Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Glade Sun

November 1, 2012

SCOUT REPORT: Balancing on a swing

CROSSVILLE — Every four years we hear people asking the same question: Why do we still have the Electoral College (EC)? Despite being an integral cog in our system of governance, few other processes are understood less – except for perhaps the tax code, (which consists of 73,608 pages). So, what is it and why do we have it? First off, the EC is not where politicians go to get smarter (if only there were such a place), and it doesn’t have a football team (sorry UT fans). It’s a process, not a place. It's the method by which we elect the office of the presidency, the only office to be voted on at the national level.

Several options were considered to determine how best to select the executive. Some wanted election by popular vote, others wanted Congress to choose. Another thought was to have the state legislatures do it. However, having Congress choose the presidency was a bad idea in terms of balancing power in that it would concentrate authority and lead to corruption. Using the state legislatures as the mechanism would be equally problematic in that it could potentially undermine the federal structure faster than a Burr bullet. Thus, a compromise was necessary, and it was decided to employ the EC as a safety mechanism.

The founders and framers created a republic, not a democracy. So what’s the difference? A republic is defined as “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.” We do not collectively vote on every piece of legislation, rather we send surrogates to advocate on our behalf. Nowhere in the Constitution does the word “democracy” appear. Democracy is a misnomer that gets tossed around more than “the race card” on MSNBC. There are a couple of types of democracy, direct and representative. Local politics are good examples of direct democracy, where everyone votes on a particular issue. For instance, the initiatives to sell beer inside city limits (which usually get voted down handily in small towns, even though there are large streams of tax revenue sitting right outside the line, and all because somehow making drunks drive further makes roads safer). Most people regard the terms “representative democracy” and "republic" as synonymous, which is fine for our intents and purposes.

The structure for the EC can be traced back to ancient Rome, and an example can also be found in the College of Cardinals, which is used by the Roman Catholic Church to select the Pope. When Americans vote in the presidential elections they vote for a slate of electors, not the actual candidate. Generally the electors are people who are very active in their political parties within their states. The EC consists of 538 electors. Each state gets one elector for each representative in Congress, for a minimum of three electoral votes. In order to be elected to the presidency, candidates must receive 270 votes, which is half plus one. 

The framers did not want direct election of the president. It’s not so much that they thought the public wasn’t smart enough to make good choices (although the popularity of Jersey Shore and Honey Boo Boo makes one wonder), rather they were mainly concerned about malice of faction. With direct elections, candidates would be able to target specific factions – whether it be religious groups, ethnic populations, labor unions, business interests, agricultural workers, or other groups with strong influence to create a permanent majority. 

Similarly, with direct democracy states with large populations would choose the presidency and overshadow “fly over country.” The founders were concerned that politicians would concentrate all of their attention on places with large metropolitan areas and leave the country’s rural populations to rot. It is paramount that the office of the presidency has a distribution of popular support. As it stands, no one region contains an absolute majority of 270 electoral votes; candidates must cobble together a coalition of states and regions. By doing so it alleviates the strain on regional differences and avoids problems that have come to plague large nations such as China, India and the Soviet Union.

Opponents of the EC are quick to point out that rural areas are over-represented. “In 1988, for example, the combined voting age population (3,119,000) of the seven least populous jurisdictions of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming carried the same voting strength in the Electoral College (21 Electoral votes) as the 9,614,000 persons of voting age in the state of Florida. Each Floridian’s potential vote, then, carried about one third the weight of a potential vote in the other states listed.” This is absolutely true. But what you should notice is that those small states are dispersed across the entire nation, so presidential candidates must appeal to a wide variety of citizens from different backgrounds. As such, the Electoral College contributes to the cohesiveness of these United States.

What disheartens voters most is the thought that their vote doesn’t count. The EC employs a winner take all system; the winner of a state’s popular vote wins the electoral votes. This is the natural and intended function of the system; it balances the self-interests of people against each other in order to guard everyone. So, if you’re a Republican living in California, you’ve got a long row to hoe. You may be better off moving to Tennessee.

• • •

Clinton Gill is editor of the Glade Sun. His column is published weekly. He may be reached at cgill@crossville-chronicle.com.

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