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Thursday, December 30, 2004


Week 2: The American Electoral Process

I swore I wasn’t going to post to this blog, because of my allergy to politics. I have this feeling that the so-called Casual Observer decided to pick one of my rant buttons on purpose, and then had me look over his post to edit it, for the specific purpose of seeing if I had an opinion on the subject. Which he could then harass me into posting why I told him off, for what he wrote, in private. (I thought it was for a class, dammit!) Cheater. Anyhow. On with the show: 1) This is not intended to be completely inclusive or comprehensive. 2) From this point on, this is 1402 words.

The American Electoral Process:

It seems, every election year, this topic occurs, although the controversy swirls even tighter for presidential election years. I was taking high school government in 1998, during the congressional election. (Part of the class grade was “volunteer for a local party’s headquarters” or “sit in on the city council holding two of their meetings”. I chose the City Council meetings.) I was in my college freshman-level political science class (as a sophomore, poli sci isn’t my favorite subject) for the 2000 election, and I spent this past summer taking a senior level political science class (the last credit I needed for my degree) over the Presidency (it also played host to the graduate students – the only difference was the length of the papers wanted from the two sets of students). The electoral process is, of course, fundamental to the democratic process, and, of course, all three of my political science classes spent some time discussing what it is, how it works, and why we’ve never really managed to change it.

My good friend has asked if the process is broken, and can (or should) it be improved or fixed?

The answer is neither “yes, it is broken”, or “no, it is not”. It’s a bit of both. I’ll deal with the presidential part of the electoral process, since that’s what I’ve had the most information-dump on, as well as written the most papers on, the most recently.

The major problem with the current system is the way the parties choose their candidates. Until about thirty years ago, the process involved the political phenomenon called “the smoke filled room”. Or, in other words, political machines worked together to pick the best possible candidate, or at least the one they felt represented them best. The Democratic Party decided this was not “democratic” enough, as the delegates merely voted for the candidates backed by these machines. Not to mention, the delegates weren’t “representative” enough! So they set about to have “representative” delegates, and ended up with a lot of young stoners voting for the Democratic nominee. After this astounding disaster, both parties turned to another method: the primary.

The primary is an interesting creature. It has created a “new breed” of presidential candidate – one who must appeal to a broad base of people consistently. This requires much more money than the parties used to need to spend to campaign, particularly in a time where voter turn out is so low, even when you look at just the turnout percentage for registered voters, and not those who are eligible. Unfortunately, this has not increased the caliber of candidate offered to us; it has changed the kind of candidate. Charisma, sparkle, memorability, and money have become paramount qualities, and have lessened the previous emphasis on respectability and ability. I will not say all the candidates since then have been outstandingly poor, but if money were less of an issue, the candidates would be much easier to stomach.

Another factor of the electoral process which crushes the hopes of “third party” candidates is something that is dealt by the individual states, rather than the national level. One common complaint is the difficultly third party candidates face when trying to get on the national ticket. The fact of the matter is there is no national ticket! Most of the states in the union have their voting tickets designed around the two party system, and a third party candidate must buy their way on to the ticket. And the rules vary between states, wildly vary. Candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties are automatically added to the ballots, no extra charge. But most third parties simply don’t have the funds to bribe the states into putting them on the ballots (since that’s about what it amounts to, IMO), which greatly hampers the growth and spread of a secondary party, to take the place of the dying parties. (I call them dying because this past election has convinced me that the parties need to mutate into something new again – besides, we’re way overdue for a political realignment.)

The third major complaint most people have, particularly on a presidential election year, is the Electoral College. The other two complaints, I’d like to see something done about. I find them vastly annoying, myself, as well illogical. I’d like to let the third parties have more than a snowball’s chance in hell at winning even a single electoral vote, and I really would like a better set of options, when it comes time to cast my vote. But the Electoral College remains a vital part of democracy in the United States.


It’s actually quite simple.

We are not a pure democracy. We are a representational democracy. In fact, we aren’t even a “pure” representational democracy. We are a “Majority Rule, Minority Rights” representational democracy. The Big People may get to make the rules, but that doesn’t mean they can make rules to let them kill off the Little People (thank you, Justice System!). Remove the Electoral College, and all a presidential candidate would have to do to win is campaign in the big cities such as NYC, LA, Chicago, and a couple of others. The rural, outlying areas – including some entire states! – could be ignored completely, in a purely popular vote situation. The Electoral College was designed for exactly that reason, to prevent exactly that scenario. The electoral votes are awarded based on the number of Congressional members a state has, in the case of Texas, 34, in the case of some states, a mere 3, two Senators and one Representative. This gives the smaller states a fighting chance at having their votes mean something. It also keeps rural residents in West Texas from having to contend with the huge population centers out in California. I mean, really, folks, if you’re going to bitch about the influence the movie industry has on popular culture already, do you REALLY want to give that much political heft to Los Angeles and San Francisco? I really hope not. I like my guns and my knives. (Okay, so the twenty-odd rifles and handguns in the house are actually my father’s, but I still get to use them.)

One possible tweaking of the Electoral College lies at the individual state level, again. In 48 states (if I recall the number correctly, it may be 47 or 49), all of that state’s E.C. votes are awarded to the winner of the entire state’s popular vote. In the one or two exceptions to this, the E.C. votes are awarded on a percentage of the popular vote. So if one candidate gets 55% of the popular vote in that state, 55% of the E.C. vote goes to that candidate, and the remaining 45% is portioned out equal to the remaining popular votes. I think this is just as viable as handing a candidate all of a state’s electoral votes, without inflicting the damage of a purely popular vote. It gives greater voice to the other, minor parties, by allowing a closer-to-popular voting style, while still letting the smaller population centers a chance to have a voice.

How likely do I consider the chances of the electoral process being changed much at all? Very, very slim. There have been countless bills and amendments authored and submitted to Congress over the last two hundred years. Only a couple, most notably, women and non-white males getting the vote, have ever had a real following among the voting public, and only those with a following ever got even considered. If folks want things changed about how the voting system works, it is the individual states’ governments which need to be worked on. Until third party candidates can get on the state ballots with ease, until the states apportion their E.C. votes according to the popular vote within that state, a lot of the changes necessary to “fix” the American electoral process will never make it.

But it has to happen at the state level. Because our Founders did not trust the national government, either, and they left those sorts of decisions directly to the states themselves. And I, frankly, have to admit to wanting it to stay that way. If a few illogicalities are the price we pay for keeping the federal government out of dictating how it itself is elected, then I say we’re making a steal on the deal.

Most of your argument on the Electoral College doesn't make sense to me. For example, you imply that candidates don't currently ignore entire states... which is ludicrous. I started refuting some of your points, but then I changed my mind. I'm hoping that you will read my assessment of the EC. Then, we can decide what points are worth discussing and on whose blog they should be discussed. I think the debate would be beneficial to all, particularly on your idea of EVs being proportionally allotted. Thanks.
It's quite simple. Politicians may ignore some states, but those states' electoral votes still can make a difference. Remember how everyone was biting nails over which way Nevada would fall, just two months ago(ish), now? One "little" (small population) state can tip the election either way. Without the electoral college, that state may as well not go to the polls at all, because their votes are a drop in the bucket compared to Texas' or California's pure popular vote. In a way, it adds weight to the vote of the smaller states/population centers, compared to the much larger population centers.
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