No one actually likes the Electoral College (EC), and anyone who claims otherwise only does so because they’re not talking about what they think they’re talking about.
With respect to U.S. presidential elections, the term “Electoral College” usually refers to a whole elaborate apparatus whereby different states are allocated different numbers of electoral votes, and rather than directly voting in a president, the citizenry instead elects a bunch of electors who subsequently go off and do the actual dirty work of electing the president.
When you break it down, however, the Electoral College (EC) isn’t a single apparatus at all! In fact, it comprises a number of distinct and independent components, none of which really rely on any of the others. To wit:
- Each state is allocated some number of electoral votes in a way that is sort-of-but-not-quite-entirely proportional to population.
- Each state gets to decide how exactly it wants to allocate its electoral votes.
- A bunch of randos make a super-duper double pinkie swear to vote for the person we asked them to (they totally will, don’t even worry about it you guys) and then meet in semi-secret to cast their vote for president in the only vote that actually matters.
- If no one’s a clear winner after all of this, Congress gets to figure it out.
Referring to all these components with the single label “Electoral College” is basically bogus, because it suggests that all these elements must belong to a single package. The (false) implication being that petitioning for any ONE of these things to change is tantamount to asking for ALL of them to change.
As our old buddy Confucius said, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names. To this end, I propose we start referring to the above aspects of the EC by a separate name. Here are some ideas for how to do that.
Because electoral votes are disproportionately allocated to states with lower populations, rural voters have an outsized impact on who is elected. Broadly speaking, this is bad for Democrats, and good for Republicans.
But let’s delve deeper into the disagreement here, by way of dialogue:
Democrats: Our system of non-proportionally allocating votes makes a sham of American Democracy, turning it into some sort of sad, sick joke.
Republicans: Ah, but this system has the unique advantage of being founded upon two-century-old criteria originally developed to appease a bunch of gross slave-owners.
Democrats: [Bewildered sputtering]
Republicans: Hooray, we win!
The fundamental principle behind non-proportional vote allocation is this: Some votes matter more than others. This is a simple statement of fact, independent of anyone’s political leanings. You may or may not agree with this principle, but your agreement or lack thereof is largely immaterial, because our system asserts it to be so. Full stop.
In an effort to further our Confucian aims, I propose we refer to this principle as “Some Citizens Are More Equal Than Others”. We can shorten this to Some Citizens Are More Equal—or simply Some Citizens Are More. SCAM for short.
States Are Gonna State
The EC system also allows for each state to determine how to allocate its own electoral votes. I mean, we’ve got all these fifty states lying around, so we might as well use ’em for something, right?
The cool thing about this approach is that it opens the door to a wide array of zany electoral fun. And zany fun is 100% definitely what we want to optimize for when designing our federal elections.
E.g., if Pennsylvania sets aside one of its electoral vote to allocate based on whether Punxsutawney Phil gets spooked by his shadow on Election Day, it can do that. If Indiana wants to give half its votes to the winner of the Indy 500, it can do that. If Florida decides to award all its electoral votes based entirely on the voting patterns of people who have willingly chosen to live in Florida … well, it can actually do that.
“But Greg!” I hear you protest, “these are all absurd counterfactuals, and none of these things would ever happen! And even if they did, the Supreme Court would surely find them unconstitutional or something. States can’t just ignore citizens’ votes!”
To which I say: D’oh, you got me! Guilty as charged. Like, can you imagine? What if a state did something nutso-crazy, like allocating 100% of its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, no matter how slim the margin of victory was? I mean, that’d be like dumping half of population’s votes straight into the toilet! In a state like Texas or California where the popular vote is practically a foregone conclusion … why, gosh, there’d hardly be any reason for a person to vote at all! You’d get massive non-participation all across the nation! What a stupid idea that would be! Ha! Ha ha!
Anyway, I call this principle: “We Have All These States, So Ummm, Cool, Knock Yourselves Out”. Or WHATS SUCK YO for short.
So far, nothing about the Electoral College system is particularly collegial, collegiate, or otherwise college-y. Enter the TWERPs.
TWERP stands for Those Who Elect the Real President—what you might otherwise call an “elector”. 1 Votes for a candidate in the general election are actually votes for TWERPs who have pledged to vote for that candidate. But it’s not until mid-December that the TWERPs get together and vote. Then, and only then, is the real winner of the election determined.
In theory, TWERPs can vote for whomever they want in December. In practice, this doesn’t happen because of the aforementioned pledging. But I heard somewhere that the Founding Fathers were totally cool with the idea of a TWERP voting against their pledge, if it meant they’d be countering certain tyranny. Except I also heard somewhere that lots of states have made it illegal for TWERPs to vote for anyone other than the candidate they pledged for. Those laws probably aren’t constitutional2 because why would the constitution bother with these TWERPS if we’re not going to let them do the one thing they’re allowed to do?
Anyway, my point is that this is a very well-thought-out system that definitely deserves to be preserved at all costs.
A candidate only gets elected if they have votes from more than half the TWERPs. If no one gets enough TWERPy votes, the election gets kicked over to Congress for the final decision.
Let me repeat, just so this is clear: our Plan B failsafe for the biggest decision our nation collectively makes every four years … is to let Congress figure our shit out for us.
My simple catchy name for this failsafe provision is: “Unbelieveably Stupid”.
Thus, we can characterize the monolithic “Electoral College” as an arrangement with four independent components:
- Non-proportional allocation of votes amongst states (SCAM)
- Each state chooses how to assign its own votes (WHATS SUCK YO)
- A bunch of weirdo electors (TWERPs)
- An Unbelievably Stupid failsafe
I’m sure there are other ways to decompose the situation, other principles we could distill out from the sludge of our Electoral College.
What I find interesting is that in this last election, many Hillary supporters loudly decried the SCAM, while also desperately clinging to the TWERPs for a miraculous last-minute turnaround. This isn’t exactly inconsistent—if you’re being forced to play a game with shitty rules, you can argue for better rules while still playing the game as best you can. People can walk and chew gum at the same time, after all. But it’s not a great look, rhetorically speaking.
Conversely, Trump supporters mocked the anti-SCAMmers as not understanding how elections work. Yet what would these folks have said if the TWERPs had exercised their Constitution-given rights en masse and voted someone other than Trump into office? Can you imagine the absolute shitstorm that would have ensued?
All the while, WHATS SUCK YO got no play from anyone, even though the winner-take-all system employed by almost every state skewed the results of the election far more profoundly than the big SCAM. How would have candidates campaigned if votes of liberals in Texas or conservatives in California actually mattered? What would have happened to voter turnout?
The whole situation is a bummer, of course. Some states are actually trying to do something about it, in the form of the National Popular Vote Interstate compact. The idea here is that if enough states can get together, they can collectively take advantage of WHATS SUCK YO to ram the national popular vote winner through the electoral college. I’m highly skeptical of this as a solution, both in terms of it being actually implementable and also being widely accepted without lots of people’s heads exploding. But A+ for effort and enthusiasm, y’know?
- Properly speaking, this acronym should be Those Who Really Elect the President, since otherwise it sounds like these people are electing a secret shadow president or something. But TWREP‘s not a real word, and if you haven’t caught on by now, I’m doing this thing where I come up with stupid acronyms to disparage the variously stupid aspects of our very stupid electoral system. So TWERP it is. ↩
- Heard it somewhere ↩