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The Electoral College Revisited

The day after the election at white heat I wrote about the pro-slavery effect of the Electoral College on pre-Civil War political representation, shaping who got elected President and hence appointed to the Supreme Court. I might have added, that were it not for the succession of the Southern states and the flight of their senators and congressmen, slavery might well have lasted till the twentieth century.

My point a dozen days later being that the Electoral College over-represents states with relatively few voters; while states like California and New York are under-represented.

Today with the election still fresh in memory, the obvious question in the air is whether to abolish the Electoral College. Given that for the second of the last five elections (these two not the first), the victory hinged, not on a majority of popular votes, rather upon a majority in the Electoral College. What lies behind the discrepancy is the two extra electors for every state, without regard to population. (To quote Article II of the Constitution: the “number of electors [is] equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives.” Like going to Reno and the Harold’s Club gives you two chips before the first spin of the wheel.

Of course this is also a portrait of the U.S. Senate, which ignores population, giving every state two senators. One might say the Senate represents the states more than their citizens. The result, in both the Senate and the Electoral College, is that Wyoming and California in terms of population are disproportionally represented (Wyoming with 1.5% the population of California). I can imagine mounting an effective case for disposing of the Senate, whereby ours would become a parliamentary government, like Canada, Australia, Britain, France, and on around the world. Though to little effect, the campaign, that is.

Back to the Electoral College. No more can we imagine the smaller states giving up their senatorial power, allowing the bullies from the big states to stomp them into obscurity, than we can imagine them willingly abandoning the biased system of the Electoral College.

Really? Hold on. The fundamental aspect of the Electoral College (going back to the Federalist Papers) is to override the ignorance of the masses with conscientious men/now “people.” You may have voted in a swath of numbers for a nightmare candidate, who keeps Mein Kampf by his bedside, but we few, we precious few (Americans, not Brits), can hold the line, can save the day.

No, I don’t imagine the states of the Midwest and the South (those that are relatively large in terms of acreage and small in population) would ever agree to yield to fairness. It would be political suicide. Though isn’t an undemocratic system in the long run doomed? Note that, as in the Middle East, so many states have dotted lines for boundaries (Wyoming nothing but dotted lines, which suggests that the notion of state is an abstraction, ignoring whatever natural boundaries might make sense).

Earlier I summoned the notion of conscience. It has a good ring to it, Jiminy Cricket’s advice to Pinocchio, Let your conscience be your guide. Would you willingly vote for a person who had had their conscience surgically destrroyed? Wouldn’t you read Pinocchio again and again to your unconscionable child? Rare would be the parent who would encourage such a monster. My point being that in small numbers we recognize conscience. So we’re not surprised when top-down armies and air forces are willing to shell or bomb cities like Dresden and Hiroshima. But how strange the Russian submarine that during the Cuban Missile crisis, upon receiving the order to launch his nuclear missile, chose not to. Well, the strange nature of a large army does give a commander the gift of command, whereby one person can either order an army to charge or to…disobey a command, especially when the commander is beneath the sea thousands of miles from home. And so can risk being conscientious.

I’m sure you see where I’m heading. Mind you, I’m in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, who in his Cooper Union speech in February, 1860, much researched in the library of Springfield, Illinois, gave primacy to the Declaration of Independence, with its opening line, “We the people.” Not “We the governors.” For Lincoln it was the founding document (and not the Constitution), and his speech to an audience of more than two thousand catapulted him from the status of an unknown to a viable candidate who could serve in place of the unpopular governor of New York, William Seward. We the people, a group of individuals of good conscience. Note that the Electoral College doesn’t convene for a month or so after an election—the delay isn’t because it takes a month of travel to get together. It’s to allow for—what? Consideration. To weigh your responsibility. Probably not a gathering of people who are denied any choice in the matter. It’s precisely to remedy a problematic situation. That I can imagine.

Do I think Donald Trump so dastardly that I would want enough electors to swing the election to Hillary Clinton? (You might ask one of my three recent Libyan students, one of whom lost five friends in three days—guess when.) No. I can as easily imagine a Clinton victory transformed into a Trump victory. But I can imagine a candidate, a swindler, a demagogue, a person ruthless (in the sense of lacking all ruth) who if she or he on election night were to achieve a majority of electors, so that I would urge the electors, at the risk of their lives, to band together, Arthurians all. Should a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton, once they are in the White House prove so ruthless, for that we have provision, impeachment.

Backing up a step to the election of a dastard, a Hitler. Would such an act prove the worth of the Electoral College? Well, not so long as we imagine it as a rubber stamp entity. As it exists now, yes, abolish it. And give thought to a different system of voting, perhaps a ranking system like Australia and Canada, which allows for some elbow room as to how we choose our governors. Pity, like Lincoln, that we can’t think in broader terms, Lincoln who in his speech after Appomattox and one week before his assassination, asked the Marine band to play Dixie. And why not—what had his beloved song done to deserve excision?

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