Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Curious Celebration of Democracy

While many us have been focusing on the frenetic movement of the stock market, the dwindling value of our retirement portfolios, and the rising national debt; yet another movement has been afoot almost out of sight to subvert the intentions of the Founding Fathers. As reported by McClatchy Newspapers in the Kansas City Star, California Governor Jerry Brown on Monday signed legislation that could potentially place Founders' view of the Electoral College in dire jeopardy. 

How can this be, you ask?  Isn't the Electoral College specified in the Constitution under Article II, Section 1, Clause 2?  (I know, you didn't have a clue how the Electoral College came about.  Fortunately for you, I carry a leather-covered pocket edition of this document with me at all times.)  In fact this bit of the Constitution does address how many Electors each state gets, and allows each state legislature to decide how they are chosen.  There are subsequent entries in the 12th and 23rd Amendment covering other aspects of the College.  How those Electors vote after a national election is held however, is something entirely different.

Electors are in fact free to vote for anyone eligible to be President.  Traditionally, Electors vote in proportion to the popular vote of their respective states or for the winner of their respective electoral district (at least on the first ballot).  The idea that the Founders proposed with the formation of the Electoral College was much in keeping with their thinking behind the bicameral legislature created in the same document.  By using the Electoral College as a buffer, they hoped to provide some form of balance between the more populous larger states and smaller ones.  Using the electoral system has allowed swing states like Ohio (20 electors) or Michigan (17 electors) to play at least as much a role as Florida (27 electors), Texas (34 electors), or California (55 electors)(The fact that none of these states existed at the time that the Constitution was written speaks volumes as to the wisdom of their decision and the Founders ability to deal with future eventualities.) 

Of course the interstate compact now signed by Governor Brown we are told, "would take effect only if states controlling a majority of the nation's electoral votes agree."  I guess that this would make this the a 'pile on the winner' law allowing the votes of other states to influence the electoral vote of CA. Eight states and the District of Columbia have now signed on to this potential compact, an agreement which the article goes on to point out now encompasses "almost half of the electoral votes proponents need".  Certainly this legislation has the potential to create more direct ties to the popular vote ( which is a good thing if you're a state with a population the size of California's).

Now there have been calls to do away with the Electoral College before, most recently after the election of 2000, when George W Bush failed to gain a plurality of the popular vote.  Opponents of the Electoral College claimed that election results like that of 2000 subvert the democratic process and fail to provide a true popular mandate for an elected leader (though it must be admitted that they did at least provide us protection against a potential President Al Gore).  What they fail to point out or perhaps even recognize, is that while we do have the popular vote, the United States is not and never has been a Democracy, but a Representative Republic. The Electoral College was just another in a series of well-thought-out concepts to protect the minority rights in this country from being trampled the 'will of the mob'. (Something that this measure might be overlooking, if not actively subverting.)

California's interest in throwing its 55 vote weight around should be of no surprise to anyone, as they have long felt slighted by the national voting process.  Having their polls closing 3 hours after those of the East Coast and with election coverage by 24-hour news networks calling states while CA is still voting has sometimes caused this bastion of the progressive thinking to find itself extraneous to the decision-making process.  

It's interesting however that these so-called Defenders of Democracy see this as progress towards portraying the will of the people.  If this legislation is followed through on, it would in fact allow California to, "award the state's electoral votes to the candidate winning the most votes nationwide, regardless of which candidate California voters choose".  One might think it a rather curious contradiction that California and it co-signers would seek to extol the value and virtues of true democracy by potentially subverting the will of the popular vote in their states.


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