A working democracy depends on the principle of “one person, one vote,” with no person’s vote counting for more than anyone else’s. But when it comes to the presidential selection system, the votes of Americans who happen to live in small states count for a lot more than votes from large states:
The majority of Americans blame President Trump for the government shutdown. In an interview with the BBC, Stephen J. Yates, former Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice President to Dick Cheney, explained that our presidential selection system means that the people’s opinion does not matter (6:50).
Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that the founders “sought…an elected president…reflecting the will of the people,” but they wanted “some kind of built-in screening device.” So, they invented the Electoral College. Pages 39-40. Made up of “locally prominent men in each state” it would be the “original gatekeeper.”
As historians have amply shown, this version of history is, to put a word for it, wrong. Some among the drafters strongly preferred direct election of the president. The slave and small state alliance had won inequitable, anti-democratic power in both the House and Senate, and they did not want anything short of this unfairness to be on their side when it came to choosing the president. No one thought that the electors would “screen.” Instead they would negotiate compromises among the different states, probably fail to produce a majority of electors for anyone, and then kick the process to the House.
This good book’s description of the history of the Electoral College is not one of the authors’ best moments.
In November 2018, Florida voted to re-enfranchise more than 1.4 million people who had completed felony sentences. However:
“Opponents, including Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, say before the amendment can be implemented, the legislature needs to pass a bill to clarify its terms and fulfill its intent. Supporters say it should be implemented immediately. The disagreement is generating confusion and the threat of lawsuits.”
When I graduated college 50 years ago next year, a constitutional amendment to replace the electoral system with direct, popular vote nearly passed. President Richard Nixon supported it. So did the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters among many other groups. It was blocked in 1970 by a filibuster led by southern senators.
They had a lot to lose if black people in the south could cast votes for president that mattered. These votes could be joined with votes of those everywhere in the country who sympathized with the civil rights claims of black people. The white advantage in presidential selection could be lost. As everyone knows, that same grip on power was transferred from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. The irony is that the Democrats in the south would have been better off with the popular vote method of choosing the president.
The 14th Amendment turned the three-fifths compromise into a five-fifths concession. Former slaves were fully counted as citizens for purposes of allocating House seats, and thus electors in the Electoral College. When Reconstruction failed and Jim Crow laws denied black people access to the ballot, the white southerners ended up with increased power in Congress and over the selection of the president.
If black people did succeed in voting, despite all obstacles, then their votes for anyone but the choice of the white majority were discarded under the "unit rule."
The Electoral College system was a tool of repression against former slaves and their descendants in the south through history until even today.
“In the past, I’ve argued that the country’s two biggest challenges are climate change and the stagnation of living standards for most people. I now think that democracy protection and revitalization belong on that list.”
Because the presidential selection system currently consists of independent simultaneous statewide votes, state politicians in a single state logically conclude their actions will have little effect on the presidential election’s outcome in other states.
Republican legislators in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin can act against the apparent desire of the majority of voters in last month’s election without worrying about the effect on their party’s ability to win a national popular vote — because no such vote ever matters.
But things would be different if some states awarded some electors to the national vote winner. Then state officials in both parties (for the first time in American history) would have a ballot-based reason to be concerned about the reaction to their conduct from fellow Americans across the whole country. Anti-democratic moves by either party in any state might shift public opinion against that party in other states. Notorious bad actions by either party even in a single state then might cost the party a national popular vote majority and as a result lose the presidency.
The anachronistic notion that what happens in a single state stays in that state would be eradicated. If the national popular vote mattered then the actions of officials in a single state might be subjected to meaningful judgment in the court of national public opinion.
The principal reason animating southern state opposition to direct election of the president at the time of the Constitutional Convention was slavery. To protect slavery, the southern state representatives had obtained the compromise that allocated them House seats according to population with slaves counted as three-fifths of a person.
If direct popular vote picked the president, the Three-Fifths gimmick would not have given southern states inequitable advantages in choosing the president.
Slaves of course could not vote, and the northern states had more eligible voters.
Founders from the slave states feared the outcome could be presidents unsympathetic to their "peculiar institution."
So they insisted on the electoral college system. By giving states two electors plus the number equaling the House members, the scheme extended the Three-Fifths Compromise to the process of choosing the president. It wasn't until 1860 that the unsympathetic president at last was elected.
In reviewing George Edwards’ Why the Electoral College is Bad for America (2004), Jeffrey Cohen of Fordham University concluded: “I do not think the Founders designed the electoral college with egalitarian ends in mind, but that does not mean that, over 200 years after the adoption of the Constitution, we should not promote political equality, even if it means dismantling institutions that undermine political equality.”
Of course the granting of suffrage to former slaves and women and people aged 18 to 21 all promoted “political equality” even if the electoral system denied true equality.
But it’s also worth noting that the Electoral College does not need to be “dismantled.” Any state can choose as electors those from the party slate whose nominee for president has won the most votes cast in the United States. That would make every vote count, or matter, equally.
The Brennan Center for Justice released a report following up on their analysis of the widespread purges of voter rolls throughout the South leading up to the 2016 election. The report finds that in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia, the exceptionally high rates of purges has not declined. The rates of purging continue to be alarmingly high in these 3 states when compared to those before the 2006 and 2008 presidential election and others.
In recent two year periods, North Carolina has purged 11.7% of its registered voters from its list, Georgia has purged 10.6%, and Florida over 7%. The timing of the increased purges coincides with the Supreme Court’s Shelby ruling which in 2013 that “struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act that required nine states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval when altering their election laws.”
Would state officials have the same perverse incentives to trim their voting rolls of prior eligible voters if the winner-take-all electoral system were not in practice by all three of these states?
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“Across the country, more than six million people have lost the right to vote because of their criminal records. More than 1.5 million of them live in Florida, a higher number than in any other state,” writes Emily Bazelin for NY Times. Bazelin’s piece highlights the experiences of two advocates, one Republican, the other Democrat, fighting for “the expansion of the franchise to be a key pillar of the platform of both parties.” A proposed ballot initiative for this November, Amendment 4, would restore the voting rights of ex-felons (although Floridians convicted of murder and sex offenses would not be able to vote under the proposed law). And it's a popular reform, with 71 percent support according to a recent poll. So why would anyone want to oppose it?
In the winner-take-all system of electing the president, the stakes are potentially very high. If this law went into effect, it could possibly change the balance of voters favoring a Democrat or Republican for president in any given year. That might be of less concern in a red state or a blue state, but Florida is very often among the most closely contested states nationwide. in 2012 Florida was the closest state in the country in electing President Obama. In our last election, President Trump carried the state by less than 1.2 percent. And because Florida is among the most populous, it has a lot electoral votes to give.
But what if we elected our president by the winner of the most votes cast nationally? The overall impact of roughly a million more votes cast by ex-felons in Florida would be significantly less likely to determine the winner of the presidency alone, but citizens in every state as well as Florida would finally have a voice in electing our president because every voter would matter equally.
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A national popular vote would provide candidates an incentive to advertise in local TV markets nationwide.
If the president were elected by national popular vote, he or she would have both the mandate and the consensus-driven support of the nation’s entire population to support a federal minimum wage raise to a realistic level.
One-third of Americans would agree to forfeit their voting rights for a pay raise of 10%. How can you blame them when the vast majority of votes cast for president do not matter?
A national popular vote would result in campaign policies that support the majority of Americans nationwide.
If we selected the president based upon the winner of the most votes nationally, no voter would be ignored and every vote would matter.