Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythology A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!

Despite the historical genesis and relevance of the electoral college, current insistence of its virtue is based on rationalizations applied unevenly and for the ideological convenience of those doing so, in order to impose their will on others in a non-democratic way. But before diving into why and how that is so, here are a couple of disclaimers:

First, I’ve never been a fan of the narrative that Trump’s victory isn’t legitimate because he didn’t win a majority of the popular vote. That’s a bogus argument; you can’t decide that the same electoral system we’ve had since the ratification of the Constitution 230 years ago is suddenly devoid of legitimacy because it doesn’t give you the results you want, and you shouldn’t conflate the issue of the electoral college with other issues that actually do call the legitimacy of his victory into question.

Second, I don’t think that getting rid of the electoral college is something we should be investing a lot of time, energy, and passion on, in part because the only reasonably possible way of doing so in the foreseeable future (the interstate national popular vote compact, which does an end-run around the Constitution and is by no means an easy lift) would cause a lot of additional rage among the already excessively raging populist authoritarian right, and that is a truly dangerous situation, and in part because it is neither at the heart of our dysfunction nor an artifact that is likely to continue to do harm as demographic trends continue down their current path.

Having said that, let’s address the merits of the notion that the electoral college is a necessary counterbalance to the concentration of the population in a few urban areas mostly on the two coasts:

The electoral college was a compromise between federal and state sovereignty, with the national popular vote representing federal sovereignty and states having votes as states representing state sovereignty. When the Constitution was drafted to replace the toothless Articles of Confederation, each state still saw itself as a sovereign country, and no national system that ran roughshod over that was going to be acceptable

History has a way of changing things. While we still value and benefit from the principle of the devolution of power (e.g., that things that affect only the state population should be decided at the state level), few people in this country sincerely continue to see states as having co-equal sovereignty to the federal government. Culturally and institutionally, states are subordinate to the federal government, in ways that are now deeply woven into our institutional landscape. And that’s not something to lament; it is what led to the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the legislation and Court holdings that movement produced, and, in short, the progress of our nation into modernity and expanding democracy and equal protection of rights and justice for all.

We evolved to see tyranny not only as something inflicted by more remote centers of power that more local centers of power must be vigilant against, but also as something inflicted by more local centers of power that more remote centers of power must be vigilant against. The federal government had to protect the rights of African Americans against state governments and individual property owners who were intent on denying them their rights. We came to realize that states should protect children from the brutality of parents when such brutality exists. We decided that governments should protect minorities from private sector discrimination. Tyranny takes many forms, and protection comes from many places.

The “States’ Rights” Doctrine and its penumbra, originally perceived as advocacy of liberty against incursions of tyranny, became exactly the opposite. It began its descent into infamy when it became synonymous with defense of slavery, and continued as it became synonymous with defense of Jim Crow, and has reached the nadir of its reputation today, when, despite plenty of experience with which to enlighten us, it continues to be a part of the north star of the faction that eventually came to worship the unfortunate creature currently occupying the oval office.

What the “states’ rights” mantra — which is implicit in the skewing of the national vote provided by the electoral college — quickly came to represent in the course of our national history, and has only increasingly come to represent, is a desire to cling to an unjust past and oppose the arrival of a more just future. So let’s examine how that plays out through the electoral college.

A North Dakota resident has a vote in presidential elections that is three and a half times greater than a California resident. The original justification for this was that North Dakota is a state with co-equal sovereignty; it was NOT that rural minorities need to be protected from urban majorities. This distinction is critical, because the prevailing arguments aren’t that North Dakota has co-equal sovereignty, but rather that the rural minority needs to be protected from the urban majority, and that latter argument, when examined closely is clearly one of convenience, applied unevenly to serve the specific interests of those doing so in a brazen expression of their own tyrannical inclinations.

Should a North Dakota farmer have just as much say in who should be president as a Los Angeles movie producer? Hell yeah! Should the North Dakota farmer have three and a half times more say than the Los Angeles movie producer (as is currently the case)? Hell no! Because North Dakota isn’t really a sovereign country, and that rationale, which is the only legitimate rationale, is an anachronistic pretext for a predominantly rural, incidentally regressive faction to hold the country hostage to their oppressive mentality, a regressive political force that would fade thankfully away, as it has to a far greater extent in the rest of the developed world, were we a national democracy when it comes to presidential elections instead of a faux-federalism of ideological convenience when it comes to presidential elections.

I have been told that seeking to abolish the electoral college is discrimination against rural voters. But ensuring that each rural voter has the same vote as each urban voter is, by definition, an absence of discrimination against rural voters; seeking for each rural voter to have a vote more heavily weighted than each urban voter is rather, by definition, discrimination against urban voters. Those insisting that the electoral college is fair are the ones favoring discrimination, by definition.

And the discrimination amounts to the argument that land should get votes. The entire argument is that because rural areas are more sparsely populated, rural individuals should have more heavily weighted votes. By that logic, a single individual living alone in a large wilderness should have a vote many times larger than anyone else in the country. It’s a bit absurd.

Despite how horrible for this nation and world reasonable people consider authoritarian populism to be, we don’t seek to reduce the vote of those who advocate it to less than one third the value of those who don’t; that would be tyrannical, and I loathe authoritarian populism precisely because it’s tyrannical. We all should have the same vote, none with three and a half times the vote of others, something that becomes especially destructive when the minority thus holding the majority hostage happens to be intent on repeating the most horrifying errors of modern history.

But we don’t have to debate the merits of authoritarian populism; we just have to choose whether we are committed to the democratic principle that those who disagree with us should have the same vote that we do or to the tyrannical principle that those who disagree with us should have less of a vote than we do.

Finally, we need to clear up a misconception that really lays bare how wrong-headed the current prevailing defenses of the electoral college are: It was not established to protect a shrinking population of rural voters from a growing population of urban voters; it was established in recognition of state co-sovereignty, period. The only valid argument in favor of the electoral college that can be made is that an archaic commitment to giving states rather than exclusively people votes is better than democracy.

But that’s not the argument most people benefiting from it are making. The argument they’re making is that since rural people are a minority they need a vote weighted in their favor to protect them against the urban majority.

Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, that that makes sense, that minorities should get more heavily weighted votes to protect them against the tyranny of the majority. In that case, blacks and Latinos should get votes weighted two and a half times that of whites (since they each comprise about a fifth of the population and whites comprise about half). If you’re going to apply this principle that minorities need more heavily weighted votes to protect them against the tyranny of the majority, it shouldn’t just be at one’s own ideological convenience, but rather evenly and universally.

But that notion is undoubtedly horrifying to those who are adamant that it be applied to their own benefit, because it’s not electoral fairness to minorities that they’re championing; it’s tyranny for themselves.

Comments are closed.