John Colson: Electoral College debate at library should be intriguing
Hit & Run
Tonight in Aspen, two “political experts” will face off in a debate over the merits, problems and possible solutions to said problems that result from our constitutional reliance on the national Electoral College in the quadrennial U.S. presidential contests — an arrangement that I believe is both outmoded and anti-democratic.
The debate is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Pitkin County Public Library, and is free to all comers, though hopeful attendees need to register online (go online to steamboatinstitute.org and click on the “events” button to register) in order to be guaranteed a seat.
This is one of three such events, the first having been held Monday in Steamboat Springs, the third Wednesday in Grand Junction.
Unhappily, I cannot be there to learn from the experts — Trent England, executive president of the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs defending the current system, and Kyra Ward, an Aspen High School graduate who also graduated from the University of St Andrews (Scotland) with degrees in international relations and economics (Ward is standing in for the original pro-National Public Vote advocate, who had to drop out due to a family health emergency.)
According to a representative of the Steamboat Institute, Ward was a star debater in high school and at college, is “very passionate” about the subject of the debate and is expected to hold her own with style at the library’s event.
In any case, only the Grand Junction event, according to the Institute, is to be videotaped and posted on the Steamboat Institute’s website at some point, and I intend to check it out.
Getting back to the subject at hand, Ward, like many in the Democratic Party, favors ditching the Electoral College and switching to a national popular vote, in keeping with a movement that has gained traction since Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by some 3 million ballots but won the election thanks to the Electoral College.
England — perhaps predictably, since he is from Oklahoma, a red state with a relatively small population, and is a strong advocate for the Electoral College — will argue for retaining the college, maintaining it is good for middle America’s small-town voters and good for our country as a whole.
In a nutshell, the issues are this: the Electoral College, written into the U.S. Constitution under the 12th Amendment, directs states to assign “electors” voting in the Electoral College according to the number of Congressional seats (senators as well as representatives) held by each state. This method was intended to smooth out the presidential voting process back at a time when the logistics of holding a national election in our vast nation was a daunting prospect, and to provide a way in which states with small populations would not be completely overshadowed by states with larger populations.
But as the nation has progressed technologically, it has largely overcome the difficulties of having the voting population spread over so much terrain. The Electoral College, however, has endured, and in four separate elections — 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — the president has not been put into office by a majority of actual votes, but by the machinations of the Electoral College.
An earlier election, in 1824, was the first one in which the popular vote mattered, because 18 states that year chose presidential electors (for the Electoral College) by popular vote, while six states left that choice up to their state legislators as established by the original 12th Amendment.
In that election, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote that was counted in those 18 states by a 10% margin, but was beaten by John Quincy Adams, who won the Electoral College vote. The numerical votes of the six other state are not recorded that I can find, so the 1824 election is not considered a “clean” example of the winner turning out to be the loser.
Adding to the negative side of the College ledger is a growing body of research that shows the current system effectively means that voters in low-population states (such as Oklahoma, I must point out) have as much as four times the political clout as do voters in more populous states, because the low-count voters typically benefit from larger Congressional delegations (and Electoral College representation) per capita due to the arcane rules governing the college and elections.
Tellingly, the arguments about whether to ditch the Electoral College fall out along partisan political fault lines, with Democrats in general favoring a popular-vote method of picking our presidents, while Republicans by and large favor retaining the college as it has been throughout our history.
I guess that’s hardly surprising, at this point, since the Republican Party has been the beneficiary of the current system the last two times the presidency went to the Electoral College winner rather than the candidate who got the most popular votes — that would be selection of George W. Bush in 2000 and, of course, Trump’s elevation to the White House in 2016.
I prefer not to describe those results as “elections,” in the truest sense of the word, since the candidate that got the most votes in each case ended up not being sworn in as president.
And so, as things stand today, we are poised on the eve of yet another election, in 2020, that will be decided by the Electoral College (I’m pretty sure there is not enough time to change the system now) whether we like it or not.
Many of us do not like it, however, and there is a path forward to make at least one change.
As has been widely reported, 15 states, including Colorado, have signed on to a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact that, if it achieves a certain level of support from around the country, would mean the states that have joined would eschew the Electoral College dance and have their presidential votes counted strictly according to the numbers.
If the number of states signing on to the Popular Vote movement gets to the point where the member states have 270 Electoral College votes among them, it would effectively sideline the Electoral College and perhaps set the stage for getting rid of it entirely.
However it goes, I firmly believe the popular vote would be a better way of choosing our president than the one we are under today.
But, hey, don’t take my word for it — do some research and check out the debate, whether in person or online.
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For the past five-plus years I have sat in a big chair in a small office on Hyman Avenue watching life in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley play out in front of me.