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 Shrine of Mother New York”

If you were walking quickly enough past the northwest corner of Havermeyer and Grand in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, you could pass right through a museum without even realizing that you’d visited. This is a big city whose citizens move fast, and like a lot of small and quiet things, the museum is easy to miss, even though the museum itself is, in fact, that street corner. It’s called the City Reliquary, and it’s an ongoing project run by an artist named Dave Herman.

If you were walking slowly enough to pay more attention to the details of the city around you, the first thing you might spot on this particular tree-shaded corner–the first thing that might strike you as out of the ordinary–is an old, claw-footed bathtub, right by the curb, that’s been bolted into the sidewalk along Grand Street. The tub is filled with soil, and orange and yellow marigolds still bloom in it in late October. On the side of the bathtub reads the following, in a hand-painted, cursive script: “Fiorello ‘the little flower’ LaGuardia Memorial Garden.” It’s beautiful, but still, you wonder: what’s going on here?

Turning around to look at the three-story brick apartment building on the corner where the bathtub stands, you’ll see a display window, at eye level, protected with vertical, wrought-iron bars. The display is maybe a few feet high, and three traditionally sized windows, or about six feet, across. It’s the kind of window that looks like it was once used for a corner shop of some kind, but it’s clearly been reclaimed for some other purpose. Above the window, in the same careful, painstaking script as on the bathtub, reads the following: “DHLABS presents: The City Reliquary: ‘FOR THE PEOPLE.'” The words are painted in black and white, on a plain and clean brick-colored background. But what is the City Reliquary?

Walking a little closer, you see that behind the windows is a carefully arranged hodgepodge of small objects, all lovingly labeled. Every detail, including the labels themselves, looks ancient, perhaps fifty years old. You see a small doorbell in the bottom left corner of the display, attached to the outside of the iron bars, asking to be pressed. If you do so, a recorded announcement begins: “Hello, and welcome to the DH Labs City Reliquary. Free and open to the public, 24 hours a day.” But is this display case just a teaser for this so-called City Reliquary? An invitation to walk into an even larger museum? The announcement continues: “At the top left corner of the display, you will see a foundation rock from the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument in Fort Greene park.” A postcard nearby, it says, “shows a picture of this Revolutionary War memorial. The reverse side of the postcard reads: ‘This monument was unveiled in the park down at our corner last Saturday afternoon. Can you boast of anything so fine?'” The announcement goes on to describe objects from the dumping grounds at Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay, such as a set of false teeth; a sand bucket from a defunct neighborhood ballroom; a fire hydrant wrench; and various New York City transportation artifacts, such as a souvenir coin from the Brooklyn Bridge’s opening day, and a hanging strap from a Redbird subway car. It starts to become clear to you that no, there is no larger museum. This–where you’re standing, what you’re looking at, what you’re listening to–this is the City Reliquary itself.

* * *

28-year-old Dave Herman, the DH in DH Labs, moved into the ground-floor apartment on Havermeyer and Grand with friends about four years ago. They were the first residents in what was formerly a commercial storefront space. Depending on who in the neighborhood you talk to, Herman says, the corner was either a doctor’s office, a pharmacy, or perhaps both. He and his roommates knew they had to do something creative with their windows, eventually, but they just weren’t sure exactly what.

It took three years to figure out exactly what that potential would be. Herman says that the building used to be totally covered with graffiti, and so he finally asked his superintendent in the summer of 2003 if he could have some brick-colored paint to cover it up; his super agreed. Herman painted over all the graffiti, and then that same day, started painting directions, in his trademark script, to various locations around the neighborhood, such as the local subway stops. (There are a number of popular bars nearby, and the corner is frequented fairly often, in the evenings, by lost revelers.) That same summer, the corner room of the apartment inside, which had formerly been the bedroom of one of Herman’s roommates, became a common area for the first time since they’d all moved in. Which meant that Herman was free to finally make creative use of the display cases in the windows that had been part of the appeal of the apartment in the first place. He began moving his extensive collection of New York City memorabilia out of his own room, and into the display cases–and the City Reliquary was born.

* * *

Dave Herman is, by training, a visual artist. He studied sculpture back in his home state as an undergraduate, at the University of Florida. After college, he moved north to go to graduate school at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His major in grad school was Fine Arts–which, at SVA, is a kind of catch-all, within which students are free to do whatever they want. Faced with more freedom as an artist than he’d ever had before, he decided not just to make art, but to make the making of art into an art project itself–to transform his own studio into a work-in-progress, his working space into an ongoing installation. Taking his inspiration in part from the carefully curated and preserved Thomas Edison laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, now a museum run by the National Park Service–“it’s such a beautiful place,” he says–he christened his studio at school Dave Herman Laboratories, or DH Labs.

