Like many different countries across the world, we in the U.S. have some complicated ways to do simple things. It’s so complicated that many of our own people have no clue how we elect a President. So, when one gets picked by less than a majority of citizens, people look to blame something.
That something is the Electoral College(“EC”).
The criticism I’ve seen the most of has been summed up in a video by CGP Grey:
While Grey is right about how the electoral college could work, his criticisms are misplaced.*
No, I’m not talking about the whole, “Republic” versus “Democracy” cliches down in the comments of his videos. Rather, I’m talking about the implications of the EC being bound to state control rather than the national public’s control. Or, to put it another way, the EC is an indirect way for states to reassert control over a Federal government.
Like, for example, if a President decided to send federal police into states where they weren’t wanted.
The EC is an odd enough duck that states really have some wide latitude on how it gets formed. States could, if they were inclined, send people who agreed to not elect a President who used spray tan. And in a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, states have the right to force electors to do their bidding. Legal issues aside, the EC can be as weird or as mundane as states want it to be.
At first blush, this is scary. A state could pass a law tomorrow that it will only send electors who will vote for Mike Tyson. Or Betty White. Or one of the Kardashians. And if enough people in the state are okay with that, nothing will happen (except a meltdown on 24 hour news maybe).
Moral of the story: The scary things that Grey mentions in his video really aren’t the scariest things the EC can do.
Is this a good thing or not?
In many ways, the EC looks like evidence of drug use by the Constitutional Framers. At the very least, they had to have been morning drinkers. Side note, I’d actually watch 1776 if it involved these things. Back to the point, the Framers were allegedly smart people. So, how could they do this to their posterity?
The Framers are too dead to answer this question. And really, the Federalist Papers aren’t great at giving a clear answer. I don’t think they could have envisioned this country doing what it is doing. And when they get to 2020, their minds will be blown.
I used to think that the EC was set up so that a geographically diverse area would have to elect a President. This kind of bears out in some of the original wording of the process. States originally had to pick a candidate that wasn’t from that state. But in practice, this isn’t guaranteed by the EC process (as Grey correctly points out).
The cynic in me thinks that the EC could have been made from a grim outlook. States were presumed to exist whether a nation held them together or not. In that way, giving them control over the Executive Branch would get around some dark things. Like, if a president tried to interfere with voting. Or if a president antagonized states to the point they had to appoint a competent individual into the office. Sure, four years is a long time, but it’s not forever.
Once again, this is conjecture. It relies on assumptions that state governments would keep existing as they did in the 1700’s, and that there could be a national crisis that would not interfere with state government. I can think of a couple ways this might happen. However, it would require a level of unproven genius or madness to justify in people from the 18th Century.
Are any of these questions even helpful right now?
The salient characteristic of the EC is that it is an indirect way for the public to vote for our most powerful office holder. Even if state legislatures decreed who is going to get elected ahead of time, those legislatures are populated by popular votes. Against this, one has to question the amount of trust the public places in its state lawmakers.
In the other direction, if we just made it a popular vote, what sort of consequences would that have? Voter disenfranchisement would become a worse problem, because it becomes more effective in modifying election results. Right now, it’s harder to do because the disenfranchisement has to happen to affect enough electors to make a difference.
Regardless of how people feel about the EC, what it does is serve a bunch of complicated functions. Like other parts of government, it splits power up instead of centralizing it. That’s not a good thing in divisive times, but the effect is that a hostile government isn’t able to do much. A harmonious government is able to do a lot.
This is why when people bring up changing the Electoral College, such ideas have to be scrutinized through something more than political cliches. Yes, it is important for the public to weigh in on how government works. But that expression of power doesn’t just come in the form of popular votes.
If there is a better way for people to share the kind of power that government has – the power to take a life, the power to distribute property, and the power to protect human rights – it needs to be carefully thought out.
*This disclaimer is a bit complicated, and I couldn’t quite fit it anywhere else. TL;DR: CGP Grey does good videos, but I don’t think his criticisms of the Electoral College would lead to discussion that would improve how we do things in our country. For the longer version, keep reading. Otherwise, enjoy these atheist and Christian kittens.
On the whole, I think CGP Grey does good work taking complicated topics and making them understandable. In this instance, my criticisms of his views on the Electoral College exist because they don’t adequately explore the consequences of changing how the Electoral College works. Right now, the College is weighted to whatever voice a state has in national government. Thus, if that provides an unfair voice in the College, one question is whether that translates to an unfair voice in government as a whole.
And yes, government does split that voice into two different chambers (with different rules, powers, etc.). The overarching idea is that x number people from state y will have a say in what the national government does. Two of them will tell presidents who to appoint to cabinet positions. The rest will hang out and talk shit about each other in the lower house.
Regardless of how people feel about this kind of stuff, they have to have confidence that it works on some level. Without that confidence, some really big questions start raising their heads. A lack of confidence in government is tantamount to grounds for replacing that government. It’s what our Declaration of Independence was all about. So, it’s important to have some perspective. Is the Electoral College perfect? No. Is it the worst thing ever? I don’t think so. But any improvements to it need to be thought out very carefully, because the consequences might exist for centuries, not just four years.