Keep The Electoral College

by Tom Nelson

The last Port of Call sported two articles about the way we elect our presidents, both rather critical of the electoral college. I want to respond, not too adversarially, but just to say it isn't as bad as all that. There is more wisdom and reason to that queer and, as far as I know, uniquely American institution than is generally appreciated. The public schools don't point out the finer ideas of our governmental arrangements, but that's not much of a surprise since the public schools don't point out much of anything at all.

The electoral college creates an exchange of political power between population and region. It does so in the same way the representation in congress does, so it's instructive to have a look at that first, to see how it works. The situation was more easily perceived in the existing political divisions, post revolutionary war, of the thirteen original colonies. Some had large populations, some small, their land area varied greatly, and their economies as well had little commonality in size or type of commerce.

An approach was needed to the mitigation of all these differences in the way representation in the Congress was allocated. A solution was written into the constitution. Each colony, then to be known as states, would send two senators to the upper house. This disregards population, geographical area, location of the state, or the wealth or nature of the state's economy. Against this the lower house was to have an indeterminate number of representatives based entirely on the state's population.

These different modes of representation weight the political power of the state as a political unit against the political power of large populations. Even further, the representatives are not elected at large, but from districts drawn over areas within the state to ensure representation with a responsibility to each separate region. This overall approach has had a limited success in balancing regional interests against the brute power of large populations.

The president is the most powerful single office holder in the federal government. How to achieve this same division of interests? The answer was already suggested in the election of the bicameral legislature described above. Elect the president through electors equal in number to the combined legislative representatives: one for each senator and one for each representative. Make the presidential candidates seek far and wide for support, and find awareness of all the needs and greeds of widely disparate regions to get the necessary majority to win the election. Don't let them campaign intensively in New York, California and a few other populous states while the rest of the country watches to see which candidate those few states will choose - to be everybody's president.

Most of all don't let the new president set up shop focused exclusively on what will please or pay political debts in a few large population centers. Make him govern with consideration of the needs and preferences of at least most of the widely separate and diverse regions of the land. Let us all have some feeling that we had a part in the election, rather than having the president forced on us by the big cities, those being the most cost-effective places for intensive campaigning. It's not only real power but apparent power is what keeps nations stable and governable.

It's ingenious and it's American. It even works to a degree. If you're an Alaskan, you know exactly what election by population at large is like. Alaska, alas, is too small and too far away to get any attention in a presidential election.

Remember all the presidential campaigning that went on in Alaska in the recent election? I don't recall that either candidate even went there. (I hope President Bush can put his finger on that state on a world map, but it's probably safer for Alaskans if he can't.) It's ironic enough for a subject of good fiction that Alaska is also our largest state. It's also the state that would quit the union the fastest in the absence of military threat.

It's a real danger. True, Alaska is not going to break up the union all by its little self. But that kind of remote and centralized power, and its attendant abuses, have caused political bonds to dissolve all over the world. It's a danger we would do well to avoid. The worst fears of the constitutional draftsmen came true in 1861, and I hope the politicians have not forgotten that as quickly as they have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. The fact of the American Civil War seems to suggest that the ingenious constitutional scheme did not go too far in balancing population versus region, but instead perhaps did not go far enough.

Here are some of the differences in proportion, using Alaska as the extreme example. There are 435 representatives in the House of Representatives. Only one of them is from Alaska. In the Senate there are 100 senators and two of them are from Alaska. The real importance of those two senators is that they are an equal number as those from any other state. Thus Alaska has equal representation in the Senate compared to virtually none in the house, and may get some consideration from the federal government by its power to aid or obstruct events in the Senate.

In a presidential election Alaska wields three electoral votes out of a total of 535, which is also virtually none. Thus the biggest state has no significant effect on the election of a president, and presidential candidates neither campaign there or give a damn what Alaskans think of them.

Going to a pure election by gross population would not change things much for Alaska. But it would put many other states in the same situation. That would shift a great deal of political power from its broadly spread base among numerous regions, to being concentrated in a few heavily populated states. This is not just offensive to the sensibilities of fair play; it's dangerous. It leverages division and puts heavier reliance on military power to hold the union together. Even when that method is successful, the price it exacts is terrible. I refer again to the events of 1861 - 1865.

I propose we keep the electoral college in place just as it is. If someone really wants to make a change, we would like to hear him deal with the problem of the redistribution of power and of apparent power that would result. It would be irresponsible to ignore that dangerous reality.

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