Faithless Elector, shines light on the weakness of the system as well as the opportunity for narrow, special interests to exploit that weakness and thwart the will of the majority. It’s a compelling, thrilling ride. I wish you good reading!

Publishers Weekly says Faithless Elector is a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.”

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. The only convincing arguments I have read / heard in favor of the EC are: 1. It creates a clear winner, 2. It protects minorities, and it creates a system that saves us from the vagaries of a multiparty system, where it is difficult to get a majority to agree on anything (although recently this has not worked too well.)