In the wake of nearly every presidential election there is a certain volume of noise about the Electoral College. Where there has been a very clear margin of victory in both the electoral count and the popular vote it is largely muted. When the two results are contrary the sound is magnified five or ten fold. This most recent election being of the latter category we are hearing plenty about it. Those at the disadvantaged end of this curious electoral equation are, for right or wrong, quite vociferous in their calls for the abolishment of this anachronism. For any arguments they may make it can not be discounted that it is a matter that it is their proverbial ox being gored.
An anachronism by definition is something which is assigned to another time, the past, and which is better suited to its time of origin. It is by implication something which conforms to another era, but which may not match up to current day standard or practice. That’s not the official Oxford definition, but for our purposes it describes the sentiment behind the use of the term. Accepting this as an accurate definition then it may be said that yes, the Electoral College is indeed an anachronism. That in and of itself, however, does not mean that it is wrong or that it should then be abolished. It had at its creation a purpose and, whether one likes the result or not, still serves a valid purpose today.
There have been, now counting the 2016 result, five instances in US history where the winner of popular and electoral vote are not in concordance. To most of us alive today we may only have held some dim recollection from our US Government class as to the existence or workings of this system. It was not until the 2000 election that we were all given a refresher course. Mr. Gore won the popular vote and… Well we all know what happened in Florida. There was a great deal of voice given to the elimination of the Electoral College then and was heard for at least a couple of years thereafter. This furor died down eventually with subsequent elections concluded in more decisive manner. Still for a good many the lesson from the 2000 election has remained with us. Most of us can understand why and how the most recent election has unfolded as it has. The hue and cry to place the College in the dustbin has been revived nonetheless.
On its face the reasoning for abolishing this system would seem reasonable enough. Appealing to one’s sense of fair play without understanding the intended purpose it does present as something of an injustice. Elections are held, votes are counted and in democratic fashion the candidate with the majority or plurality of the votes cast should be the winner. That thought process is pretty straightforward. This is, after all, how we understand democracy to work. In spite of what one may conclude to the contrary the founders of this country also had a clear understanding that this is indeed how a pure, direct democracy works. It is because of this understanding that they deliberately crafted a representative republic and not a direct democracy. A representative republic is the result of a democratic process, but it is not a direct democracy. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but there it is.
Things were different in the late eighteenth century. Certain things were accepted then that have been righted since. An honest assessment of the society and of the men responsible for forming our system of government will reveal that there was indeed a certain patrician flavor in that company. There were some elitist attitudes present among them and this did manifest itself to some degree. There were those who were fearful of finding themselves held captive to the whims of the rabble. Though there may have been some of this translated into the creation of the Electoral College it was not the only purpose for it. For whatever faults these men may have had as individuals as a whole they shared in a profound understanding of human nature and all of it’s shortcomings.
Beyond any of their socio-economic prejudices there was a foresight at work in this planning. It was understood that the wants of the merchants, artisans, doctors and lawyers, educators who inhabited those populous urban centers would often be at odds with the wants of the farmer, rancher or pioneering settler in what was at the time a mostly rural nation. The Federal system that was envisioned was not the all-consuming Goliath that confronts us today. The ideal was for a federal government of very limited authority over the nation as a whole, a sovereignty to be preserved in the member states. The federal government was to have authority only in those matters necessary to the protection and preservation of the states. Where one state might be more populous and urban in its character they would have the powers reserved to them for representation and administration of law in accordance with the consent of their population, the governed. Likewise for the less populous and more rural states. Therefore it was considered that the proper role of the federal government was to preside over this union in a manner that would preserve and protect the rights of each of those sovereign states, though the individual interests of their respective populations might differ.
In order to cast a federal government properly into this role the possible result of a direct democracy would compromise its ability to be an impartial arbiter of the interests of the union as a whole. Election to federal office by direct democracy would create an imbalance of those interests. Representation at the federal level would be weighted by those few populous centers. With a majority thus established and those representatives acting in accordance with the wants of their own constituency the governance of all member states could be dictated by only a few of the most populous of their members. Thankfully enough of our founders could see this and were troubled by it. Enough so to enact measures to remedy the potential ill.
