Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Disenfranchisement That the Electoral College Has Wrought

The disenfranchisement of high-population, urban "blue" America by the electoral college, is poised to become a Republican strategy at the state level, too.

As many of us liberals who actually value popular sovereignty have noted, and which I recently wrote about on The Huck Upchuck, conservatives are outright hostile to affording all Americans the opportunity to participate equally in our democracy. At heart, conservatives despise the idea of one-person, one-vote and, instead of actually encouraging American citizens to be participants in how they are governed, would seek to disenfranchise as many American liberals as possible from the political process.

This takes place at the national level through the electoral college, where small population conservative states and the residents of these states wield disproportionate influence in the presidential election by virtue of the way our electoral college is designed (which, despite state population levels, gives each state two electoral college votes for each of the two federal senators from the state).

Now, it appears that Republicans in Pennsylvania want to make the allocation of that state's electoral college votes dependent on a kind of state-level electoral college where each electoral college vote accrues to each federal Congressional electoral district in the state, irrespective of the population of each of these electoral districts.

As Nick Baumann in the Mother Jones piece linked above notes:

Some of the early [Pennsylvania federal Congressional redistricting] maps have leaked to the press, and Democrats expect that the Pennsylvania congressional map for the 2012 elections will have 12 safe GOP seats compared to just 6 safe Democratic seats.

Under the Republican plan, if the GOP presidential nominee carries the GOP-leaning districts but Obama carries the state, the GOP nominee would get 12 electoral votes out of Pennsylvania, but Obama would only get eight—six for winning the blue districts, and two (representing the state's two senators) for winning the state.
It's interesting that ALL of the talk concerning disenfranchising Americans and preventing Americans from having a truly equal stake in our government comes from conservatives. You never hear liberals talking about voter suppression strategies in liberal enclaves, or discovering other creative ways to effectively disenfranchise citizens outright (literacy/property ownership laws) or make an individual citizen's vote disproportionately more or less valuable than another citizen's vote simply by where one lives, etc. It's ALWAYS conservatives who want to find ways to keep the unwashed masses, and anyone even remotely likely to have liberal views, away from the polls. And yet it's conservatives who speak of liberals as the elitists! How ironic is that?


Eric said...

Interesting, I hadn't heard Pennsylvania was looking at that option, but I wish I could find the Huffpo article I read after the '08 election where a liberal (it may have actually been Arianna Huffington) was arguing for a similar type system, and I'm prety sure I remember hearing James Carville make this argument on Bill Maher's show once. Whoever it was, I know for sure the first time I ever heard this idea was from a liberal perspective. I clearly remember the argument went something like this: "The electoral system is unfair, but since it can only be done away with via Constitutonal Amendment and since you're never going to get enough smaller states on board to acquire the necessary 2/3 majority, then we should work within the states to make the electoral system more closely resemble the popular vote."

The idea was that if you could get states to change their internal electoral process (which they are constitutionally allowed to sructure any damn way they want) so that their votes were split up and apportioned according to districts based on population demographics, then liberals might be able to pick off some electoral points from urban or metropolitan centers in traditionally red states. A Democrat is always going to have a hard time winning Texas, but they could count on a few easy points from 'electoral districts' that included Austin and San Antonio.

Until I read your link about the situation in PA, I never even considered that it could work the other way as well. Turnabout is fair play!

Really though, I'm split on the electoral college system. If you read the justification for it that Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, it is just unbelievably elitist (in otherwords, par for the course as far as Hamilton is concerned). His support for it truly was based on the idea that common citizens are just too stupid and easily swayed by charisma (well that part may be true) to be trusted with such a monumental decision.

On the other hand, it is also a historical fact that the smaller states (and not just the southern ones) would never have ratified the Constitution without several provisions giving them a counerweight to the 'tyranny of the majoriy', and the Electoral System was designed to be just such a counterweight. While it is true that our views on the ethical primacy of "one man and one vote" have evolved over time, I don't think they have eclipsed the prominence of thinkers like Jefferson, Madison, DeToqueville, and John Stuart Mill... all who issued strong warnings about the integral dangers of majority conrolled faction in democratic institutions. If the social contract can be constantly revised and re-written by 50%+1, you lose a lot of the stabiliy that is required for a functioning Repulic.

