The Electoral College Is Obligated To Save Us

But will they? Doubt it. As we approached the voting day, I have quietly supported efforts to appeal to the electors, but I don’t want to put too much stock in such a long shot. I’m more focused on dealing with a Trump presidency rather than trying to put off accepting it. I do not trust anyone to do the right thing. I do not trust there will be enough “faithless electors.”

Plus, if they do deny Trump the presidency, it’s unlikely they’ll give it to Hillary. It’s more likely it will head to the Republican-held House and they will choose a President for us. It could be Trump, himself. In fact, that’s the most likely outcome. The symbolism of this would be significant. I do think getting Trump and his cronies out of there, even for a different Republican, is a good idea, but it would not award us the opportunity to relax and be assured that the US would continue on as usual. And who’s to say that, bowing to party pressure, the new Republican president wouldn’t just promise to continue on Trump’s path, hire Trump as an adviser, or even just let him whisper in his ear the whole time.

This post is beefy with links and information. I promise, I’m usually fairly charming.

Electoral College and Voting: Basic History

We all know some version of this: the Electoral College was established to protect the less populated states, or to make up for the fact that information traveled slowly and voters may not be properly informed, or to override the will of the people when they make a bad choice. It’s also widely accepted it was tweaked in the 12th Amendment to protect the institution of slavery.

Needless to say, it’s largely outdated. But no matter the intended purpose, we abide by it, and this is what it says about it in the Constitution. A snippet:

The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and all persons voted for as Vice-President and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate.

What’s missing here? Connection to the popular vote. The Constitution awards the states the right to choose how they contribute to a presidential election, and the Founding Fathers barely even discussed having us directly vote.

I’m not saying voting for President doesn’t matter, because now we are tied to the popular vote (no matter how bastardized that tie is). In fact, because lower offices are popularly elected, voting is tremendously important. I’m only saying that we need to release ourselves from the rah-rah-America idea that we live in an idealistic Democracy. From The Atlantic:

The Bill of Rights is undemocratic. It limits the federal government’s power in profound ways, ways the people often dislike. Yet the people can do almost nothing about it. The Supreme Court is undemocratic, too. Yes, the people elect the president (kind of, more on that later), who appoints justices of the Supreme Court, subject to approval by the Senate, which these days is directly elected, too. But after that, the justices wield their extraordinary power for as long as they wish without any democratic accountability. The vast majority of Americans may desperately want their government to do something. The Supreme Court can say no. The people then lose, unless they pass a constitutional amendment, which is extraordinarily difficult, or those Supreme Court justices die.

That’s the way the framers wanted it. And, oddly, it’s the way most contemporary Americans want it too. Americans say they revere democracy. Yet they also revere those rights—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms—that the government’s least democratic institutions protect. Americans rarely contemplate these contradictions.

Why are the Electors obligated to save us?

By now, we have all been made aware that it is absolutely true that Vladimir Putin’s administration meddled in our election, and that Trump has no intentions of resolving his conflicts of interest. When I say the Electors are obligated to save us, it’s from an ideological standpoint rather than a Constitutional one. It is inferring intent from many of the Founding Fathers (who did not usually agree on much). But the text of the Constitution does not state the intentions behind the Electoral College, just how it works mechanically.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Founding Fathers largely did not trust the population to elect an appropriate candidate (probably uneasy with the idea someone outside of their elite circle could be elected). If the Founding Fathers did not always agree, we only have their writings to help us discern their actual intentions. One of our trendiest Founding Fathers said this of the duties of electors, in Federalist Papers No. 68:

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue. And this will be thought no inconsiderable recommendation of the Constitution, by those who are able to estimate the share which the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration. Though we cannot acquiesce in the political heresy of the poet who says: “For forms of government let fools contest That which is best administered is best,” yet we may safely pronounce, that the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.

Why I refuse to fixate on the possibility of an Electoral College overturn

I don’t envy the position that a red state elector is in. It’s hard to know for sure because we have not heard from most of them, but I imagine there are several who are very uneasy about their predicament; I imagine there are at least a few who take their position seriously and understand that Trump’s conflicts of interest and the interference of Russia in our elections may put Americans at tremendous risk. One of Texas’s has even stepped down (frustratingly, instead of voting his conscience).

