Reflecting on the Electoral College

Merry Christmas to all! I generally make it a point to avoid purely political topics in this blog, and yet there are times when certain current events demand a response, as in protestors hounding electors en masse or students violently denouncing ordinary voters as “racists” for simply exercising their civil right to cast a ballot. Some time ago a respected Berkley law professor, Phillip Johnson, coined the term “microphone man” to explain how certain factions in society routinely use the microphones of media, government, and education to effectively silence any dissenting viewpoints. And since the stunning electoral upset of November 8, a shocked and visibly upset microphone man has wheeled into action by disclaiming the “unfairness” of the Electoral College (EC), a favorite liberal whipping boy whenever “progressive” presidential candidates lose elections they figured were easily won.

The argument goes that the EC is a hopelessly antiquated relic which exists only to pervert and subvert “pure” democracy. The only rational thing to do then is to relegate the EC to the bone-pile of history according to microphone man. Really? I remember learning that the United States was not created as a “pure democracy” but as a Constitutional Republic ~ i.e., a federation of several states bound together by federalist principles meant to respect and protect the interests of its various member states. Hence, it is the states as sovereign political bodies, not some amalgam of individual voters, who jointly select the national leader..

Such a system is wisely designed to balance the interests of smaller states, and their residents, against the natural tendency of larger, more powerful states to monopolize federal power in their own narrow interests. Yet judging from the shrill rhetoric emanating from many college campuses these days, it is doubtful whether the very concept of federalism has even been suggested, much less implanted into certain sophomoric brain-stems occupying classroom space. For if the core principles of our Constitution were being adequately inculcated or thoroughly explained then the formative generation might better appreciate the subtleties not only of the EC but the Senate as well. That is another august body that gives equal representation to individual states without regard to population, wealth, or prestige. This means that any argument to disband the EC ultimately applies just as cogently to our national Senate. Both are disproportional forms of representation ~ and were intended as such from the beginning.

This past election provides the perfect illustration, not that the system is not working, but rather that it is working as well as Messrs. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison could have ever expected. After all, their intent was not to concentrate political power but to keep it as widely dispersed as practical, precisely so that special interests and powerful factions would not domineer over weaker groups and individuals. This is known as the principle of Subsidiarity. So let’s look at what happened on November 8 and see if the system is really “broken” as microphone man would have us believe, or if it is working as the framers of our Constitution intended.

Since that pivotal election night microphone man has been harping incessantly how candidate Clinton actually won the “popular vote” by some 2,865,000 ballots (yet she still garnered only 48.1% of the total count – well short of a majority). So does leading in the popular vote but losing the Electoral vote 304-227 actually constitute a travesty of justice? Is the outcome a perversion of the democratic will as many liberals claim? On the contrary, I believe it highlights that very kind of a narrow, concentrated, and highly factionalized power base which the founders were so keen to confine and restrain. In other words the 2016 Presidential election is proof that the system indeed works, not that it is somehow broken as microphone man keeps insisting.

Case in point. Fifty states participated in this election and yet if one were to eliminate a single state, California, from the equation, candidate Trump would actually win the popular vote by 1,405,000 ballots. That’s right! California single-handedly provided candidate Clinton with a plurality of 4,270,000 votes. The other 49 states cumulatively gave Mr. Trump not only a popular but an electoral victory as well. So, should a lone “power state” like California be allowed to dictate its preference over the majority in 49 other states? The current argument against the EC is that we should suspend a Constitutional provision governing all 50 states simple because one, or a handful, of states find that it inconveniently limits their ability to monopolize presidential political power.

But let’s not simply pick on California, because in fact, large swaths of the Golden State are already in political and economic vassalage to the Silicon Valley and Hollywood tycoons concentrated in two urban centers. By analyzing the voting patterns a different way it becomes apparent that smaller states such as South Dakota or Arkansas would be lucky to even get a seat at the table when one or two large urban counties are sufficient to silence their voices. Consider, if national popular vote were the sole criteria for electing the president, then candidate Clinton would have won the recent election by running up her numbers in a mere four counties spread among three states: Los Angeles CA, Cook IL, King and Queens NY. No need to campaign in “flyover” states if one can simply be elected by catering to a handful of big players in a few strategic counties.

Take away the returns from those four named counties and candidate Clinton’s popular advantage of 2,865,000 votes turns into a deficit of 300,000 votes for the rest of the country. Even more shocking, if one were to eliminate 18 counties comprising New York City, the Washington D.C. Beltway, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco Bay, Clinton’s near 3 million polling advantage would turn into a net loss, by 3.6 million votes. In other words, five highly gentrified cities that already tightly control the nation’s finances, government, technology, media, and entertainment would also enjoy a virtual political veto over all those people with no microphones. The EC provides at least some marginal insulation against the whims of the elite corporate and political classes who dominate those five urban meccas. And yet how much sympathy or understanding do their resident tycoons and celebrities have for the everyday concerns and problems that the other 90% of us get to deal with.

This is precisely why concepts like subsidiarity and separation of powers are so central to our Constitutional form of government. The EC is meant to be a leveling device that limits the amount of influence potentially exerted by concentrated power blocks over and against the people and those sovereign states residing outside of a few highly centralized regions. This provides some defense against the sort of raw despotism we can witness in the world today in places such as Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Russia, and China; and that is just the short list! That is why I firmly believe in a supposedly archaic institution like the EC, despite all of microphone man’s arguments to the contrary.

I realize that many of today’s citizens have little clear understanding of the careful and prudent reflection which went into setting up the American republic. Nevertheless, ignorance in such matters can become the real enemy and the greatest threat to a free society. Failure to understand the underlying principles will ultimately lead people to abandon those principles, to their own peril and demise.

Freedom is not free. rather it entails responsibility and even sacrifices at times. Do not let microphone man convince you otherwise. It is not about whose pony won the contest but about whether we are willing to respect the integrity of the process that becomes the hallmark of good citizenship. Based on the behavior of a great number of people since November 8, I suspect that we have a lot of ground to reclaim, and trying to better understand and support the rich legacy of our elegant and resilient Constitution might be a good place to start.

A blessed New Year to you all!

Francis Pierson   +a.m.d.g.

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