The NY Times flunks its own Electoral College editorial

by lestro

Every four years, newspapers around the country roll out editorials condemning the electoral college based on specious reasoning that shows an incredible lack of understanding about the nature of our government, the world of the founding fathers and a contempt for the very structure on which this nation is built.

As a rule, editorial boards make their case by completely ignoring the main reasons for the creation of the electoral college as well as the inadvertently spitting on the Great Compromise that helped create the Constitution.

And the NY Times, one of the greatest newspapers in the world, is no exception. Thursday’s editorial “Flunking the Electoral College” not only trots out the same puns we always hear, but repeats the same bullshit reasons for ditching a system that has served our nation well for 200 years.

Calling for its demise shows an incredible lack of thought about the system as a whole and the consequences of such actions. It also shows a total lack of understanding about the role of the College and who controls it.

In essence, the Times is guilty of exactly what they rail against: Flunking the electoral college and supporting a system that would do exactly what they say they are trying to stop. The only difference is that under their new system, they would be sitting prettier…

The Electoral College is more than just an antiquated institution: it actively disenfranchises voters and occasionally (think 2000) makes the candidate with fewer popular votes president. American democracy would be far stronger without it.

This is a falsehood for several reasons, the main one being that America is NOT a democracy. It is a Federal Republic and a representative democracy. Our leaders may be democratically elected to represent the interests of the people who voted for them, but makes no mistake, we are NOT a democracy (look it up).

The Times gives three reasons for ditching the Electoral College. First, it trots out the racist card, again, showing a total lack of understanding.

One of the main reasons the founders created it was slavery. The southern states liked the fact that their slaves, who would be excluded from a direct vote, would be counted — as three-fifths of a white person — when Electoral College votes were apportioned.

Um, no. Electoral College representation grew out of congressional representation and the Great Compromise, which is where the 3/5 thing comes in. They are related only in that sense.

Next, we hear that the founders thought the voters were stupid and didn’t trust them. This is partially true.

The founders also were concerned, in the day of the wooden printing press, that voters would not have enough information to choose among presidential candidates. It was believed that it would be easier for them to vote for local officials, whom they knew more about, to be electors.

Again, this is exactly in line with the rest of our representative democracy (elect at the local level peple we trust to represent our interests at a national one) and again only part of the story.

Finally, the Times trots out the Big Reason, the one that since 2000 has stuck in the craw of every single one of the 50,999,897 people that voted for Al Gore and watched George W. Bush and his 50,456,002 voters claim the presidency:

One of the biggest problems with the Electoral College, of course, is that three times since the Civil War — most recently, with George W. Bush in 2000 — it has awarded the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. The president should be the candidate who wins the votes of the most Americans.

Again, this shows a tremendous lack of respect for history and practically negates their argument from just a paragraph before, that the Electoral College excludes voters because big states like NY or Texas are practically guaranteed to go blue and red, respectively, every time.

Here is how they figure it:

Voters in small states are favored because Electoral College votes are based on the number of senators and representatives a state has. Wyoming’s roughly 500,000 people get three electoral votes. California, which has about 70 times Wyoming’s population, gets only 55 electoral votes.

Unfortunately, their way – popular vote rules – not only forgets the Great Compromise, but would swing things in exactly the other direction.

The Times then goes on to say “The best way to abolish the Electoral College is to amend the Constitution” which again shows a basic misunderstanding. Amending the Constitution is not the ‘best way,’ but the only way as it is the Constitution that creates the college and no law could supersede the Constitution.

The Electoral College exists for a reason. The reason is because we live in a nation based on the idea of Federalism – that each state is its own mini-republic, sovereign and equal. The federal government exists as an umbrella organization.

This goes back to the colonial days when “United States” meant, as it says in the Declaration, “Free and Independent States.” It is reinforced over and over in the Constitution and the idea of federalism was at the very heart of the debate over ratification.

In order to retain the sovereignty of individual states, the federal government was given limited power and all elections, even for a federal executive – known as president – were decided at the state level. There is no overriding election law in this country and the presidential election is not a national one, but 50 state elections all voting on the same, basic idea.

This is why each state has different ballot access requirements and differing ballots, such as the infamous 2000 Florida “butterfly ballot” which confused a bunch of old Jews into voting for Pat Buchanan.

The Constitution also allows each individual state to decide how its electors are chosen, which will come back up.

The number of electors in each state goes back to the Great Compromise, which created the bicameral legislature we know and love today. Big States wanted representation based on population – since that meant Virgina, Pennsy and New York would dominate the new government while small states like Delaware thought that would be unfair and they would have no say. Small states argued for everyone being equal.

