Another Look At The Electoral College

Earlier this summer, I overheard a Florida neighbor try to explain why the electoral college was so important.  His main argument was the defense-of-small-states argument I mentioned in My Last Thoughts On Our Last Election. Since the election, I have heard (and readA1,A2) a number of Republicans, using similar arguments, try to justify an institution that even Mr. Trump bad-mouthed before he won the electionA.  For the most part, I thought their arguments were contrived and even deceptive.

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For example, Reference A1 argues that slavery had nothing to do with the establishment of the electoral college because:

  1. slaves only counted as 3/5 as much as a free white voter (even though slaves didn’t vote), and
  2. the electoral college gave Abraham Lincoln victory in the 1860 election even though he only had 39% of the popular vote.

If slavery were not an issue, there would be no need to count slaves at all (even at a discount). And while the second argument makes it sound like somebody else would have become President (presumably the one who had the majority of the popular vote) if it were not for the electoral college, there were four candidates that year and Lincoln had 35% more votes than his nearest competitorA. Reference A2, after some discussion, claims that “Unneeded tinkering with a process that is over two centuries old could destabilize one on the steadiest political systems in the world.” Earlier in their article, they had reported that the popular vote differed from the electoral vote only four times (and once more since their article was published). The question that comes to my mind is “which of those five losing candidates would have sent us spiraling toward Hell?”

What Our Forefathers Were Thinking

There were two concerns discussed during the establishment of the electoral college.   Foremost, many of our founders didn’t trust the public to be immune from manipulation.  It was Alexander Hamilton who argued that it was “desirable” that “the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” (see A2 again).  Second, the small states were worried about being considered relevant. The debate about state power vs. individual rights raged during the framing of the constitution. To have all states equally represented in one house of Congress while the number of delegates of the other house is based on state population was a compromise solution to that issue. That compromise further implemented itself in the electoral collegeA. Some have discounted the significance of the big state vs. small state battle. One example of this is Time, but in their article, Time goes on to argue that the specific reason smaller states needed protection from larger states (in the same way minorities need protection from the majority) was to preserve slavery.  Next, we will take a closer look at each of these arguments.

Can The Elites Protect Us From Democracy?

You don’t have to be an elitist to be concerned about our education system (see my blog post The Real Reason Teachers Are So Important), and old people have openly been questioning the fitness of their progeny to relieve them at the helm for generations.  This last election did nothing to assuage my concerns about the dumbing down of America, so I can appreciate our forefathers’ concerns.  The problem is that history has shown that their proposed solution won’t work.  It turns out those elites are part of the same world and subject to the same influences as the rest of us (who knew?).  But it is more than that – there has been sabotage.  An article (Don’t look to the Electoral College to upend Trump victory) by AP News discusses why we can’t depend on the electoral college to bail us out (they are bound by state law, duty, history, and party loyalty to rubber-stamp their state’s results). As the article mentions, some states have passed laws requiring the college to follow the popular vote. Doesn’t that alone negate this whole argument? Another thing states have done, which would tend to increase the likelihood of the electoral college differing from the popular vote, but not in any positive way, is go to the all-or-nothing planA (better known as the unit rule) because they wanted the extra attention or power their fifteen minutes of fame for the bigger prize would get them. I discuss other impediments to electoral fairness and possible solutions in another blog post, Two Political Parties Are Not Enough.

What Do Small States Know That We Don’t?

When it is said that the electoral college favors small states, do you have any idea what that really means?  Below is a table showing the influence of a voter in our least populated state (Wyoming) compared to other states by showing how many voters it would take in that state to have the same impact on the electoral college as one voter in Wyoming.  It’s not pretty.

Table Showing Number of Voters in Each State For Each Electoral College Vote

Much has been said about the need to protect the interests of rural farmers from the big industrial states. Reference A2 stated “Farmers in Iowa may have very different concerns than bankers in New York.” I will ignore that invitation to argue which among us chose the more noble profession, and instead refer you to the first column in the above table about the electoral college. In that table, the states are listed in decreasing order of how many voters are represented by one electoral vote, but as you can see in Column 2, the more populous states gravitate to the top of the list. Column 1 shows each state’s ranking based on the number of dollars brought in by agriculture (I got lazy and quit after the top 25.  Each of the other 25 represents less than two percent of total U.S. agriculture).  The two highest agricultural states are also the states with the highest populations and are already the states with the largest number of electoral votes.  They don’t need protecting.  And whether we are protecting slaves or sheep, does one voter anywhere deserve almost four times as many votes as another?  What happened to the “one person, one vote” idea?  Should my vote be discounted just because I can wave to my neighbor from my front porch?

Let me put a little counter-spin on this argument.  If you were alone on a desert island, pretty much any form of government would work for you.  Is living in Wyoming any different? For background, about half of the land in Wyoming is public property. According to Wikipedia, their economy is dominated by mineral extraction, followed by travel and tourism. They say agriculture is also important, but the state ranks 38th in that areaA, contributing less than 1/2 percent of the U.S. total. 78% of that agriculture is beef, with the rest hay, sugar beets, wheat and barley, and wool. About 85% of the people in Wyoming are non-Latin white, 10% are Hispanic white, under 3% are Native American, and a little over 1% are black. They are not big on diversity. For religion, the statistics I read were not entirely consistent, but around 90% of those with a religious affiliation consider themselves Christian, with Protestants the most common, followed by either Mormons or Catholics. One percent are Jewish. Muslims weren’t mentioned. Politically, 67% are Republican, 18% Democrats, and 14% have no political affiliation. They haven’t voted for a Democrat for President since 1964. I get the idea that if you live in Wyoming (with a half million of your best clones), your nearest neighbor is five miles away, and when you do see each other, you don’t waste a lot of time in debates.  I can understand why you may not think you even need a government.  And if I had any question about how to make the most effective government, or what is the proper role of government, or even what’s the best way to get along with my diverse neighbors, I definitely would not come to you.  I would ask someone from New York or California.  Everyone knows that living in groups is more demanding than living alone (I read somewhere that the reason humans evolved larger brains is not to better solve calculus or advanced physics problems, but to better keep track of group relationships).

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Mathematically, the number of relationships grows much faster than the number of people in a group. Let’s say your universe consists of the high school gym, and relationships can be represented by handshakes (why not keep things simple) as the gym fills on a Friday evening. You are the first one in. There are no handshakes. Just stand there and try not to look silly. As the next person enters, you shake hands. As the third person enters, you shake and the second person shakes with the newcomer. That makes three handshakes so far. Here is a small table to keep track:

People in room 1 2 3 4 5 . . . 10 . . . 100 . . .
Total handshakes 0 1 3 6 10 . . . 45 . . . 4,950 . . .

There is a simple equation to describe this, which I will leave as an exercise for the reader, but the number of possible relationships increases roughly in proportion to the square of the number of people in the room.  Relationships can get complicated.

  But you just couldn’t handle the heat.  Why do you really deserve four votes?

Well, it’s obvious I’m missing something.  If you know what it is, leave a comment.  If you are from Wyoming or were otherwise protected from debate or different ideas, I’ll be gentle – and so will everyone else.  You have my word.  And thanks for listening.

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Silent

An old fictitious liberal of unknown race, gender, size, and sexual orientation that believes in both God and science and is not the least bit intimidated by numbers. Based on that description, you shouldn't rule out the possibility that we could be a composite character.

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