… to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
There is perhaps no more quintessentially American passage than this piece from the Declaration of Independence. It is the very basis for much of how we live our lives and govern ourselves. And yet, the system by which we select the leader of our nation is clearly not based on the notion that all men are created equal.
There are different notions about the reasoning for the creation of the Electoral College – the body of people which actually selects the President every four years – and not one of those reasons has anything to do with equality.
In the 68th Federalist Paper Alexander Hamilton proposes that a series of electors – “Men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” – actually vote to decide who will be the President. This presupposes that the general populace may in fact not be intelligent enough to be trusted on this issue. Over 200 years later and I believe we’ve now established a baseline for this assumption.
Particularly relevant today is another passage I will quote for you.
“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States”
Clearly Hamilton underestimated how far talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity might carry a person.
Regardless, this particular reason for the existence of a body that has the power to supersede the popular vote is clear. The general population is not to be trusted with the fate of the nation, lest some group gain sufficient popularity to drown out all opposition. It’s a scary notion, but the purpose was pure. The founders knew that it would be possible at some point that a man, wildly unfit to run a country, might gain sufficient popularity to run for president. The Electoral College was at least in part meant to be a safeguard against that.
In this article on Vox.com (which you should read) Sean Illing interviews Akhil Reed Amar, the Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale. In this interview Professor Amar explains that slave states also benefited from the Electoral College. At the time slaves could not vote, but their population was counted (albeit not fully due to the 3/5 clause) toward the number of electors that a state would have. Of course, we no longer have slavery, and thus no slave states, making this particular purpose of the college moot.
Here, I believe, is where we come to the second crux of institutional inequality among voters and the states. Each state has a set number of electors, determined by the number of Senators and Representatives, regardless of voter turnout or margin of win by the candidate with the most popular votes in that state (in all instances excepting Maine and Nebraska, which do not have winner take all laws).
If you care to do the math, and I do, it becomes very clear in short order that no two states are on equal footing as far as the voters residing within are concerned. California has 55 designated electors and a population of approximately 38.8 million people. That means that by population, each vote in California is worth about .0000014474 electoral votes. In my home state of Arizona we have a population around 6.731 million people and 11 electoral votes. That comes out to .0000016342. It’s a small, nigh on imperceptible difference, but it is a difference. In California a person’s vote is worth less than mine in Arizona, when distilled down to the base of it. And that’s just one failure of the imperfect system we use.
That is, of course, using the flat population as a guide for how many electoral votes a state has. It does not in any way take into account the actual number of people who voted, which further skews the value of your vote. Arizona gets 11 electoral votes if 200,000 people vote or 2,000,000. That’s the real rub of the numbers. The more people vote in each state, the less the votes are worth on the national stage. If you vote for someone who does not win in your state that’s the end. Your vote does not go into a big national vote pot, it stops counting. It dies. Your state’s electoral votes go on to whomever won in that state.
It’s a bit depressing, especially in a state like mine or California, that sits very comfortably on one side of the party line or another. Therein also lies an issue. Voter turnout is very likely suppressed by this system, because voters can do math and why would they go to the polls if they know that their vote will be drowned out by the more popular view in their state?
The means by which we choose our national leader are deeply flawed. We don’t choose so much as make a suggestion which we expect our electors to follow unilaterally.
In the case of this election our electors have an opportunity to choose the man the majority of states chose, but not voters, or to go rogue and deny the presidency to perhaps the most incompetent and unfit man to ever run in the history of our nation. He lost the vote of the people by a margin that continues to grow. At the time of this writing Clinton leads Trump by 797,000 votes. A narrow margin in a country of 320 million people, though somewhat less narrow in a pool of 122 million votes taken (so far).
This is where the system supplants democracy and takes the power away from its citizens. I’m no huge supporter of Mrs Clinton, but I can tell an ignorant buffoon when I see one. Donald Trump is a direct danger to our country and by extension the very world. He ran a platform based on hate with antisemitism and misogyny and bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims as cornerstones. He is a divider of people, not someone who has any desire (or capacity) to unite and lead us all.
The irony is that in this particular election the use of the Electoral College for which Alexander Hamilton argued would enforce the will of the most people and prevent a moron from claiming the highest office in the land.
The electors have never flipped in the history of our nation, and to expect it now would be unlikely in the extreme if for no reason beyond the inertia of the system. But that is no reason not to make your voice heard. Be loud. Be obnoxious. Give no quarter. Never allow hate or intolerance to be normal. This is not normal.
Never give up.
While you’re at it, read up on the national popular vote bill and get your vote to count the same as everyone else’s.