However, given the other provisions in our Constitution that serve to protect smaller states from the interests of the larger ones, and given the fact that we don't (and shouldn't) use the Electoral system in any way even slightly resembling its intended purpose (remember, the Founders didn't intend for us to vote for President, only for Electors to make that decision entirely on our behalf... a design that lasted approximately zero election cycles)... I wouldn't be entirely oposed (or overly committed) to the idea of the replacing it with a national popular election. In fact, if in return, the Executive authority of the Presidency would be reined in to its proper Constitutional scope, I would enthusiasticaly support a popular election in exchange for that outcome.

Anyway, interesting article, mucho food or thought. Thanks for sharing.

Huck said...

Eric - It sounds like what you heard from liberals wasn't a manipulation of the electoral college to disenfranchise voters by making it so that the actual allocation of electoral votes worked to mitigate against the popular vote, but to make it more reflective of the popular vote. What the Republicans in Pennsylvania are planning to do is apparently to gerrymander congressional districts such that Republicans secure more representation than the popular vote in that state would warrant. Since doing away with the electoral college is nigh to impossible, as you point out, what would be a more fair system (and what I presume liberals are advocating) would be something akin to the idea that whatever the popular vote is within each state, Presidential candidates would accrue the appropriate number of electoral college votes. In other words, one would never see a situation where a candidate could win the popular vote in a state and actual not win in the electoral vote tally as well. It's a way to make the electoral system actually reflect the popular vote without going through a constitutional amendment process. In other words, the liberal plan would be the following: if a Republican candidate for President wins 60% of the popular vote in a state with 10 electoral votes, then that Republican candidate would get 6 of that state's 10 electoral votes. But that is decidedly NOT what the PA Republicans are trying to do. So, I still stand by my claim: conservatives want to manipulate our electoral system to disenfranchise voters by diminishing the one-person, one-vote principle; whereas liberals want to modify the electoral system to make the outcome of a presidential election more reflective of the one-person, one-vote principle.

I can't see how conservatives could support the electoral college and not be embracing a patently elitist approach to government. That just seems to fly in the face of all this contemporary conservative disdain for elitism.

Huck said...

Also, Eric, the reforms from that you heard from liberals would also allow conservatives to "pick off" some electoral college votes in "blue" states, too. In the absence of any real possibility of a constitutional amendment moving away from the electoral college, I could live with such a system.

I also think that Americans today don't take so kindly to being disenfranchised. Republicans in PA may succeed in creating a short term benefit if their reforms go through; but the inherent unfairness of it will not escape notice and will come to bite them in the rear down the road.

Eric said...

First, towards you accusation that Republicans are the *only* ones trying to disenfranchise voters, do you realy want to argue that Democrats never engage in gerrymandering? If so I'd point you towards Illinois, where post-census Democrat conrolled redistricting is likely to cost the GOP up to 5 house seats. I think you should at least be fair and admit that we are discussing two different issues here: gerrymandering of districts is one, and the electoral college is the other. On the first, liberals are every bit as guilty as conservatives when it comes to "disenfranchising" voters.

On the second issue, I think you do have a point that conservatives are more likely than liberals to support election schemes favoring outcomes that don't necessarily reflect the popular vote, at leat in Presidential elections. I think a lot of this stems from the fact that we have a problem where people outside of big cities feel increasingly culturally alienated from their urban peers (and vice versa), and they are seeking (through measures such as this one in PA) to insulate themselves from the power the city-dwellers have over their lives. Is that fair? Maybe not at face value, but it should be noted that a significant part of how our Constitutional system works is based on intentially creating similar power distributions which could also be deemed 'unfair', but without which our Republic would never have sustained itself for this long.

