It’s Up to Us – Electoral College Reform

Our Spring Newsletter incorrectly attributed this piece to Jackie Finley. It was instead written by Dick Sciaroni, which is reflected below. We apologize for the confusion.

by Dick Sciaroni

In a recent column in the Union (“Democracy Destroys the Electoral College” – 3/6/2020) George Rebane, and many of the on-line comments it has generated, both raise complex questions about how America elects its President.

It should not be surprising the proponents on both sides of the issue have different views of Electoral College reform. The difference is by-and-large existential. Republicans support the Electoral College because their candidate secured the presidency in the last election through a majority of Electoral College votes. Democrats, meanwhile, seek to restructure the Electoral College because their candidate lost the presidency despite her garnering some three million more votes than her opponent.

Were it the other way around – had Trump won the popular vote but Clinton won the presidency through the Electoral College — who would now be bemoaning and who would now be defending the Electoral College?

In other words, while any analysis of the utility of the Electoral College should be devoid of partisan politics . . . unfortunately, it isn’t.

Meanwhile, whether to retain or reform the Electoral College is not as simple as Mr. Rebane would have it. It is not simply a choice between a republic and a democracy.

Mr. Rebane views the Electoral College as the linchpin of republican governance whereby the people are governed by the representatives they elect. He deprecates democracy as “dangerous” — “a regress[ion] of America’s governance from what the Founders bequeathed us.” Yet what is so sacrosanct about a decision made some 220 years ago that it cannot not now be questioned? After all, it was the Founders who had sought a change from autocratic rule by England that gave rise to America. They changed the system; why can’t we? Blindly deferring to the decision of a small cohort of wealthy white males 220 years ago about how America should be governed – a republic not a democracy – makes as much sense as treating today’s diseases with 18th-century elixirs and bleeding. The Founders’ decision how they should choose a president should have no overriding claim on 21st-century America such that we cannot change it. After all, we are talking about our government. It’s ours. Why can’t we change it?

On the other hand, there is much to be said for an electoral system that tempers the tyranny of the majority. But is it that simple? The Founders were concerned with the creation of a government that each of the 13 states would accept. Make no mistake, those 13 states jealously guarded their rights and prerogatives, and were not about to give them up without a guarantee that a cabal of more populous states could not infringe on those rights.

Much has occurred since the adoption of the Constitution to reshape our government and define how we Americans govern ourselves and conduct our elections. Perhaps the seminal event in our history was a Civil War that decided the question of the right of individual states to secede. As a result, for better and for worse, we became the United States of America. No one state, much less a group of states, should expect, much less be allowed, to exert such power over the governance of the United States that the rights of the citizens of other states, as Americans, would be infringed.

Those who oppose Electoral College reform would be wise to remember that things remain the same only through change. For an Electoral College to be effective – for it to effectively ameliorate the tyranny of a majority — it must, like any human institution, adapt to the inevitable changes endemic in human situation. Any attempt to ensure that the Electoral College remains unchanged only risks turning it into an anachronism. Indeed, we see it already happening in the steady infusion of money into politics. Unlike that of the late 18th century, ours is a society that commodifies every aspect of life, including the political. Many of us purport to decry the role of money in modern-day politics, and would harken back to earlier times when the mere possession of wealth did not equate with political power. True enough, it was different for the Founders, whose power and influence were unquestioned not because of their wealth (they had plenty) but because of their preeminent social position. The Founders did not have to use their wealth to access political power. As white males they already had it. But times have changed. The path to political power is not through social standing, but through money. Money means media access. It buys technology to mine data in order to focus on small cohorts of voters in so-called swing states who can throw the election of a president of 350 million citizens to one candidate or the other. In the final analysis, the downside of an unreformed Electoral College is that it will become the means whereby a small number of people – not surprisingly, wealthy white males – will continue to control the presidency of a country in which they are the decided minority.

Is it time to reform the Electoral College system? Perhaps. I think so. But it’s up to all of us, the citizens, to decide. That means dialogue, not diatribe. I am willing to consider Mr. Rebane’s views, and in return simply ask that he do likewise. To my way of thinking, that is the only way we can resolve our differences.

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