We’ve all heard the expression ” a picture is worth a thousand words “. When we examine the question of the Electoral College there are two pictures that come to mind which best illustrate that this anachronism still holds some worth today. Much was made of the 2000 election’s red vs. blue rendering of the electoral map by county. There is a very similar map reflecting 2016 election results. Both present a sea of red with blotches of blue along the coasts and in urban centers scattered across the map. These pictures tell a valuable story and in less than a thousand words.
There are some exceptions to these rules, but in general the red vs. blue county map tells us the following:
- In most of New England blue is monolithic
- In New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania there are substantial red areas. Only in Pennsylvania was there sufficient turnout to counter the blue dominance of the heavily urbanized areas
- The south is distinctly red with blue interspersed in counties that are urban, centered around universities or are composed of a predominantly minority population
- The midwest is likewise red with blue filling the urban centers of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis-St.Paul. The Madison orbit of Wisconsin and diehard democrat constituencies of eastern Iowa remain solid blue
- The west is red, much of it deep red, except for counties with overwhelming Latino populations and the liberal bastions of Denver, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland and the California coast
These blue areas are populous and/or minority in character. They also persist in areas that have long entrenched democrat party control. Now one must ask what do these things tell us, beside the obvious differences in demographics? It boils down to just a few simple facts.
The blue and the red represent two different manners of thinking that transcend democrat vs. republican politics. Red areas represent a population that for the most part wishes to be left alone to take care of themselves. They are live and let live, they want to run their own affairs, they don’t want Washington dominating so many aspects of their lives. They do not need or want help from Washington. They try to live within their budget and expect that government should do the same. Left alone they feel confident that they can manage their own health care and retirement. They dont mind looking after their neighbors, but they dont agree with subsidizing failure and bad choices.
Blue areas represent a thinking that government exists to right wrongs, to carry the burden of responsibilities that weigh too heavily upon the individual and in general be the arbiter of fairness. It represents a culture of both entitlement and enablement. They need each other. The enablers relying upon the entitled for their power and authority; the entitled relying upon the enablers to do what enablers do. Enablers fuel dependency. It applies to anything. Drink, drugs, money, it makes no difference. Enabling behaviors feed dependency.
There are those who might care to dispute this assessment, but the facts bear out the argument. Look at that red vs. blue map again and pay particular attention to the states of New York, Michigan, Illinois and California. Each of these states cover a considerable geography beyond their population centers. Each of these states are historically democrat dominated, due to their heavy urban populations. Yet when one looks at the county map of each of these states it is worth noting that in terms of their geographic area these states are mostly red counties.
Consulting per capita statistics for debt by state one finds that New York is number 1, Illinois number 6 and California number 8. There are some statistics that will contradict the correlation I am trying to make, but bear with me. Michigan ranks number 27, but the solidly red state of Alaska ranks number 3 in this category. For arguments sake we can stipulate that these are anomalies of a sort and look instead at a top ten. In order they are:
10. Nevada 9. Washington 8. California 7. Rhode Island 6. Illinois 5. New Jersey 4. Connecticut 3. Alaska 2. Massachusetts 1. New York
Were the District of Columbia properly designated a state they would be number one. So eight of the top ten states for debt are solidly blue domains. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island bear the added distinction that they are the only states besides Hawaii who did not have a single red county in the 2016 election.
If the criteria is a rating of overall fiscal solvency New York ranks 42, California 44, Michigan 35 and Illinois 47. The solidly blue Massachusetts ranks dead last unless one counts Puerto Rico. State and local tax burdens? New York number 1, Illinois number 5 and California number 6. State and local sales taxes? California number 10, New York number 9 and Illinois number 7. What about the states with the highest annual budget deficit? Illinois number 4, California number 5, New York number 12. New Jersey ranks number one in this category. New York, California and Illinois all have in excess of 201 billion dollars in unfunded entitlement liabilities.
On the whole the blue parts of the map do not demonstrate sound histories in spending and policy. They are areas that have remained in largely democrat party control for long periods and are known for embracing those policies which the national democrat party have espoused for at least the last forty years, if not more. Common among these are the notion that government must always do more. More taxing, more spending, more borrowing, more entitlements. If you want your federal government to be run the same as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois or California then by all means lets abolish the Electoral College and move to direct democracy. I’m sure all those red counties will play along, aren’t you?