The problem, as Madison so eloquently wrote about in Federalist #10, boils down to cultural differences in a large Republic (or 'faction', as he called it). Big cities, metropolitan areas, smallish college towns, exurban bedroom communities, rural towns close to a major interestate, rural towns that are geographically isolated... the people who live in each cultural demographic face their own unique set of issues in dealing with day to day life and interacting with various levels of government. Just because the people who live in major cities or populous states outnumber everyone else, it doesn't automatically become 'fair' then for their cultural viewpoint to paint the entire political landscape (or the Presidential election). The idea of "one man, one vote", while nearly ubiquitous, is also a fairly modern convention that (at least as it si commonly understood) ignores several important realities that allow our political system to work.

In many ways these kinds of fights over electoral influence are good for us as a nation because we fight them INSTEAD of fighting actual wars over power. They represent a sort of civil war by proxy, and while there are certainly genuine consequences for the winners and losers of such a war, they are nearly always much less dire than the altrernative.

While their are certainly elitist defenses for the Elecotral College out there (though mostly they reside in the Hamilton's writings in the federalist papers and you don't hear much about them from conservatives or liberals) I think the common conservative view on it is more populist than elitist, and if you really dig deep down into the reasons for its existence, the idea is more pragmatist than anything else. Pragmatic ideas in government that actually work are few and far between. They're almost as rare as unicorns. We probably should be very careful about messing with them too much!

Huck said...

Eric - I became a victim of my own blog's commenting goofiness. I had a long posting in response that got gobble up and disappeared. So now I'm forced to truncating it. Basically, you raise some excellent points. First, I have to acknowledge what you say about liberal gerrymandering. It is true that liberals gerrymander electoral districts just as perniciously as Republicans do. I only meant to critique the kind of gerrymandering that seeks to manipulate the electoral college for presidential elections. When liberals gerrymander, it's intent is usually not to try to diminish the value of voters, but to try to create parity and equity in voting along certain identity lines. That form of gerrymandering is certainly criticizable, and it may be wrongheaded in other ways, but it is a different form of gerrymandering than what the Pennsylvania Republicans are proposing -- which is gerrymandering to consciously prevent achievement of the equity in the one-person, one-vote principle. One could argue that liberal gerrymandering is an effort to improve on this principle and not to dilute it. But, still, your point is well-taken and acknowledged.

As to your other point about rural dwellers' fears, I would say that such fears are misplaced and unwarranted. And even still, that fear doesn't give anyone the right to respond by setting up a system that would give rural dwellers a disproportionate say over the lives of urban dwellers.

Finally, fighting over electoral battles may be safer than having actual physical and deadly fights; but the safety zone of electoral arena fights has its limits, too. What the GOP in Pennsylvania is proposing is to leave that safety zone. People know when the boundaries of one fighting arena have been violated; and I think the GOP is on the cusp of violating that safer arena. If it continues to evolve in this way, the outcome won't be pretty.

Eric said...

"As to your other point about rural dwellers' fears, I would say that such fears are misplaced and unwarranted."

Tell that to the hay farmers who have to check the wind before they can cut hay (in a drought, when hay cutting is very precarious and needs to be timed just right) because if the wind is blowing too hard they can't work due to federal regulations on how much dust they might kick up... in an area where they may have no neighbors for 2 miles in any direction. Most of them just ignore the ridiculous law, but that's sort of a problem in and of itself, isn't it?

"What the GOP in Pennsylvania is proposing is to leave that safety zone."

Well, I'd argue the safety zone is defined by the Constitution, and the Constitution specifically leaves it up to the states to set up their own Electoral College systems. Nebraska and Maine use the same system that Pennsylvania is proposing, and I've never heard anyone complain that they have "gone too far" by doing so. .

With that said, it may be true that the GOP in Pennsylvania could pay a high political price for doig this. And maybe they should. I'm just saying that they are within their Constitutional rights to do it, and the theory behind it isn't as extreme or fringe as many would make it out to be.

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