13 December 2004; or, A Few Things I Know About the Electoral College from Reading Books

NB: What follows is a blog post I wrote in November of 2004, in between that year’s popular vote and the Electoral College vote for president. As of November of 2016, I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer, so I’ve edited it slightly; the argument is the same, the paragraphs are fundamentally the same, but some sentences, I think, are better. As of November 2016, I’m keeping the original publication date, but pinning it on my home page, in case anyone finds it useful.

in the voting booth

Having bored everyone I know to tears for the past few weeks, if not the past few years, with talking about the Electoral College, to the point where I recently was called, much to my horror, “Electoral College guy,” and having read Josh Marshall‘s recent post on the subject [NB: link removed; no longer extant], where he said he hoped to generate a discussion on the issue, I’m going to try to write down everything I know about it.

I learned what I know from reading The Electoral College Primer 2000, as well as a satiric novel about the Electoral College (The People’s Choice: A Cautionary Tale), plus relevant and reliable sources on the Internet. I did this research in order to write the script to The Truth About the Electoral College, which you should watch if you haven’t, because it’s funny. Note, if you do watch it, that “March of this year” refers to the year 2000.

I.e., I’m not a trained historian on this subject; I’m a writer. This is just one citizen’s list of what I find amazing and horrifying.

The founding fathers came up with the idea of electors as a last-minute compromise when they were finishing the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. To me, a really important part of their original deal—the rules they laid out in Article II (and then modified slightly in the Twelfth Amendment)—was this: everyone at the Constitutional Convention assumed that Washington would be the first President. But they also figured that probably no one else would ever be as famous or as popular as him; who else would ever be known and loved by all throughout all thirteen states? So the assumption was that every group of electors from every state or region would, in the future, vote for some local favorite son. Then they’d take all the most popular of those favorite sons and vote on it in the House of Representatives, one vote per state delegation—yet another nod to the small states, like the division of Congress into the House and Senate, and like the number of electors each state gets being equal to the number of senators and the number of representatives, which massively skews the whole thing in favor of the smaller states.

They assumed that this—the election getting thrown into the House—would happen almost every time. Note that the original rules (in Article II, tweaked in the Twelfth Amendment) say that if no one has a majority of the votes, the top five recipients of elector votes get thrown into the House. Remember the last time there were more than five recipients of elector votes? Me neither.

Most people understand that the Electoral College was supposed to be yet another buffer between the citizens and actual power. As buffers go—if you like that sort of thing, and given the historical context—it wasn’t entirely a bad idea, at least not in theory. The electors were supposed to be a democratic aristocracy, yet another set of enlightened citizens whose job it was to make one big, important decision on behalf of regular citizens. You were supposed to know who your electors were; they were supposed to know who the candidates were; you were supposed to trust them to vote for candidates on your behalf.

In other words, the Electoral College was supposed to be a kind of nominating process, and the House was assumed to be where the actual election would end up happening. Not so terrible a plan, except that in the next twelve years the founders then invented political parties. Which superseded the idea of an enlightened nominating process. Which then sent pretty much every possible positive aspect of the Electoral College’s original purpose down the river.

So ever since the early 1800s, the electors haven’t been that noble, democratic aristocracy. They’ve been party functionaries, who usually do what their parties ask. Every now and then someone does not do what they’re told, like the elector who voted for Lloyd Bentsen in 1988. But this is part of the reason why the whole thing is a time bomb, one that almost went off in 2000, but not quite: the Constitution still gives them every right to do that. It says that they’re free to vote for whomever they want to. Some states have laws on the books that require them to vote for whoever the popular vote of that state went for, or that fine them if they are “faithless electors,” but those laws are probably unconstitutional.

That is, in 240 years, no one has ever been a “faithless elector,” then received a fine, then mounted a legal challenge against the constitutionality of the law under which they were fined. If they did, and if the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, it’s a reasonable guess that they would win. The Constitution is really pretty straightforward on the subject.

So in theory, all 538 could get together and vote for Oscar the Grouch. Will they? No, because again, they’re all party functionaries. I believe that most of the time, they’re given the honor of being an elector as a reward for their service to the party—but that service, I’m guessing, may have served as evidence, for the state party apparatuses that chose them for the job, that they would most likely not exercise the freedom the Constitution gives them.

Electors, now, are not our noble representatives; rather, they follow instructions. Usually. And because they almost always follow instructions, most people don’t seem to find this a compelling argument for the abolition of the Electoral College. Because they follow instructions, it always seems like we citizens actually vote for the President, even though we don’t really. Because so many states have replaced the names of the electors on the ballot with the name of the Presidential candidate whom those electors are pledged to vote for (in my experience, with the words “slate of electors pledged to vote for” or something similar printed in smaller type nearby), most people have every right to assume that they’re actually voting for that candidate. But it’s really not just a game of numbers, not just a quirky mechanism; these 538 people actually go to their respective state capitol buildings on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December every four years and actually vote for President, almost always based on our suggestions.