Herman is also, by inclination, a collector. As a child growing up in Orlando, Florida, he says, he collected comic books and baseball cards like everyone else, but he also took an unusual interest for a boy in preserving the artifacts he collected. Where other kids might just throw their things under a bed, Herman was building presentation boxes for them. And his family–both sides of which are from New York–took notice. “They saw that I showed an interest in preserving things,” he says. “I was always very careful in presentation.” And knowing he was going to take care of things, his grandparents would entrust him with New York mementos, such as souvenirs from the World’s Fair. His New York City collection had begun years before he ever moved there.

And it was at SVA, he says, that these two ways of looking at the world–as an artist and as a collector–finally clicked together. “The things that I was doing in grad school almost felt like a complete return to my childhood. And this was a great thing for me to realize,” he says. “It totally changed my philosophy on being an artist. So at this point right now, I don’t even think of myself as an artist–I just think of myself as someone who’s doing what he wants to be doing.” Herman has all the traditional training as a sculptor, but the practice of installation, which puts “the artist in this role of being the curator,” allowed him to combine these twin passions for both art and artifacts. And by working in an installation vein, he says, he “ended up being this curator of objects.”

* * *

But what is the City Reliquary? Is it just a cornucopia of curiosa, the sum of its odd contents–strange preserved aquatic flora from the Hudson River, stones from beneath the Waldorf-Astoria, an assemblage of defunct subway tokens? Is it a modern update of the old European idea of the cabinet of curiosities, a private collection of the small wonders of the world–except in this case, turned democratically outward? And if so, is it therefore also a kind of service to the neighborhood? What Herman loves about the project, he says, is having a chance “to interact with the people of the community, and have more of a connection with them.” It’s a way of bridging the new and the old. “The best thing about Brooklyn is its diversity,” he says, and the newcomers to Williamsburg “are just another part of that diverse group–so as long as we’re respectful of all the other people that have just as much right to be in that neighborhood as we do.” Those neighbors also contribute to the project now. Herman finds small offerings by his door, or people simply approach him on the street, he says, “and say, ‘Hey, you’re the Reliquary guy, I’ve got this weird thing, maybe you’d like it.’ I try to be as democratic as possible.”

The democratic impulse is partly satisfied right around the corner, on the side of the building facing Havermeyer Street. There, Herman has a nearly identical window to play with; it houses a sister display, called Community Collections, which features a constantly changing lineup of similar small assemblages put together by Mr. Herman’s friends and neighbors. A couple months ago there was a “Tribute to Our City” display in remembrance of September 11, 2001; as of this writing, Community Collections features ephemera related to Mr. T.

The Reliquary has many sources of inspiration, Herman says, such as the Titanic House in Long Island City, Queens, one man’s personal shrine to the RMS Titanic, which is also set up as a window display from the inside of the curator’s apartment. Another inspirational memorial is the Shrine of Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigration, in upper Manhattan. (Mother Cabrini is often associated with the Statue of Liberty, Herman says.) In her shrine, you can see her exhumed body, with a wax face and wax hands, on display in a glass coffin. Thinking of the City Reliquary in relation to these memorials to the dead, it feels like something that, in a way, could only come into being after September 11, a day in the history of New York when many commentators said the city first faced its own mortality. A reliquary is a shrine of relics, and so Herman’s window display feels both like a tribute to the religion of a living city, and a memorial to one that is already gone.

Someday Herman hopes the Reliquary could be a place where you could walk inside, an actual storefront museum. (He also hopes someday to be a firefighter, and to divide his time between his museum and firefighting.) All he needs, he says, is “time and space. Which is what every New Yorker needs. And money. Time, space, and money. Just those simple things.” In his storefront museum, he says, he’d “have maybe a little museum gift shop, where I could sell my collection of New York objects that I think make good souvenirs. Like definitely Hagstrom maps of all five boroughs. Important things. And Statue of Liberty figurines.” There is nowhere in the borough of Brooklyn, he says, where you can get a decent one. “And so, I’m gonna have this little outpost with every kind of Statue of Liberty figurine in our gift shop,” he says. “And stuff like that. We’ll see.”