By Patricia H Kushlis
The Electoral College versus the Popular Vote
For the second time in 16 years and the fifth time since the founding of the Republic, the Electoral College vote will trump – pun intended - the popular vote for president of the USA. An archaic institution designed for the late 18th century is soon destined to turn the popular vote on its head by handing the presidency to an incompetent clown and accused sex offender likely floating on a mountain of debt topped by a summit of law suits. Meanwhile, the majority of American voters who did not vote for him is told to grin (or grit their teeth) and bear it – that this is how democracy functions: this is how power is meant to shift peacefully from one administration to another. That mantra is from what I can figure out, likely courtesy of the GOP.
Unfortunately the transfer of power at the top is based on the will of the Electoral College, a group of 538 individuals selected by the states composed mostly of individuals no one has ever heard of. On December 19 their decision will permit rural and rust belt states to determine the fate not only of the US but also the world over the next four to eight years.
What ever happened to one person, one vote? Forget it. Today’s Electoral College makes a mockery of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which was passed at the height of the nationwide non-violent Civil Rights movement which rocked the country during the early – mid 1960s. The Act negated the previously widespread suppression of the black vote in former states of the Confederacy.
Today, not only has voter suppression returned with a vengeance as a result of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2013 that gutted the contents of the Voting Rights Act but even excluding that Supreme Court decision, the popular will of the voters is upended because of the way in which the Electoral College functions.
A voter who lives in Montana, the least populous state, has, for instance, almost four times (actually 362 times) the weight of a California voter in the selection of the president. That’s not democracy: that’s the tyranny of the rural minority over the urban majority. As America continues to urbanize this tyranny will continue to worsen: unless something is done to change it.
This is 2016, for heaven’s sake: over the centuries since the adoption of the US Constitution in 1789, its contents have been interpreted and reinterpreted to meet the changing times as the franchise has gradually widened from indirect vote restricted to white male property owners to all US citizens regardless of race, color, creed, property ownership, gender or sexual orientation.
Yet since 2008 with the election of President Obama the widening of the franchise has been challenged through rear guard actions by the Republican Party, the country’s minority party which simultaneously gained control of a majority of state governments and which has used stealth tactics to regain – and then to keep - the country’s political control in its own hands through the inherited weakness of with the Electoral College combined with massive voter suppression in critical states.
The latter has consisted most notably of restrictions of Early Voting locations and their accessibly which are particularly important to the working poor, rollbacks of laws allowing people to register and vote at the same time, and new photo-ID laws that placed strict limits on the types of identification are to be accepted at polls (in Texas gun permits held primarily by whites are acceptable, but not state school or employee IDs) according to The New York Times in 2015.
Once every four years, the weighting of the Electoral College system, a Constitutional Convention throw-back when 95% of the country was rural and the north thought it needed to accommodate the slave states to create the new union, still determines the nation’s next president. It tips the scale in favor of rural states and exurban areas while penalizing an ever increasing number of American citizens as the US population becomes more diverse and urban.
As Emily Badger writes in the November 20, 2016 New York Times, “rural America, even as it laments its economic weakness retains vastly disproportionate elector strength.” The cleavage between urban and rural in terms of voting behavior is becoming ever more pronounced as the population shrinks in rural America – now at an historic low - and expands in the cities. Furthermore, rural influence continues to increase in other aspects of the government as well – from national to state levels.
Yet, adjustments to the Electoral College only occur once a decade. These adjustments are based upon the most recent census. They still do not solve a basic problem regarding the imbalance between the popular and electoral college votes but such every decade adjustments can help mitigate its most egregious effects for a time. The adjustments based on the latest census, however, fail to keep up with the rapid demographic changes in the US. This was taken in 2000. The next census will not happen again until 2020 but even then, GOP gerrymandering and its successful voter suppression at the state level may well keep the balance of power in GOP hands until at least 2024 if not longer.
The counting of absentee ballots continues in several states including California and Michigan. When finished, Hillary Clinton is projected to have won the popular vote by nearly 1.7 if not more million votes. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 but lost the Electoral College vote to George W Bush - but the 2016 discrepancy between the two is worse. Donald Trump’s margins of victory in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are miniscule. Furthermore the impact of voter suppression or dilution in Michigan, North Carolina and elsewhere - one reason black turnout is lower than in previous years in and of itself - is cause for alarm. The Michigan difference is only 11,612 votes in Trump’s favor.
Demography ultimately becomes destiny. But can the Union survive long enough to let this happen naturally? Or is there another way?
Maybe, but it would be an unlikely “Hail Mary Pass”
Given the GOP’s control over a majority of state houses and both houses of Congress, abolishing the anachronistic Electoral College is not in the cards at least until the Democrats regain control of them. It is nigh impossible to amend the Constitution particularly when the party that benefits from the status quo holds almost all of the political reins in the states and the Congress.
But it is also possible for states to change how they instruct their delegates to vote and perhaps more likely for individual electors (called faithless electors) to vote their conscience rather than choose someone unsuitable to govern. This is possible – there are two petitions (one by Daily Kos and the other Change.org) circulating calling upon the electors to do so – although it is highly unlikely that the majority Trump electors will listen. California Senator Barbara Boxer has introduced a bill that calls for the abolishment of the Electoral College but that is more to raise the profile of the issue than to induce Congress to do what really should be done. While neither the petitions nor the bill will change the expected outcome in the short run both are shots across the bow, suggesting harbingers of things to come. The tyranny of the minority cannot rule for long: but can the wrong be righted in time to prevent another civil rights movement from engulfing the capital, the cities and the nation?
It is possible, just as happened in the 1960s, that at some point, a substantial part of the population will find the current rigged system untenable. Whether the response takes the form of a renewed civil rights movement along the lines of the 1960s, a serious push by the “left coast” to secede (California represents the 6th largest economy in the world and is seriously under-weighted in the Electoral College), or another yet to be determined form is a question that this country may well need to address within the next few years, and not wait until a fundamental Constitutional crisis threatens to tear these United States apart.