Out of that grew the Great Compromise, which created one house of the legislature where every state is equally represented and another house in which representation is based on population (this is where the 3/5 comes in as slave-holding states wanted to count the chattel as part of the population, even though they could not vote and had no role in government, to increase their power in the House of Representatives).

The basic idea behind the Electoral College is that the small states should have a voice. If the election – which again, is not a national election, but 50 small ones – came down strictly to population, states like Wyoming or Delaware or any of the “flyover states” in the middle would get completely shafted.

And the issues facing small states and large states are different.

So in this case, the NYC vote alone would completely negate all of Wyoming, Delaware and others. This year, in Manhattan alone, 490,000 people voted for Obama. In Wyoming, there were only 250,000 voters.

There would be no need for any candidate to travel to the small states, meaning their issues get absolutely no hearing while creating the same sort of odd misrepresentation the Times is hoping to correct, only in reverse.

The Times editorial also uses this reasoning:

The Electoral College also makes America seem more divided along blue-red lines than it actually is. If you look at an Electoral College map, California appears solidly blue and Alabama solidly red. But if you look at a map of the popular votes, you see a more nuanced picture. More than 4.5 million Californians voted for Mr. McCain (roughly as many votes as he got in Texas), while about 40 percent of voters in Alabama cast a ballot for Mr. Obama.

The problem there is not a federal one, but on a state level. New York faces a similar fate. While the vast majority of New York State – landwise – is red, the overwhelming population in the city and the winner-take-all elector system of NY is what guarantees the Empire State goes blue every election season.

The problem is not the College, but with how each of those individual states metes out its electors (again, something the Constitution leaves to the state level). If NY or Cali simply decided to apportion their electors based on popular vote, as Maine and Nebraska do, then the disenfranchisement argument goes out the window.

And again, it is the STATE that is “disenfranchising” these voters, not the federal government. Besides, the winner of the election is the winner of the majority of voters in the majority of states.

(For the record, in 2000, if the electors were apportioned by popular vote in each state, Gore would have received 269, Bush 253 and Nader 7, throwing the election into the House of Representatives to decide and completely out of the hands of the voters.)

By apportioning electors based on the popular vote within each state, the big states get still get bigger say, but population centers do not decide the election and candidates would be forced to talk to all parts of a state and the nation, explaining their ideas and discussing the issues that are important to the people all across this vast nation.

Again, to ensure that every state did that, it would have to be constitutional amendment requiring it, since it is the Constitution that creates the College.

But simply doing away with the College, as the Times and many others suggest, lacks any kind of forethought or historical context and would not fix the problem they pretend to address while further destroying the fabric of our nation.

We are a federal republic, despite what some simpletons may tell you about democracy, and doing away with the electoral college is basically doing away with state identities. While this has its pros and cons, it would mean tossing off the entirety of our history and re-writing our entire form of government.

The NY Times is a great newspaper, but this editorial shows a complete lack of understanding and disregard for history, as well a selfish response to a problem that does not solve, but simply permanently tilts the balance in favor of big cities with no regard to the idea that rural people have different issues.

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3 Responses to The NY Times flunks its own Electoral College editorial

  1. leapsecond says:

    Thank you so much for writing this – the idea that we are a democracy is preposterous. We are a republic, and the rights granted to us in the Constitution is what makes us the land of the free. With a democracy, there is no such Constitution protecting the rights of its citizens, and eventually, every democracy descends into tyranny.

  2. Roger Beddecker says:

    “This is a falsehood for several reasons, the main one being that America is NOT a democracy. It is a Federal Republic and a representative democracy. Our leaders may be democratically elected to represent the interests of the people who voted for them, but makes no mistake, we are NOT a democracy (look it up).”

    A guy has a broken arm.
    His friend asks, “aren’t you going to get that fixed?”
    “No,” he replies. “Because then I wouldn’t be the guy with the broken arm.”

    I… have a feeling I’ll have to explain this, so here goes.
    You want to keep a broken system and your reasoning is that we can’t fix it — because it’s not a system that is fixed, it’s a system that is broken! I.e. we can change from a Republic to a Democracy by going with a popular vote. But you’re saying we can’t change to a Democracy, because we’re … not a Democracy.

    A long while ago (and you can look -this- up) the Senate was chosen by the various state legislatures, not the people of the states. (Yes, really). We wanted it changed, so we amended the Constitution. We didn’t trot out this risible “we can’t change it from A to B, because it’s currently A, and not B” argument.

    Your article shows a winsome naivte on the topic generally; my guess is, however, that you’re not a law student. In fact the Wikipedia actually gives the standard roster of reasons, and it’s a list longer and far more compelling than your own. I have to suggest that because your is unwieldy and is a tough nut to crack by virtue of the many misunderstandings clouding your reasoning. Just another example: no, we would not need to amend the Constitution to dissolve the EC’s chokehold on the Democratic process. The document actually leaves the method of Electoral Vote apportionment to the states (look it up.) The various states could decide tomorrow to give their votes, part or all, to the winner of the popular vote. It really is that simple, and some states have considered such arrangements.