Perhaps none of that makes you think it should be abolished. Maybe the fact that what we’ve got now is not at all what was intended doesn’t bother you. Maybe the fact that Gore won the majority of the vote of the actual citizens of this country but did not become President somehow doesn’t make you think it should be abolished. (This is putting aside the “irreparable harm”—to quote the signed dissent filed with the unsigned majority decision in Bush v. Gore—the Supreme Court did to the Constitution four years ago.) Maybe the complete disenfranchisement of the citizens of the territories, like Puerto Rico, doesn’t bug you.

Did this last popular vote bother you at all? Did you, like me, living in New York, never see a single campaign commercial? Or were you living in Ohio, were someone from some campaign or some group or other was knocking on your door or calling you up at home ten times a day?

You might claim that the Electoral College is good because it makes candidates pay attention to small states, not just big states, it balances the rural against the urban, like the Senate. I disagree. The small states, like Wyoming and Vermont, get ignored. So do the big ones, like Texas and California. With the winner-take-all, state-by-state system, only the middle ones whose outcome isn’t guaranteed get the attention. And then, as Lewis Lapham points out in the November 2004 issue of Harper’s, the candidates aren’t even vying for individual votes. They’re vying for blocs. They’re looking for something to appeal to the Cubans in Florida, the African-Americans in Ohio. We are defined by our hyphenations and the states in which we live. If we don’t meet this year’s magic formula, we don’t matter.

I think this is a terrible way to elect any office, let alone the most important one. I hope you agree. There’s a lot of things wrong with our democracy. We need national standards for voting machines, we need a national holiday for election day, etc. But we also need to abolish the Electoral College.

We don’t vote for the President. The 538 do.

If we’re going to brag about our democracy, we should actually be one.

The Truth About the Electoral College

1) “The Truth About the Electoral College” (below) is an animation written by me, produced by Chris Bonner, and drawn and animated by Sarah Berland (née Bereczki). It’s a satire of the Schoolhouse Rock style, with a lot more swear words. We made it in the first half of 2000.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

It’s a cranky, badly compressed animation that, amazingly, still works—although the pause button is broken, so it just hurtles ahead whether you like it or not. (Kind of like our worse-than-winner-take-all system of electing the president!)

2) This originally ran as part of an online series of funny/informative content thingies called “The Truth About”; the series was published on a website that ceased to exist not long after this first ran. I re-posted it here on my website right after the 2000 presidential election, but before the disastrous Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision. As of September 2016, I’m going to leave that post with its original pub date as-is, but I’m going to add this updated post with some additional details as well.

Namely, I’m adding the Creative Commons license, in case someone out there wants to take on the challenge of redoing/remaking this into something less technologically cranky and more fresh and exciting! As of 2016, the fate of the whole world rests in the hands of the American electorate. I’m hoping a better understanding of the Electoral College will encourage everyone to vote—and encourage everyone not to throw away their vote in a worse-than-useless protest.

3) As I’m hoping everyone reading this already knows, Al Gore won the presidential election with a margin of something like half a million votes. But he lost because of some combination of protest votes for Ralph Nader, a few hundred votes in Florida, right-wing Astroturf activists on the ground, a 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore (that basically said that the legitimacy of a Bush presidency would be compromised by a total and indisputable Gore victory), and—more than anything, really—the structural awfulness that is the Electoral College.

(Yes, I know: Gore lost Tennessee. To which I say: Half! A! Million! Votes!)

If you want to know more, read The Electoral College Primer 2000. It hasn’t been updated in sixteen years (and, obviously, neither has the Electoral College), but it’s maddeningly and terrifyingly prescient. I haven’t found a better introduction to the subject. Let me know if you have.

4) For anyone interested in taking advantage of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license in the next six weeks, here’s “The Truth About the Electoral College” script. I’ve tried to update what we originally wrote to be a closer approximation of what we ended up recording. Apologies for any errors here; I’ll probably keep refining this after posting:

Kid: Extree, extree! Senator Brayin Jackass elected president! Senator Jackass is the new president of the United States!
Dr. E.: Well, he won the popular vote, but he hasn’t been elected president yet. When your mommy voted yesterday, she didn’t vote for president! Her vote goes to a group of people called the Electoral College. And they’re the ones that will decide who becomes president.
Kid: But—I thought America was a representative democracy, where the people elect the president.
Dr. E.: Jesus Christ, kid, are you high on crack?! Our Founding Fathers took great pains to make sure that the people would never elect the president directly!

(sung) Many many many many years ago
It was seventeen eighty-seven or so—
If my drug-hazed high school memories serve me right

The summer in Philly was hot and sticky
Our Founding Fathers were crabby and picky
And yet they hadn’t even begun to fight!

They almost had the Constitution done,
‘cept how to pick their number one,
The top-dog-cheese, the boss-mac-daddy-prince

And whaddaya know? Hey, look! A big surprise,
They settled on a crippling compromise,
And we’ve barely dodged the fallout ever since!

