The Electoral College or How to Lose While Winning

You had one job. One job.

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Political ideology or political votes in 2016 as mapped and weighted by Mark Newman/University of Michigan

I’ve written on the Electoral College before. In fact because the article I wrote didn’t seem to get a stable url I’m probably just going to republish it here at some point. So if you see a weirdly anachronistic explanation of the Electoral College from me in the next few weeks or days that’s what that is. But the reason I wrote that piece is that right after the 2016 election people were googling things like “Electoral College location.”

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You thought I was kidding didn’t you? Seriously guys, this is why mummy drinks.

I’m not going to get super into it today, because you can just see my stupid article from before in a few days time when I deign to republish it, but I do want to cover a few gross points. And by “gross” I mean “overall” rather than “disgusting,” although to be honest … I do also mean “disgusting.”

First thing’s first, the point of the Electoral College was not — as it is often misattributed — to keep the stupid populace from selecting the wrong person. And frankly, with this, the proof is in the pudding. Or pudding-face. The Electoral College is why we have Donald Trump. I think at this point Hamilton is happy he got shot by Burr. Either that or he has no consciousness or feelings on the matter, because the concept of the continued existence of the soul after death is a construct of a theistic society and there is no God. You know. Whichever.

Basically, the Electoral College was a perfectly good idea until Presidential candidates started running for office. So yeah, it wasn’t one of Hamilton’s more effectively prolific ideas and basically Burr ruins everything. At least historically speaking. To be entirely honest there was so much bed-hopping I can’t keep these guys straight. But the reason is there were effectively several candidates for President in 1796 and Burr came in fourth but his run sort of split the ticket as it were and was why Adams won the Presidency. Jefferson hardcore hated the man, but he ran on a ticket with him in order to secure the Presidency and to piss John Adams off. Jefferson had … feelings. The letters are pretty spectacular. I think Jefferson is Regina and Burr is probably Gretchen. Or Adams is Regina. Point is, Adams and Jefferson couldn’t work together as President and Vice President.

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Pictured: Actually not a megalomaniac. Alexander Hamilton, chromolithograph.The Knapp Co./Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-17523)

Anyways, because Jefferson and Burr worked together to be elected President and Vice President respectively it sort of nullified how the Electoral College worked at the time and so … Twelfth Amendment.

But the issue is, the Twelfth Amendment basically takes all the stupid parts of the Electoral College that would quickly age and discarded all the stuff which prevented the election of “favored sons.” In Hamilton’s defence he could not have reasonably be expected to envision a future where we could count millions of votes concurrently and communicate across a bi-coastal United States instantly. And I don’t really care to look this up at the moment but the point of this exercise was that the entire affair be an uninfluenced democratic election with a sharing of power and possibility for compromise.

Let’s just jump forward a few hundred years.

That was quick.

Okay so USUALLY the EC doesn’t screw up as hardcore as it did in the 2000 election and what happened in 2016 is absolutely unprecedented. I don’t think any serious person will characterize the 2016 election as anything short of a miscarriage of democracy. And 2000 was a bit of a warning for us in regards to 2016 but as this article states both Republicans and Democrats have had reason to believe in relatively recent history that they had a lock on the Presidency because of the EC. And the reasons they give are usually pretty similar. Both parties rally after a Presidential win and tell everyone and themselves that it’s definitely always going to be like that and more. And then in the next election the other party comes to power.

Naturally, every Presidential Election we have there are at least some people — usually massive nerds like myself — calling for the elimination of the EC. In 2000 and 2016 though, there were huge public outcries because the EC overturned the popular vote. So we do have increasing momentum for things like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).

Now, I called myself a nerd, but I kind of have mixed feelings about eliminating the EC. It’s definitely obsolete, but … we got problems and I don’t think we can solve ’em. I lie. Our problems are actually eminently solvable, but there will be jerks trying to stop it and we’re all going to have to be just spectacularly honest. I in principle want the EC eliminated, but the proper way to do it is via a Constitutional Amendment and other workarounds like the NPVIC are more or less riddled with potholes.

I should probably explain what the hell the NPVIC is.

The NPVIC is a state legislature driven agreement that once a majority of electoral votes are collected under this compact all states signed on will assign their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide. In theory it’s the next best thing to a proper popular vote. But it requires that there are no faithless electors and that all the states signed on actually honor the compact. I really don’t think that they would. I think for example that if a deep red state signed onto this and a Presidential election went blue that state would still send it’s Republican electors to the EC. Now, if it’s a blowout, that’s not a problem, but if it’s close a smaller state can absolutely tilt the election.

And you may say, “but they signed on to the Compact, they have to honor their word.” Do they? There’s no real penalties for faithless electors. Sometimes there’s a thousand dollar fine, but usually if you’re an elector you can do what you want. They’ll usually tow the party line and honor the popular vote but not always. And there’s no penalty for a state sending the electors it’s people voted for to the EC whether or not it signed onto the NPVIC. In fact, if we’re going to get theoretical here it’s probably better for states whose populace did not go for the winning candidate to be faithless. There’s more of a codified penalty for them dishonoring the NPVIC than not and depending on how red or blue the state goes voting the other way in the EC could lead to unrest.

Now, ignoring California and Texas for a moment this shouldn’t be a problem because if the popular vote goes one way usually the EC does as well. One or two states shouldn’t be reason for things to fall apart. Except of course, we saw that happen. The reason I put a pin in California and Texas is because those two states happen to be massively populous, and yeah they both have a ton of EC votes, but they don’t really have enough to generally flip an election.

So California was one of the first to sign onto the NPVIC but I kinda think that’s laughable because if California had to send GOP electors to the EC I’m pretty sure the state would shut down the internet. We’d have actual zombies inside of six hours if that happened. Do NOT underestimate Silicon Valley. The other issue though is just because you get California or Texas does not mean you get the nation. Which if you think about it is super weird because of how populous those states are. Here’s an EC interactive map for you to play with. But this is the problem. At present we have this weird unintentional weighting thing where California and Texas are more or less locked blue and red respectively sort of cancelling one another out, but even if you got the entire population of both of them you wouldn’t have the Presidency. And if you NPVIC’ed it and went only to super populous states or really concentrated on those populous states you run the risk of losing the rest of the country and having to rely on the kindness of strangers pretty literally.

This article with it’s graphics one of which I used for my banner on this article because it’s purty and illustrative probably explains how difficult this whole process is far better than I have. A lot of people scoff at the idea of a “coastal elite,” and the term isn’t really intellectually honest, but there is a point there. If democracy works then every American citizen gets a vote and gets to have input on the Presidency. Now, I’m a hell of a lot more concerned about minorities being able to vote given how much voter intimidation and purging we see to this very day than I am about the rural vote, but I’m also not going to sell rural voters down the river. I’ve got family are considered rural. I also happen to know they vote. Now my rural family happens to be so rural that they basically sort themselves out all on their own, but they are American citizens and the President ultimately works for them. So they should get a reasonably equal say in how the President is elected.

What I’m calling for here IS for the EC to be dismantled, but I would prefer it be done via a proper Constitutional Amendment. We are at a point in our technological history that a Presidential candidate can reasonably access and hear from all corners of our country all the way out to the territories. The EC absolutely is obsolete and it really hasn’t justified it’s maintenance particularly as in 2016 it undermined democracy. But we need to get rid of this thing like we’re diffusing a bomb. And it’s not as simple as cutting the red wire.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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