Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On the Electoral College

"But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice." - Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience (1849)
 "To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed."  - James Madison, Federalist #10

At the time of writing, some conservative friends of mine are freaking out over Obama being reelected, while liberal friends are rejoicing. That's all well and good, but I'd like to address a pretty common complaint I've seen tonight:

"If Obama and Romney are within 160,000 votes of each other, out of 100,000,000, why does Obama have 33% more electoral votes than Romney? The electoral college is unfair!"

This is a good question, as the relationship between the popular and electoral votes are not easily grasped. Instead of explaining the electoral college myself, I'm going to direct you to the most excellent CGPGrey. Watch his explanation, then we'll continue this little conversation!


 

(more after the jump)
So, as CGPGrey so excellently illustrates, it is entirely possible for the winner of the electoral college to have as little as 20% of the popular vote! Obviously we should be freaking out and abolish this arcane institution once and for all! After all, as Mr. Grey states, this is not democracy!

Well, that's actually the idea.

Democracy, as a system of government, is terrible. The tyranny of the majority is just as real a threat to liberty as a tyrant. As Mel Gibson's character so aptly puts it in The Patriot: "why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?"

This is a real and serious question. In a direct democracy there is no way to keep the majority from oppressing the minority, and in some ways, this sort of oppression is worse than being oppressed by a despot. The French revolution showed us what happens to the minority in a direct democracy:
In a democracy the majority of citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority...and that oppression of the majority will extend to far great number, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. Under a cruel prince they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under their sufferings; but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes are deprived of all external consolation: they seem deserted by mankind, overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species.   - Edmund Burke,  Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
The founding fathers were aware of this potential, which is why they did not create a democracy, they created a constitutional republic of states. The federal government wasn't originally of the people, it was of the states! The electoral college reflects that, and this is a good thing. It is a check on the tyranny of the majority. It is part of the many checks and balances built into our system of government.

Take for example the House and the Senate. The House was always based on the population, with representatives directly elected by the people. The House was the voice of the people. The Senate on the other hand, until the ratification of the 17th amendment, was appointed by the states. It was the voice of the States. Think about that, the state governments had a direct say in the federal governments. This makes sense because the federal government was a government of states!

A common complaint amongst conservatives today is that the federal government is trampling over state's rights. Well duh! The states no longer have any say in congress, the 17th amendment saw to that! Tell me, do you think the states would have allowed the federal government to increasingly take away their power if they could have prevented it? The Senate was designed, to some extent, to prevent federal overreach by playing the federal government against the states. Unfortunately for liberty in America, the federal government seems to have won for the time being.

So, what would be the consequence of abolishing the electoral college? Well, 20% of the US population lives in California, think about that for a second. The East coast is also very densely populated. Should the electoral college be abolished, and we switch to a national popular vote we could rather easily see situations where population dense areas oppress more rural areas. This is exactly the case in Illinois, where Chicago has managed to impose its anti-gun right views on the rest of the state, which is much more conservative.

Yes, the electoral college can be used to win the election with only 20% of the vote, but this also means that the minority can defend itself from the majority. I am tired and this argument is half baked, but the major point I want to make is that, no, the electoral college is NOT democracy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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