Friday, May 4, 2007

Political Beef: Elections

One of the signs that our nation has lost its mind, politically, is the general consensus (among those who trouble themselves to speak up on the issue) that the Electoral College has to go. It has to go, they say, because it is an antiquated system, based on the compromises that were required to balance the interests of the original colonies so that the Constitution could be adopted in the first place. It has to go, they say, because all it does is ensure that the candidate with the second-highest popular vote wins the election.

But I tell you, it must not go. Though the critics of the electoral college charge ahead in the name of direct democracy and "one citizen, one vote," the fact is that the Electoral College is essential to the freedoms, rights, and political enfranchisement of the majority of American citizens. To get rid of the Electoral College would be dangerous and stupid. It would hurt most Americans for the very reasons being put forward for doing it. And here is why.

The population of America's urban areas is growing. The population in the rural areas is shrinking. Nevertheless, the people in the rural areas ought to be able to make their voice heard, ought to have a chance to have their interests considered in Washington. The Electoral College is their guarantee of that.

The urban areas are heavily populated, but they cover a very small fraction of our nation's land area, compared to the vast but more thinly populated interior of the country. In general, urban voters vote Blue and rural areas vote Red. For the Blue candidate to bring his message to the people he can expect to vote for him, he doesn't have to cover much ground. For the Red candidate to speak to a similar number of his likely supporters, he would have to travel much more widely and stop in many more places.

"Get out the vote" campaigns focus on urban areas. Political demonstrations and activism are more at home in big cities than in small-town America. It's not as if it's all one way and all the other; there are, to be sure, urban Republicans and rural Democrats. But watch the election maps, and listen to the returns. You'll probably hear how, for example, Ohio voters were split 50-50 between Red and Blue, with nearly all of the counties voting Red and the areas around Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati voting Blue. Or you'll see an election map showing 35 red states to 15 blue states (mainly along the east and west coast), or perhaps an even more lopsided distribution, and yet the candidates are virtually tied in popular and electoral votes.

Of course it always seems ironic, and to some people unfair, when the guy with fewer popular votes wins in the Electoral College. Or even when, as in 1976, the candidates are virtually tied in the popular vote, yet one of them "wins by a landslide" in the electoral vote. But this is the genius of the American Republic, which makes room not only for the people of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles with their Blue needs and interests, but also for the folks out in Nebraska and Wyoming with their Red ones.

To take away the Electoral College would be to make it virtually pointless for the people living in the vast center of the U.S. to participate in the political process. They would not have any real voice or say in the outcome. Candidates might not even bother trying to court their favor. Losing the Electoral College would mean disfranchising those outside the "big states" and especially the "big cities." It would call into question the very reason for the Union, and perhaps lead some states (or political groups within them) to ask whether it wouldn't be better for them to secede.

Does this sound silly? Well, think about it. The last time states seceded from the Union, it was basically because some of the states felt their section of the country no longer had a say in national issues. The balance of power that had been carefully preserved for the first 75 years of the Republic had now tilted toward the urban, industrial, northern section, and the interests of the the rural, agricultural, southern section became increasingly irrelevant. Sure, slavery was a factor. It was part of the southern economy that was suffering from national policies that ignored southern needs. It was a matter of political controversy in which the outnumbered southern states felt themselves losing ground. But the last straw was the Presidential Election of 1860, in which a candidate who wasn't even on the ballot in many southern states won.

It's a middling example, because this crisis was not brought about by the lack of an Electoral College. Lincoln won basically because the Democrats split up over sectional differences and backed three different candidates. But you must be able to understand why people in several states might ask themselves, "Why are we here?" when a candidate could win the White House without getting a single vote from their part of the country.

This is the same question folks in Utah, Nevada, Iowa, and Kansas will ask if the Electoral College goes away, and when they and most other states vote overwhelmingly Red and, time after time, the Blue candidate wins because of the urban vote. Maybe there won't even be a need for a Red party, once the political system is rigged to ensure that the Blue candidate always wins. That might make some loud, opinionated city people happy, but what about the quiet, patient, country folks? Do we want to have to use military force to keep them in the Union?

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