Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest state of them all?
Lest we be misunderstood, the editorial is not about who won the popular vote in 2016: Hillary Clinton did. This is not about who won the presidency in 2016: Donald Trump did. This is not about “what if this” and “what if that,” then the election would have turned out differently.
This editorial is about one thing only: the electoral college, and the unadmitted, and frankly absurd, postulate that underlies the current attempts to do away with it. Emphasize the word current. Various grumblings against the electoral college are as old as the college itself. We focus specifically on the current opposition to it.
It runs like this: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, yet lost the presidency. This is not right. It is especially not right because in 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the presidency. This was not right. Both Clinton and Gore are Democrats. The electoral college, by design or by accident, is currently stacked against Democrats. Therefore, do away with the electoral college. Make the system fair.
A closer look at the 2016 election reveals that, ironically and paradoxically, the attempt to do away with the electoral college actually cements it into place with a vengeance. While the electoral college prejudices the rights of 50 states over voters, the electoral college reform would prejudice the rights of one single state over both the other 49 states and the voters.
True, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 fair and square. However, her margin of victory in the popular vote was provided by one single state: California. Nationally, she won the popular vote by a margin of 2,864,974 votes, but her margin of victory in California was roughly 4.2 million votes. Without California, Clinton would have lost the popular vote. Except for California, Trump won the popular vote.
At risk of appearing to repeat ourselves, the attribution of Clinton’s winning margin in the national popular vote to her success in one single state does not mean that Hillary Clinton did not win the popular vote, fair and square. She did. What her California victory margin does mean is that efforts to do away with the electoral college will not necessarily increase the fairness of presidential election results, if the definition of fairness is: representing the popular will of the country. No, the current electoral college reform effort — had it been in place during the 2016 election — would have resulted in a margin of victory that represented the popular will of one single state.
There is a way to put this in pictures. Draw the country. Color the counties that Trump won. Draw the counties that Clinton won. The Trump color represents some 75% of the counties in the USA.
The point is clear: The idea that the abolition of the electoral college will necessarily guarantee a fairer electoral outcome — that is, a fairer representation of the will of the country at large — is fallacious.
Needless to say, the distortion in the margin of popular vote, if stacked against the Democrats in 2016, could be stacked against the Republicans in the future. Similarly, the abolition of the electoral college, if it would have tilted the election toward the Democrats in 2016, could tilt it toward the Republicans in the future. Bottom line: The reliance on the popular vote is not the fairest way for this republic of states to elect a president. The electoral college is the best (though surely not the perfect) way to guarantee that the popular will in the counties across the whole country is represented. Not to mention, the electoral college is the only way to motivate candidates to take the time and money to campaign in the smaller states in the union.
There is another, historically incontrovertible point. Partisan-designed reform inevitably backfires. Sooner or later, the party that stood to gain, ends up losing. Recent case in point: 2013.
Harry Reid, the Democratic US Senate Majority Leader, did away with the longstanding rules for Senate confirmation of federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments in 2013. This was the so-called “nuclear option.” Reid did away with the 60-vote supermajority. That allowed for the confirmation of three picks by then President Obama to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit.
We can sympathize with the political obstruction that Sen. Reid faced. Federal judicial nominees should be judged on their merits, not by the party of the president who nominates them. But the process should take precedence over problems that the process might entail. Reid did not agree. He changed the four-decade-old rule. He said: “It’s time to get the Senate working again.” The result? Only five years later, Democrat Harry Reid’s “Senate working again” resulted in a Supreme Court with two justices who were nominated by the current Republican president and who are anthema to the Democrats: Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Why are they on the court? The technical answer is simple: Harry Reid changed the rules. Neither of these Supreme Court nominees faced the 60-vote barrier. And neither was confirmed by 60 or more votes. Thanks to Harry Reid, that was no longer necessary.
So, without commenting on the merits of Gorsuch or Kavanaugh or any other judicial nominee or potential nominee, we do not favor changing the rules and procedures by which this country has operated just because these rules or procedures seem to favor one side or another — if they are changed, at least in part, in order to favor the other side. The best long-term guarantee of fairness is the integrity of the process, whatever short-terms problems and frustrations the process might entail.
Leave the electoral college alone. The problem that reformers may seem to solve today may become the nightmare of these same reformers tomorrow.
Partisan-designed reform not only backfires, it can be an exercise in illogic with, to boot, no awareness thereof. This is exactly what happened when the Colorado legislature voted to assign all of Colorado’s votes to the winner of the popular vote in the next presidential election. Talk about irony! In the name of the sacred ethic of a presidential victory based solely on the popular vote, the Colorado legislature denied a popular vote to the people of Colorado on the issue . . . just another one of the distortions that pop up when you mess with a system that, whatever its oddities and flaws, did give us President Abraham Lincoln, who did not win the popular vote.
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