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Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

We are coming up on another Presidental election, and just like last time (2016), the final outcome may be close. We could have another situation where the popular vote count differs from the results of the Electoral College, as happened in 2016 and 2000. There were two other elections where this happened, but they were a long time ago, namely 1876 and 1888. In 1876, Democrat Sam Tilden won the popular vote, but Republican Rutherford Hayes won the College. In ’88, President Grover Cleveland, a Democratic, ran for a second term and won the popular vote while losing the College to Benjamin Harrison. (PS, Cleveland was a Jersey boy, hailing from Caldwell. His home is an historic site, just a few miles from where I live).

In all 4 of these elections, the Democratic candidate has been the aggrieved party. So, it’s not surprising that the Dems are now raising a lot of dust about abolishing the Electoral College system that was put in place by the writers of the US Constitution back in 1788. A recent poll (March 2019) indicated that 60% of Democratic voters want the College eliminated in favor of a straight majority vote. Not surprisingly, 64% of Republican voters wish to keep it. Among people calling themselves independents, 46% wanted to abolish the College, while 32% want to keep it.

There are plenty of arguments both for and against the College, but what it comes down to is the old Constitutional doctrine of State sovereignty and the limitation of Federal powers. The writers of the US Constitution, aware of the many political and economic abuses by the monarchies of Europe that go all the way back to the Roman Empire, worried about a federal government that would become too powerful. Their default philosophy was that the United States was a limited nation that only held whatever powers a large majority of the states voluntarily gave up and ceded to the federal government. This doctrine is commonly known as “federalism”.

Obviously, this presumes that all governmental authority originally and legitimately resided in the hands of the state governments. The federal government only gets what the states decide among themselves to give away. The states are presumed to keep the rest. The formal process of transferring such authority involves a Constitutional convention, or by amending the Constitution, which requires ratification by 75% of the state legislatures.

This arrangement was meant to keep the federal government from gaining too much power and thus threatening the people with tyranny (recall the accusations that the American Revolution leaders threw against King George of England – even though as a tyrant, King George was in the minor leagues). An interesting question that most people don’t ask is, could the States ever take back a power that they ceded to the feds? I don’t recall ever being taught in my history and civics classes about such a process, or how it would work; and I don’t recall any instances in American history where that actually happened. It seems as though once the states cede a particular form of governmental power or authority, the federal government keeps it forever.

The historical trend has been that over time, the feds become more bold and assertive in interpreting the power that they have been given. Occasionally the US Supreme Court makes noises in its decisions about keeping the federal government in check and preserving states rights, but the overall trend since the US Civil War has been a general expansion in the strength of the federal government and diminishment of the states.

So how does the Electoral College fit in with this? Well, the founders and the original writers of the Constitution worried about the powers of the Presidency; they wished to keep the Prez from becoming another King or Emperor. So, they deigned to keep the states in the loop in the final selection process, while preserving some level of public participation and also national authority. E.g. the founders simultaneously rejected the ideas of giving the decision to the national Congress and of directly using the popular vote (they also rejected the idea of allowing a majority of state legislatures or governors to select the President). In their time, when the nation had not expanded even to the Mississippi River, the population was concentrated along the Atlantic coast (especially along the northern coastal states). So they worried that if selected by popular vote only, the chief executive of the federal government would pay much more attention to a few states in the north and not give much regard to the concerns of the larger but less populated agrarian southern states. The Electoral College would help even the interstate playing ground while also keeping the national voting public engaged and satisfied; or so they hoped.

As a footnote – actually, the way that the Electoral College presently votes, i.e. giving all of the delegates allotted to the state to the candidate who receives a simple majority of votes within that state, is not specified by the US Constitution. The Constitution itself says that it is up to each state legislature to decide on how to allocate their electoral votes (Article II, Section 1, Clause 2). Historically, the states have gone with the winner-take-all system, but there is no reason why they could not allocate their votes to roughly coincide with the percentages that the major candidates obtain in the state. Or, they could decide to give all of their votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote – there is presently a proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This agreement has actually been ratified by 15 states, with the caveat that it would only go into effect if enough states eventually adopt it so as to represent a majority of votes in the College. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

So, the Electoral College has become a political hot-potato today, with many of the 2020 Democratic primary candidates endorsing its abolition. (Of course, such abolition would require a constitutional amendment ratified by ¾ of the states, which just ain’t gonna happen.) Interestingly, this is a major national issue that can be defined geographically. As with the issue of slavery in the 1850s and 60s, you can easily map out the states that would favor ending the College, and those that want it continued.

Basically, the pro-College states would be the “red states”, states in the south and west that traditionally vote Republican. Obviously, the “blue states” in the northeast and along the Pacific coast (plus Illinois and maybe Minnesota from the center, and perhaps a handful of western states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico) support ending or changing the College to allow popular majority determination. As to the “swing states”, i.e. the states where the results have been close in recent election cycles, you might suspect that they would go along with the red states and would keep the College. And why not? Without the College, their elevated status in Presidential elections would disappear.

The trend within the history of American politics is that when a controversial and contested issue is clearly tied to geography, there can be big trouble. The Civil War is the most obvious example of this. Geographic issues go to the core of American identity – these issues dare to ask the question, shall we continue to be one nation? I doubt if the Electoral College controversy in itself could threaten American unity; but in conjunction with today’s many other polarizing issues that correspond well with geography, I wonder if that’s where we are headed.

What happens if and when groups of governors and Congressional representatives start talking seriously about “going their own way”, about splitting the nation into two or more smaller nations? We aren’t there yet. Aside from some occasional, half-serious talk from California and Texas about seceding, no one appears to be coming up with any serious plans for blue and red nations. But sometimes I wonder why not. The things that seem to divide us today aren’t just political and economic; they get down to basic personal beliefs, conflicting values that accumulate one way in one set of states, and the exact opposite in another. I really wonder sometimes if Tennessee and California or Wyoming and Maryland can continue to be part of the same body politic. Do the things that unite our nation still outweigh the increasingly leveraged matters that divide us?

The Electoral College is a potential breaking-point if and when the grand schism scheme goes viral. The blue states very much see the College as an anachronistic injustice and want it gone. But under the American Constitution and given the College’s popularity in the less populated red states, that isn’t going to happen. Practically speaking, if people in Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, California and Oregon really want popular vote Presidential elections, the only way they can get them is to secede from the red states! I doubt if the College problem alone would inspire such a dramatic outcome. But if the many other trends polarizing the nation continue, the Electoral College could eventually become the fissure point, once the center can no longer hold.

P.S. – There is still a good reason why a Dis-United State of America might not happen: because if the 50 states cannot act as one on the international front, and if the US military is broken up, we will be in a much weaker position relative to China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the other antagonists out there. There’s nothing like a common enemy to bring together people with nothing in common. So, the USA may be around for a long time yet – but on the domestic front there might be more and more pressure to divide the nation into semi-autonomous, self-governing regions.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:15 pm      

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