    Your (let’s be charitable and call it “old-school”) argument of “population centers” picking the winner is a charming anachronism in this day of the Internet and Youtube. To be fair, it’s an argument oft-repeated and one seldom -contemplated-. Candidates air political commercials, there are blogs, there are commercials on TV (Obama bought one… look it up), there are party groups releasing ads on the Internet, etc. The fact that the are even ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states in itself works against this specious “argument.” Population centers? Heck, there are entire states that McCain and Obama didn’t need to visit, because they were spoken for. Do you really imagine that Texas needs McCain to campaign there? Really? No, because you can be intellectually honest, and admit that he didn’t have to. You yourself cite New York. Must Obama -really- visit and take his narrative to Buffalo? Let’s see, there’s a larger population center south of Buffalo. Maybe McCain could campaign there and… I don’t need to go any further with that one, do I?

    Your straw-man flourish finish (“while further destroying the fabric of our nation,” “tossing off the entirety of our history and re-writing our entire form of government”) is the capstone of a stunningly impotent bit that advances an argument against what has long ago been decided: the system is broken and we can’t move forward to fix it because people like you keep telling us “but then it would be fixed, and it is not a fixed system, it’s a broken one!”

    I keep shaking my head over this bit about rural areas. I mean, honestly. To ignore the information saturation that permeates our lives? To ignore television, print media, radio, and the Internet? To ignore the reality that rural STATES, never mind rural “areas,” trend Republican and have for just under 100 years? You would do well to Google “purple America” to see first hand just how nonsensical this unpersuasive line is. The EC was created to guard against ‘regional candidates’ in a day and age when information took days to leave the confines of a state. The founders didn’t have the ability to simply look at the voting density of the country, as we do, and as YOU do, right now. To quote a blogger, “look it up.”

  3. lestro says:

    first, when you have to spend that many words explaining your metaphor, it’s not a good one.

    second, a democracy is a government in which everyone has a vote on everything. the closest thing to it in america today is the vermont town meeting.

    third, your use of the phrase ‘winsome naivte [sic]‘ shows that you have no real depth to your argument and are reduced to trying to use flowery language in an attempt to make yourself seem smarter than you are.

    and when you say “we” changed the constitution, you mean that 2/3 of our representative leaders voted on an amendment that was then ratified by 3/4 of the representative leaders in the states. the people didn’t actually vote on shit.

    that’s not democracy. that’s a representative republic. (say your pledge, man: ‘to the republic for which it stands.’)

    as for apportionment being left to the states, yes, i know. that’s why i mentioned it. the times doesn’t call for re-apportionment. it calls for a popular vote count. that would mean doing away with the college. that would mean an amendment.

    i mentioned an amendment because the only way to guarantee every state apportions theirs by popular vote would be to change the constitution, because as i had already pointed out, the document makes it clear electors are a state issue.

    you say the population centers wouldn’t dominate, but you offer no evidence. especially considering that there were just as many voters in the five boroughs of NYC as there were in ND, SD, WY, ID, and MT combined. it has nothing to do with party, but everything to do with the different issues faced by states with small, spread-out populations and those with large, dense ones.
    (total NY state vote: 6.9 million. total california vote:12 million. total combined vote of the five previously mentioned states: 2,032,425.)

    for example, in cities, gun ownership is a much different issue than it is for those out on the prairies. and when the votes of five small states only add up to one city, i am going to concentrate my efforts on that city.

    and no, it is unnecessary for obama to go to buffalo. because NYC dominates a winner-take-all system. win NYC, win the state. win chicago, win the state. win seattle, win the state.

    whichever party best addresses the issues that those big city voters want addressed is going to win a popular vote election.

    it is not an anachronism, it happened this year. places with dense populations voted one way, places that are more spread out generally voted the other. county after county, all across the county.

    knowing that population would win an election every time, the founders created the electoral college. while it does – as the times point out – factor in the stupidity of the common voter and it does – as you point out – work to prevent regional candidates, it’s real genius is it’s ability to take into consideration the ‘voting density’, as you put it, and help level the playing field a bit.

    let’s go back to your arm metaphor. here’s the way it would go:

    one man walks up to another and says ‘hey man, let me put that arm in a splint for you.’
    ‘why?’ the second man asks, ‘there’s nothing wrong with it.’
    ’sure there is. isn’t it supposed to be straighter? if i made one i’d make it straighter.’
    ‘but, it’s fine. it’s not broken,’ says the man with the perfectly functioning arm.
    ‘that doesn’t mean we can’t fix it.’

    exactly.

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