Thursday, October 23, 2008

Election Reflections

As we near Election Day, it's important for Americans (real or otherwise) to take a moment and deeply reflect on how fucked up our electoral process is.

I'm actually in pretty good shape this year.  Missouri is a battleground state--so my vote isn't going to be completely wasted (like it would in, say, Utah), plus the candidates have actually come here to campaign.  The population density of Missouri is roughly equal to that of the country, so my vote counts as a single vote (actually, 1.04 votes, but why quibble?) rather than 84% of a vote (as it would in California), but on the other hand, a vote in Wyoming would be worth 3.23 votes, so you have to weigh that (these numbers are derived by dividing the percentage of population in a state by the percentage of electoral votes that a state has--you can see a state-by-state rundown on this chart.  But that's out-weighed by the importance of being in a battleground state.  The 12 least-populous states have 11 million people and 40 electoral votes.  Ohio has 11 million people and 20 electoral votes--guess where the candidates are spending their time.

Of course, none of this really matters; it turns out that we vote for electors, not for candidates.  The electors then vote on our behalf, but there's no guarantee that the pledged electors will actually vote in accordance with their state's citizens.  Every four years the question is posited: "what happens if electors don't vote for the guy they're supposed to?"  

Well, not much, it turns out.  Only 29 states have laws against "faithless electors", and Missouri isn't one of them, and most of the states that do have such laws punish violators with a misdemeanor charge or a $1000 fine.  None of them (I believe, certainly not many of them) will actually void and re-cast "faithless" ballots.  And most constitutional scholars agree that such laws wouldn't hold up, if challenged.

But seriously, it's not like that has ever happened (actually, it has), or at least it hasn't happened recently (actually, it happened in 2004 and in 2000) and it certainly doesn't happen frequently (actually, it's happened 156 times in our nation's history--that's an average of nearly 3 per election).  Okay, well, at least it's never changed the outcome of an election (actually, this is true, it hasn't... yet).  Come on, guys, remember the old saying: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

...I've learned to hate that phrase...

First off, why do we have to wait until something breaks before we fix it?  If we can see the cracks, why don't we take some pre-emptive steps?  Second, it is broken!  Three times the winner of the presidential election lost the popular vote.  Three times the will of the people was overridden by the system.  That's not insignificant: we've only have 55 elections in our history.  That's a fail rate of over 5%!

...but if it's not severely broken, don't fix it?...

Let's establish a few facts.  The electoral process made lots of sense in 1787, when most of the country was illiterate, there were no political parties, there were only 13 states, information traveled slowly, people identified themselves with their state more than their country, and the question of how much of a slave counted as a person weighed heavily on the minds of Southerners.  This was a time when it was totally feasible that a majority of the US population could end up in a single state or region.  The electoral college was a compromise--not a brilliant solution, just the idea that everyone was willing to go with.  It allowed for a national hero (e.g., George Washington) to win the Presidency by public acclamation, but it was fully anticipated that (absent political parties) most states would elect local favorites, none of whom would garner a majority, and that the Congress would end up choosing the President.

This was foiled with the emergence of political parties, which were expected to not exist in America, and which sprang up as soon as Washington announced that he would not seek a third term in office.

Okay, so we see some problems with the electoral system, but is that any reason to change it?

Of course it is.  In fact, we're such fans of our electoral processes that we've changed them 8 times already.  The following amendments directly mention presidential elections:  12 (revises the electoral process), 14 (standards for citizenship), 15 (racial suffrage), 19 (women's suffrage), 22 (president limited to two terms), 23 (D.C. gets represented in the electoral college), and 24 (prohibits poll taxes), and 26 (voting age reduced to 18).  Additionally, the 17th amendment applies to elections (specifically of the Senate) and the 25th deals with presidential disability and succession.

So, between 8 and 10 (I would say 9: I count the 17th but not the 25th) of the 27 Constitutional Amendments deal with the way we elect people.  9 out of 27 is 1/3, a full third of our amendments.  And if you just look at the 17 Amendments that were ratified after the Bill of Rights (i.e., the 1st ten), then we're looking at over half of the additional amendments dealing with elections.

So what's one more?  'Sall I'm sayin'.

Here's an idea, and I'm not the first to have it: direct election of the president with an instant-runoff vote (the link will take you to's analysis, it's more detailed than mine--I found their site while researching this piece and they have some great info there).  Eliminate the electoral college and it's skews, eliminate the preference given to battleground states, eleminate the entire red-state/blue-state phenomenon.  Also, people want it: polls show (ironic, yes) that 70% of the population favors a direct election.

The IRV (instant-runoff vote) is to take care of the third-party "spoiler" effect.  Rather than "pick" a candidate, you rank them.  Then, if no one has a clear majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is removed and anyone who voted for him/her as #1 will have their #2 choice counted instead.  This also means that you can vote 3rd party without throwing your vote away (again, because a victory would require 51%).

Still not convinced?  Well, let me put it to you this way, and upon hearing this you will unequivocally agree with what I have to say.  Get ready for it.  You ready?  Here it comes.  The clincher.

If these reforms had been in effect in 2000, George W. Bush would not have gotten into office.

Told ya,

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