The other day, Will Holford wrote an interesting column supposedly explaining the ongoing value of the Electoral College and presidential primary process.
What’s especially interesting is that he spent no real time talking about primaries, and none of what he said about the Electoral College ended up making sense.
Holford didn’t go into why party primaries and caucuses are good except that two states where few people live—and always the same two states—have their contests earlier than the rest of us in order to get inordinate influence on national politics. That seems the definition of calling a bug a feature.
I actually think the presidential primaries are very good at achieving the aims of their parties, though. Staggered contest schedule gradually winnow the field of contenders; the months-long marathon works to vet candidates ahead of the general election; and maybe most importantly, they give Democrats in Texas or Republicans in Washington State an actual say in who their president will be.
Because that’s the point about the Electoral College: if your choice for president loses statewide, even by one vote, the top of your ballot would have been better utilized as toilet paper. The primary contests tend to award delegates proportionally, so even if your choice loses, your preference gets represented at the convention. There’s a rational reason to be involved in the election process, where otherwise there would be none.
In selecting a president, we disenfranchise huge portions of the country and don’t do it close to equitably. Holford pointed out that every state is guaranteed three electors, but what he leaves out is what this means. The opinion of a Vermonter Democrat is worth 2.5 that of a Republican Texan. More often, it goes the other way: a GOP voter in Wyoming is worth four Democrats in New York State.
Holford used the idea of Texas as an autonomous nation, but then framed the picture in the rosiest of terms. Of course people in Odessa, Midland, and the Panhandle don’t want to be ignored. But if Odessa-Midland had 10 electoral votes, and Alpine had seven, and Pyote had three, you can be sure the principle of everyone getting a direct, equal say in their leader would be more desirable to folks in Odessa-Midland.
And reality is worse yet! Because the outcome of most states is already decided by entrenched party loyalty, and margin of victory is irrelevant, politicians don’t have to concern themselves with average voters at all in Texas, or California, or Mississippi. Florida and Ohio will be swamped with ads, candidates will kiss babies and listen to everyday people, but if you live in West Texas or Seattle, your issues absolutely don’t matter if you can’t pay $2,000 to attend a fundraising dinner. Your political opinion can’t cross state lines, but your Supreme Court-defined free speech can, and candidates need it like a tick needs fresh blood.
If we read about a Central African democracy where only the plurality votes in each province were considered and each voter had different influence depending on where they lived, and most voters in most places were ignored except for what money they could donate to target voters in other places, the State Department would rightly denounce them as undemocratic. And that’s without even getting into electors themselves, who can vote for whoever they please, faithfully to victorious voters’ wishes or no.
The Electoral College is not the most perfect system for selecting a chief executive ever devised, which is why almost no one else in the world does it. The Founders cobbled together a compromise system that could replace the disastrous Articles of Confederation. I think they’d view their accomplishment more one of artfully using duct tape that got a bunch of disparate parts to stay together even after they took their hands away from it than that of a monument of chiseled marble perfected for all time.
Even if they didn’t, three-fourths of us wouldn’t be qualified to have political opinions in their eyes by the inherent vice of possessing a uterus, excessive melanin, or insufficient property.
We’ve learned a lot about medicine since doctors were prescribing bloodletting and come up with better solutions. We’ve learned a lot about politics, too.