(spoken) You see, the first major fuckup was in article II of the Constitution. Article II goes like this: Each state shall appoint a certain number of people called “electors.” And then when people vote, their votes don’t go to the presidential candidates. The votes go to the electors. And all of the electors, called the Electoral College, vote for president.

Kid: Who are these electors, anyway?

Dr. E.: (sung) The electors were supposed to be good and wise
Like your favorite uncle in disguise
But then the whole thing went from bad to worse

Americans are supposed to vote for themselves
Not for a college of electoral elves
And that’s when they should have sent it off in a hearse!

But instead of putting it in the ground
They just fiddled and tweaked it all around
And it looms over the country like a ticking, time-bomb curse

(spoken) They wrote and ratified a whole bunch of amendments to the Constitution, which go something like this: The Electoral College elects the president, but only if the leading candidate has a majority. If there’s not a majority, the Electoral College goes home, and the House of Representatives elects the president.

Kid: A deadlock gets thrown into the House of Representatives?
Dr. E.: That’s right! It’s only happened twice, but sometimes people have tried to force it to happen, like Strom Thurmond in ’48, or George Wallace in ’68.
Kid: Why would they do that?
Dr. E.: Because they hated black people! And when the American public didn’t agree with them, they were hoping that maybe their buddies in Congress would.
Kid: Oh, I get it.
Dr. E.: But check this out! It gets worse!

(sung) If the house of reps can’t make up its mind
We’d all wake up the next morning to find
The speaker of the house becomes our president.

Kid: Goddamn it! Can I say fuck again?
Dr. E.: Sure, kid. I think you’d be justified.
Kid: Fuck! Fucky fuck fuck fuck! Fuckity fuck fuck fuck!
Dr. E.: Okay, potty-mouth, I’m gonna finish my song now.

(sung) So in 1996, in the final week,
If Ross Perot hadn’t been such a freak,
We could have had President Gingrich standing tall!

And if that ever happens, we’re out of luck—
It just goes to show how deeply fucked
Things can be in a country where the Founding Fathers didn’t trust the American people at all.

5) Part of the original script that didn’t quite make it into the final:

Jefferson thought it was good as dead
“A blight on the Constitution,” he said,
“And one which some unlucky chance will someday hit.”

But instead of putting it in the ground,
They just fiddled and tweaked it all around,
So there’s a chance the fan might someday meet the shit.

6) Something that seems like it might possibly be a story for journalists: the co-author of The Electoral College Primer 2000, Lawrence Longley—”best known for his expertise and authoritative knowledge of the Electoral College, which he believed was a fatally flawed institution that should be abolished”—died in March 2002. Which means he lived long enough to see the Bush v. Gore decision, the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the long march to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. How did he feel about all these things? Did he want his book to live on, maybe finally causing enough sustained outrage to accomplish its ultimate goal of the direct election of the president, or something closer to it than we have now?

7) Vote, everyone! Vote! Civilization and life on earth depend on it.

The Accidental Reading Series

The short version of this: I’m on the lineup with Elizabeth Isadora Gold, author of The Mommy Group, for the last installment of my friend Nelly Reifler‘s Accidental Reading Series at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, 7/2. Please come if you can!

TYOLA: Nine Copies Left
The longer version: Not counting hurts (even a small galley printer run of 150 copies has hurts) and returns (from when the book was no longer moving at the consignment table at McNally Jackson), I am down to my last nine copies of The Year of Living Autobiographically.

I have a few copies I’m going to send—quixotically—to writers and artists I admire (and whom, I should add, I don’t know personally). I’ve already done this a few times; I’ve sent the book to Anne Lamott and George Saunders, for example, both of whose writing has been a huge inspiration for me.

I’ve mentioned, in my notes to my heroes, that when Ed Sanders started a literary journal in the early sixties, he mailed copies to his heroes, such as Beckett, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg.

(I haven’t mentioned in my notes that the journal had what I still believe is the best name in the history of lit journalsFuck You: A Journal of the Arts—or that part of what was so exciting about the name at the time was that mailing it was, I believe, either totally illegal or quite possibly illegal. That all seems like more information than is necessary. Especially since the books might never make it to their intended readers.)

I also have the idea that, since the book struggles so much with what we do and don’t share on social media, I should send the last numbered copy, #150, to Mark Zuckerberg. The first copy went to our friend Dorothy Albertini, so it seems fitting that the last one should go to Zuckerberg. A to Z! Alpha to Omega.

I guess I should save a copy for myself as well? (And maybe, somehow, I could get a copy to Ed Sanders himself?—it looks like he still lives in Woodstock.) But that leaves four or five copies that I’ll bring to the reading, which I’ll be ready to sell, give, trade, or barter. And I’ll read from the book as well. Probably the same set list as last year’s reading at the Sunday at Erv’s series, which worked well, I think.

Again: please come!