When did you last read the Constitution of the United States? A class trip to the nation’s capital where one hurriedly got to scan it at the National Archives? That was probably high school. Maybe in college if you took Poli Sci or American History? You surely would have read it if you went to law school or a law enforcement academy. My guess though, it’s been a while, a long while.
The title of this column comes from a piece of a heated conversation I heard two people having about this arcane piece of our constitution. Of late this sleepy institution and its procedures have begun to put a charge into politics, so I thought I’d resurrect it for this discussion. Of course the proper pronunciation is Electoral College and it has also been a point of discussion in modern American life, more of an irritation, like a pearl in an oyster, until the Bush-Gore and now Clinton-Trump elections where the “loser” was declared the”winner.” Then “Ohm My Gods” began to fly again.
In part to get you to read it, I’m not going to repeat what is said in the constitution, especially since one no longer needs a trek to the library or risk a herniated disk lifting and leafing through encyclopedias for the answer. Even with arthritic fingers, it’s fairly easy to get what you need so have at it. What I aim to do here is posture a few thoughts about the “why” of the “college” and a few more, very hypothetical and sup-positional, about its value.
Put yourself in a carriage, make that a gold one, being pulled by the finest horses through a nasty crowd growing nastier. Someone leans over and whispers, “Your majesty, the people are hungry; they have no bread.” You reply in a not-so-sympathetic voice with what becomes one of the most famous lines in history. “Let them eat cake!” It was lines, self-written by the way, no writer’s room to bat around such ideas to see which way gives it just the right cadence, like these that our founder’s knew eventually led to riots in the streets and royal heads on stakes in front of palaces. Nor should we ignore that they knew also that during fiery periods of excess the heads didn’t only belong to once heads of royal families. Any aristocratic head would do.
Now far away from revolt and revolution they had time to ponder in safety and some of them concluded, “You know, this democracy stuff can be dangerous. It’s a good idea and all, but don’t you think it needs a bit of tempering?”And so was born the idea for the Electoral College and the reason America is a Republic not a pure democracy. And while we have been trumpeting the virtues of democracy lo these many centuries, our leaders have long been finding ways to keep lots of people, different kinds for different reasons, away from the ballot box, that mechanism that is as much a symbol of our democracy as Lady Liberty.
So we have our first answer. The Electoral College was devised as a tempering of democracy. Yes the people voted, but the ultimate say in validating that vote was a proportional counting of it weighed by the numbers of people who lived in a given state. Not often, but every once in a long while, there would be an “ooops” in the system. Someone with the majority of the popular votes had their support in the wrong states and lost their popular vote victory in the Electoral College. It is important though to internalize the fact that it was not a victory at all until the College certified that it was one. Of course such “oooops'” hadn’t happened and if one had crystal balls we’d see that they probably would have had dramatic impacts on the course of the country, but let us not get picky just yet.
So why keep the bloody thing? It’s complicated, expensive, antiquated, and makes a bunch of nobodies somebodies for their 15 minutes of fame. Well if you could eavesdrop on a tea time chat amongst James Madison and his friends you might hear this answer whispered about: “Because my good fellow, it will keep some nasty woodsman from hoisting your head up on a pine tree branch if the election didn’t go his way.” Now, tongue in cheek as that may be, there is something to it. Murder and mayhem in the streets is not good for the country, its government, it’s peoples’ sense of safety through protection by the government, or even being comfortable that you really know who the hell is in charge. Thus history shows often a ham-handed response by the winners to the murderous losers, killing or jailing them, so they are out of sight, and hopefully out of mind. Life then goes on.
Now comes what may lose me my head or get some of you thinking I’ve already lost at least what was inside of it. It is my defense of the Electrical College. Times they are a-changin’. In several political discussion contexts we hear discussions about “majority-minority” states, states where the number of non-Caucasians outnumbers those from Latin American, Asian, and other heritages. Each of those is a minority. Taken together they outnumber those who see in John Wayne a reflection of the real America.
Now let’s accept that as sloppy as American democracy can be, it is far more orderly than most others. While England, France, Germany, Ireland, Australia and some others manage to pull off calmer elections than they did hundreds of years ago, it is far from unusual in Latin America, parts of Asia, and certainly the Middle East for tempers to flare and blood to run. Street riots, like forest fires spread, and sometimes just as quickly. I’m not saying a contentious American election will lead to a revolution of some kind–yet–I am saying if the “what was” begins not to be the norm, then the new “what is” will be. The more citizens we get who are used to playing out their passions against their opponents mano-a-mano or with trickery that will lead to it, a corrosion will begin that will be hard to scrub away. America only wears its democratic clothes until the crowds begin to point out, “By George, the Democracy isn’t wearing any!”
The final point, the speculative one, all those minorities making up the majorities in state after state. This has nothing to do with color. This has to do with, “We play this game differently back home.” What if the political shenanigans of the “I’m not a racists” in cutting back access to minorities becomes so egregious that more and more of them think less and less about Ghandi and Dr. King? What if they take to the streets? What if they confront their political Houdini’s? What if, what if, what if?
Is one option is to move the nation’s capital to North Dakota and hold all our elections there during the winter? Nah. Fire, even political fire, melts snow and ice and warms the blood.
And don’t fall for the slick trick of a constitutional convention to change the Electoral College because the dirty little secret being rumored around legal circles is that there is nothing that says once called into session that convention can’t make its own rules and change any ole thing it wants to. That’s “anything” or even “everything” moving far and away from the purpose of the call.
The answer is not to change the system. The answer is to make the system work better, top to bottom, so that when the votes are counted all Americans except the most jaundiced can be sure that their vote was certainly amongst the ones counted.
Bill Gralnick’s arthritic fingers tap out a weekly blog for you “email@example.com
His first book, “Mirth, Wind, and Ire” can be found at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/692523.
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