Monday, January 21, 2008

Political Reform, Lesson 2: Graduating from College

The electoral college, that is. Now before your eyes glaze over and you click on "Next Blog," let me assure you that I'd skip this lesson if I could. But until the U.S. abolishes the electoral college or we find a suitable workaround, we should at least try to understand this bizarre institution we're stuck with, one whose existence makes no sense today.

It barely made sense back when the founding fathers established it. Or maybe I'm overly sensitive to distrust, having been in one too many churches where the leadership didn't trust the parishioners. Because the thing is, the founding fathers didn't trust the electorate. They figured that ordinary people like you and me were subject to manipulation by roving bands of evil candidates, and so they gave voting power to the state rather than to the individual. In so doing, they also gave less-populated states an edge (some say an unfair edge, since each vote in those states counts for more than each vote in highly populated states).

Here's the thing. We are no longer a society in which our exposure to candidates is limited to fliers, newspaper articles, and rare public appearances in our towns. We are so inundated with information about the candidates that a truly sinister presidential wannabe would be sniffed out right away. Even our founding fathers would have to concede that the Internet in particular has contributed to the making of an informed and not-so-gullible electorate (yes, we could argue about that—endlessly, I'm sure—but then we'd be talking about the exceptions and not the rule).

We're stuck with the electoral college, by the way, because history has shown that we're not likely to get rid of it. I had always thought that this discontent with the electoral college was a recent phenomenon, but no. It seems there have been more than 700 attempts to reform or abolish the electoral college through a constitutional amendment, according to the National Archives:

There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject…Public opinion polls have shown Americans favored abolishing it by majorities of 58 percent in 1967; 81 percent in 1968; and 75 percent in 1981.

And independents dislike the electoral college because:

Third parties have not fared well in the Electoral College system...The last third party or splinter party candidate to make a strong showing was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912... He finished a distant second in electoral and popular votes (taking 88 of the 266 electoral votes needed to win). Although Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide in 1992, he did not win any electoral votes since he was not particularly strong in any one or several states.

Okay, enough. Next time, we'll look at some creative ideas for getting around the electoral college.

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