Reasons I’m not convinced they will save us:

  1. They have legal obligations not to. Of course, we all hope they take a stand and don’t let that stop them, but even I’ll admit that’s a tall order.
  2. I’m sure plenty of them support Trump. Plenty of voters did.
  3. I think they may fear the repercussions – court battles, protests, maybe even violence. I’d argue that the devastation that awaits us under a Trump presidency is far worse than short-lived upheaval, but nevertheless, I’m not an elector.
  4. It would drive a stake into the heart of the voting system. Again, this appeals to me, but I don’t think it appeals to everyone.
  5. It could set a precedent none of us want to visualize for the future, where the popular vote may have NO bearing on the Presidential election (instead of SOME bearing). I would worry about a class of powerful electors who get to work together and decide who they want to be in charge.

So what do we fixate on?

Other than minimizing the damage done during the next four or eight years, let’s try to render this dated institution obsolete. It does not make sense to have this process where it’s half-assed popular voting and then an arcane and irrelevant electors system.

According to the national archives of the government, there have been more proposals to eliminate the Electoral College than anything else. But it never works. Why? Because Amending the Constitution is difficult, and the people who are in power are always supportive of the very institution that got them there. This disproportionately screws Democrats, and if we continue to cluster in cities, population vs. Electoral College splits will become more and more frequent.

Enter: the Interstate Voting Compact. You probably saw this floating around on your social media. It’s actually pretty straight-forward and doable. States, who have the right to control what their electors do, are passing legislation that their electors are to honor the national popular vote (rather than the state vote). If enough states sign up for this (say, 270 electors’ worth), we’d be golden.

It’s kind of a long-shot, but less so.

Republican states aren’t going to be enthusiastic about this (barring some unforeseen circumstances I guess). So blue states plus a few swings just have to get on board. That’s doable. One issue will be that many states will probably be able to repeal this quickly, depending on their laws, so theoretically if a swing state passes it but then later on has a Republican-controlled state legislature, they could just repeal it between an Election Day that didn’t go their way and the Electoral College vote. That’s why we just need some extras in there. Right now, this is where the Compact stands. Green states have passed the rules, yellow states have it in legislation. If Michigan and Pennsylvania pass it, that adds up to 201 Electoral Votes. Those states went red this year, but they were close.

If we add states that went blue this year (Colorado-9, New Mexico-5, Oregon-7, Minnesota-10, Virginia-13, Delaware-3, Connecticut-7, New Hampshire-4, Maine-4) – and that would bring us to 263. TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY-THREE. Any one of the main swing states would push that over 270, and then add a couple more in there for good measure in case someone messes it up for us. Also remember that some solid red states are on the verge of going blue in a popular sense (despite how bad the numbers look for us).

This is not THAT far from achievable.

It would also be worth our while for swing states to start splitting their electors, like Maine and Nebraska do. It is so obvious that the Electoral College does not proportionately represent the population, and that would at least ease the divide.

If you need more reason to be angry about the unfairness of the Electoral College, check out this calculator for how much your vote counts. Hint: if you’re not in a swing state, it pretty much doesn’t.

NOW is the time to start addressing this, because it is only going to get worse for us as time goes on. We are disenfranchised by this system (among others). If we do not start fighting for the voting power to be balanced (which also needs to mean fighting voter suppression efforts), we will not see another Democratic president in the near future, no matter how many people vote for one, except for in the unlikely event Democrats start spreading out in droves and stop concentrating in cities.

Action Items:

  • Contact your elected officials early and often about this issue, particularly if you live in a blue or swing state. Follow these tips for appealing to them.
  • Reach out to your friends in other relevant states and tell them to do the same.
  • If you have set reminders on your calendar about contacting your representatives, add this to the list of issues you want to rotate through.
  • [ADDED LATER] Donate to fairvote.org, a non-partisan organization working for general electoral reform (not just for the Presidential election), so that people are more fairly represented.
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Author: Melissa

Melissa is an artist and half-architect living in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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