As I watch the election coverage tonight, and I wonder how a President who has compromised our national security, broken countless laws, enriched himself at the public expense, and willfully allowed an infectious disease to kill thousands of Americans is still in the running, or even on the ticket at this point, I am thinking more and more about the way Americans think about the electoral college.
What first got me thinking about this?
It was the election maps deplorables began circulating after 2016, maps showing how much of America voted in favor of Donald Trump. Comparing the vast swaths of red turf against the lonely spots of blue on these maps, it was easy to think of Trump’s victory as fitting. How could the rest of us doubt his legitimacy if so much of America voted for him? This wasn’t even close.
Clearly, the vast majority of America wanted Trump as President!
Of course these maps show us territories, not people, a fact easily demonstrated by accounting for population using a 3D projection.
Once you do that, the story quickly changes!
If you are counting territory on a map, Trump’s win back in 2016 looks impressive as Hell. It’s a decisive victory. In fact, it’s a grand slam! How could any Democrat even show their face in public after such a one-sided slaughter?
Once you account for actual people, however, it’s easier to remember that Donald Trump didn’t even win the popular vote. He won the electoral college, but the majority of Americans who weighed in on the 2016 election actually chose the other candidate.
If the will of the American people had determined the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton would have been president these last 4 years.
The discrepancy between the popular vote and the actual outcome of the 2016 election kicked off a new round of discussion about the electoral college. Democrats had a new reason to oppose it. Republicans had a new reason to defend it. This of course means some of us were treated to a whole new round of sophomoric semantics over the difference between a republic and a democracy.
Which brings me to a fascinating argument in favor of the electoral college. You see this a lot from the right wing, the notion that without the electoral college, a few states would dominate our national politic. According to some of these folks, L.A. County alone would have more impact than many states. New York City would have more impact than quite a few states. The Electoral College is, according to this narrative, the only thing preventing ‘coastal elites’ from dictating every major political decision at the expense of the more rural states.
It’s a fascinating narrative, one with clear villains and clear victims. The story elicits a genuine fear for the states that would be oppressed under such conditions.
What’s particularly fascinating about this narrative is that its characters are geographical units. They are stretches of land. Without the electoral college, it is the Dakotas that will suffer, Montana, Wyoming, or even my own state of Alaska. Actual people appear in this story, only as the loosely implied victims of oppression by virtue of being within the rural states of our nation. The implication that anything is wrong only emerges so long as you remain focused on geography, forgetting how the electoral college actually skews the significance of individual voters to begin with.
As a citizen of Alaska, my vote counts more than that of the Californians in my family. Hell, it even counts more than those of the Texans! It is the electoral college which makes this possible, because it boosts the impact of smaller states, giving us more representation per person than than states with larger populations. This means each individual voter gets more impact out of a vote cast in a rural state than she does in a vote cast somewhere like New York. Without the electoral college, our votes could be given equal value, and if certain states have less impact in such a system, it would only be because our individual votes are actually given equal value. The present system gives some people more of a say over who becomes President than others. Equalizing our the votes of individual citizens effectively skews the significance of regions, even as it puts us on a level playing field with each other. So, the narrative which has us crying about mistreatment of rural sates has the ironic effect of making equality look like its opposite, and that only works if we mistake states for people.
So, what does this mean? It means the prospect of keeping or rejecting the electoral college poses a decision over which matters more?