The Electoral College of Hard Knocks

Electoral College
A group of electors have their votes acknowledged by the House of Representatives. Photo:

If you’re anything like me, it’s been a rough seven days. We go through our stages of grief and we despair and we get angry. The main thing progressives can console themselves with is that if the election results were reversed (Secretary Clinton winning the Electoral College and Donald Trump winning the popular vote), his most vocal and vitriolic supporters probably would have rioted in the streets. Not protested — rioted. It may seem we’re having a tepid reaction compared to what all of the right-wingnuts would have done, but I’ll take it over the alternative of our side lowering itself to their violent methods.

What’s to be done? Through social media and personal conversations, I’ve tried to view this as an opportunity: we have two years to mobilize, organize and get ourselves and others fired up. Democrats have a real shot at the Senate in 2018, despite the number of Democrats up for reelection (25 in all), and the usual uphill struggle for the House due to Republican gerrymandering. I maintain a small hope that Speaker Paul Ryan and his party will pressure the President-Elect into moderation, but he has them by the elephant tusks. It’s also a tragic day in liberal history when I’m putting my hope in Ryan (and I live in Wisconsin). The truly disturbing prospect is exactly how much legislating they’ll do in these two years, undoing years of progress for which President Obama has fought so hard.

What do we do in the meantime?

And so progressives and their millennial progeny have started looking everywhere for a solution. The first and most obvious choice is the Electoral College system. For those unenlightened, the Founding Fathers devised a system in which a small body of political elders vote for President and Vice President, almost always to reflect the will of the voters in their state. This small body is sometimes called a slate, and this slate of electors is equal to each state’s combined number of Senators and Representatives. This is a total, nationwide, of 538 people (no federal official can be an elector). The Electoral College winner assumes the office, regardless of the popular vote. The results have only conflicted four times in history, including in 2000 and 2016.

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Why is this our system? Partly because the Founding Founders were concerned about the popular vote being swayed by someone attractive to voters but manifestly unqualified for the presidency. Partly, too, to give more disenfranchised states — that is, those with smaller and more urban populations — equal footing in the election: the population of California and New York, therefore, can’t decide who gets to be president, even if they determine most of the popular vote. Alexander Hamilton had less altruistic reasons for the college, whilst James Madison seemed to have more virtuous reasoning for such a convoluted system. If the college is split, the decision goes to the House of Representatives, where each state gets to have one vote — almost certainly determined by which party is dominant in the state’s delegation.As originally envisioned, electors were intended to use their best judgment to choose the president, not in all cases necessarily to reflect the popular vote. Even though voters actually choose electors when they cast their ballot, not presidents.

So, of course, progressives everywhere are now pushing to have the electors become what are called “faithless electors,” and to vote to reflect the popular vote and name Hillary Clinton the president when they meet on Dec. 19. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Let’s explore potential results of this action, unlikely as it is. Keep in mind that most electors are party elders and retired officials, so they’re generally expected to vote for their party’s nominee. The notion that electors would vote against their party is incredibly unlikely. I admire the pluck and resilience of those calling for this action, but it’s extremely unlikely the Electoral College would go in this direction.

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But if the extremely unlikely did happen, I see two divergent paths:

A huge uproar of protest that would quickly dwindle to a whisper. I imagine there are people on either side of the spectrum that will never accept the new president, no matter the outcome, but I can entertain the possibility that Americans care much less than they purport to, that there would be an initial outcry followed by America’s reliable ol’ “meh” shrug. Half the country felt anemic at best about either of the candidates, so there is probably a large contingent that would roll its eyes, mutter something about the system being rigged, and move on.

Civil war. No, I’m not being hyperbolic. Although there have been debates about whether or not Trump voters are as racist and sexist as their patron, there is surely a small but dangerously active minority of his supporters who are prone to violence, crudity and overreaction. Despite the fact that they’re banging the drum right now of “Hey, he won fair and square, let’s give him a chance!” when we know full well that the opposite results would have certainly fomented riots — after all, it took eight years for them to accept that President Obama wasn’t a secret Muslim from Kenya, for those that actually have accepted that fact — there would be a sizable contingent of people who would string up people of color and spray-paint swastikas. We’re already seeing a degree of that — and remember, their side won. I’ve had several reports from students of color and LGBTQA friends already enduring harassment from Trump supporters. My six-year-old son, who happens to be part Cuban, has already gotten into verbal confrontations with fellow Kindergarteners whose parents voted for Trump. My six-year-old. In kindergarten.

No, I’m not being hyperbolic.

This all leads me to believe that, no matter its constitutionality, ethics or sanity, anything but the  expected results of the Electoral College (which is, again, already the definition of long shot) would be disastrous for the Republic. Believe me, I’ll go toe to toe with anyone as to how little I want Trump to be president. But selfishly, I worry for my son and my family and my country.

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What do we do in the meantime? We fight. We write. We make sure our voices are heard loudly and long and by the people who can effect change. We take our next two years to block and counterblock and stymie and wreak havoc with any move by the new president that could infringe on Americans’ civil rights, all the while mobilizing to take back Congress and force Trump to shove his xenophobic, pandering agenda up his fat ass. Is it the best of all possible worlds? Of course not. But as progressives, we’ll shoot ourselves in the foot to keep the Republic, even if it goes against our best interests.

After all, it’s the American way.