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Saturday, January 01, 2005


Week 2: Response to David

This originally started out as a commented-reply to David's reply to my original post. The CO made me post it as a regular post, and said he'd add "flowery honorifics" if he had to do it himself. So I'm doing what he asked. At approximately 15 times the length.

Sidial the TechnoPest

Politicians may ignore some states during a campaign, 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.

Let me put this into historical perspective:
A) The popular vote and the Electoral College vote results are very rarely at odds. The percentages may not be exactly correct, but if you look at the history books, it's actually noted when the popular vote and the E.C. vote do not jibe, not when they say the same thing. Which means this argument is more or less pointless, except once every fiftyish years. (I don't have exact numbers and dates, but I can only vaguely recall three or four times where the E.C. vote and popular vote didn't come out to the same result.)

B) The Electoral College IS the Great Compromise that enabled the delegates from the 13 original states to come to the agreement that is our Constitution. It is the voting side of the two house Congress, designed to give equal weight to all states, and still give weight to the states by population.

Back then, the plantation states had a very real concern: nothing would ever go their way, if they didn't have equal say in what goes on.

The North, which was far more industrialized, and thus more populous, wanted to be able to use its population heft to get things that the South didn't want to happen to go through.

The Great Compromise, as we now call it, called for both ways of doing things. The Senate -- more removed from the concerns of the public, less focused on getting re-elected in just two years -- gives equal weight to all of the states, and has comparable powers to that of the House. The Senate is supposed to be the "calm older advisor" to the House. The House, on the other hand, is supposed to be something of a dynamic firebrand, much more closely linked to the public because of voting turnovers, hence, why it is also based on population (and handles things like the money).

The Electoral College voting system is based on the number of Senators plus Representatives each state has. So each state is guaranteed a minimum of three votes. Now, compare this to the population differences. California ranks #1 in the country as of April 1, 2000, with 33,871,648 people. Wyoming ranks #51 (counting the District of Columbia, which ranks as #50) with 493,782 people. In other words, Wyoming has 1.46% of California's population. To put this into another perspective: the nine smallest states by population (New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming) plus the District of Columbia, have a grand total of 8,880,081 people. Which is only 26.22% of California’s population (1).

By contrast, those ten population centers have a combined total of 36 electoral votes, with New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Rhode Island having four apiece, the other seven divisions having three apiece – which is more than what Texas has alone, and 65.46% of what California has (2). This gives their vote more weight per person, and help cancels out the sheer number of people California has. But, mind you, the popular vote is NOT totally left out to sea. As I said in my previous post, most states apportion their Electoral College votes on a “winner takes all” system – but it still goes to the winner of the state’s popular vote.

The Electoral College manages both things needed for the writers of the Constitution to come to an agreement: it gives weight by population, but also evens out some of the gross inequalities a purely popular vote method incurs. We are NOT a single entity across this country. There are countries in Europe that are smaller than Texas, let alone the rest of the country. There are vast cultural differences between NYC, Houston, and LA, I can bloody well guarantee it. Are a bunch of things the same? Sure! But we are not a homogenous society, and a purely popular vote would be treating everyone like they all lived just down the road from each other.

Another variant of the perspective: 241, 395, 996 people in this country live in urban centers. 49, 413,781 people are rural (3). So just 20.47% of the population is rural – and not all of those are involved with the food production for the other 80% of the country. What about their votes? I, being a farm girl myself, can definitely tell you that what you city folk think is important isn’t precisely what’s important out here in the sticks. (Sorry about the slight drawl on that.)

There is another part of the Electoral College voting system you are failing to take into consideration, however.

Right now, we have a very clear idea of what constitutes a President-Elect: 270 of 538 Electoral College votes declares our winner. Now, our latest estimates for the population of the United States is 290,809,777 (at the end of 2003) (4). How many of those are of voting age? How many are registered to vote? How many are going to vote? We never know for sure, until the last vote is counted on Election Day. At what point can we guess reasonably close as to which candidate has been elected, if we’re doing a purely popular vote? If it’s close enough of a popular vote, even just the slightest bit of voting fraud could throw the vote. Online, many of the polls are voted in by robots, not real people, and can totally throw the real demographics and information those polls gather.

Consider what happened with Florida in 2000. Consider that the Democratic Underground was raring to go off to Ohio at the drop of a hatpin, if Kerry chose to fight those electoral votes being called for Bush. Consider how many fraudulent voter registrations were being done, and how out-and-out dirty this past election was. The Electoral College minimizes the ability to have widespread voting fraud, as well as minimizing the overall impact such can have. I’m sure that was an unintended side effect of the whole thing, but it works. It’s a bit like an isolation ward: keep the infection from spreading outside of these areas.

One last comment on the Electoral College:

It provides an illusion of semi-unity between states which otherwise might not feel like they have that much in common.

You may scoff at how bad of an idea that is, but is it really? From a purely psychological viewpoint, this country is so bloody diverse that feeling more unified is not a bad thing. It has the chance at making those who are going to go out and vote anyhow feel more like they’re part of a national group. (Which they are, a very important group, voting is the easiest and most important civic duty any American can perform.)

Do I believe in democracy? Hell yes. But I believe in a representational democracy, rather than a pure democracy. In small groups, pure democracy is functional. In a country as large as ours, a representational democracy is what is needed instead. And, yes, I believe that extends to the Electoral College. There’s a quote inscribed on the side of one of the buildings (E. Cullen, I believe) at the University of Houston, which goes something along the lines of this: The only aristocracy that democracy should embrace is that of intellect.

Take it as you will. But the Electoral College is, was, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the best compromise between calm-and-collected and public sentiment, rural and urban, small state and big state. Until there is a completely fool proof method for preventing voter fraud (which there never will be – someone will always be smart enough to hack the technology), it remains the best way to minimize the possibility of widespread fraud in ways that a purely popular voting system would actively encourage. And it also remains the best way to have a good benchmark for who is the “winner”, so it doesn’t take forever and a day to declare the winner – that would be a fast way to incite civil war.

Again, don’t wish for the abolishment of the Electoral College system. Campaign in your state to have the state divvy up its Electoral College votes according to the percentages of public opinion within the state itself. That would be a good “perfecting” touch on the best system possible for our kind of democracy.


1. US States (Plus Washington D.C.) Population and Ranking.

2. Electoral Votes.

3. State Fact Sheets: United States.

4. ibid.

Extremely well-done as well. I take back what I said about David's post convincing me. :)

Although I quibble with the last point. Anything coming "from a purely psychological point-of-view" is not a valid way to structure a government.

Your other arguments are well-done and convincing. Back on the fence for me.
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