Federalism Be Damned

James Madison was a brilliant man; I don’t contend this. I suppose he did a successful job writing the United States Constitution. But that was 218 years ago. I think it’s time we can gradually distance ourselves from our federal founder. And, in the name of everything right and holy, let’s start with the electoral college. Please. As the Presidential election rapidly approaches, the discussion has shifted from the issues – or, more accurately non-issues, such as Vietnam War records and hair-dos – to electoral math. In other words, the great people of West Virginia and New Mexico will decide the next United States President while the rest of us drink Sam Adams, watch CNN and lament the one-week absence of “Scrubs.” Democracy at its finest, indeed. For those of you unfamiliar with the procedures of the electoral college, let’s have a brief civics lesson. For those of you who already know this, which is hopefully most, if not all, of you, please excuse me for patronizing you. The electoral college isn’t quite as convoluted as the Bowl Championship Series college football rankings, but it actually is even less practical. Anyway, our President is not directly elected by the American people. The founding fathers of our democracy, the men we so highly revere, didn’t trust us. I don’t necessarily blame them, but it’s unfortunate nonetheless. They didn’t believe in the populace’s ability to make an informed decision, so they provided for a constitutional middleman. On November 2, each state will conduct its own Presidential election. The candidate that recieves the most votes wins all the state’s electors, which are equal to the state’s representatives in Congress. In December, the electors from every state congregate to cast their vote for president. If one nominee recieves 270 votes – a majority – he is declared the president. If no candidate has 270 electoral votes, the election shifts to the House of Representatives, where each state is afforded one vote. This procedure is conducted in all states except Nebraska and Maine, in which each congressional district is given one elector and the overall victor is awarded the two electors based on Senate seats. If this system sounds reasonable to any of you, I suggest you dust off the powdered wig and pay homage to eighteenth century federalism. Other than distrusting the citizenry, the constitutional framers were also subject to the awesome power of the new American states. Weary to allow the accumulation of too much authority in the hands of the national government, the states desired a more direct role in the election of the nation’s head executive. Obviously, today this distiniction between states is not nearly as present. People don’t fiercely associate with their states (except for some “Lone Star” Texans … like Geroge W. Bush!), and state governments cannot be viewed as near equals to the national government. So choosing the leader of the free world on a no-longer-relevant state by state basis is archaic and impractical. We also no longer need to worry about an uninformed population. We are oversaturated with information on our presidential candidates. We know their children, we know their dogs, we know their fraternities, we know their favorite tie, we know their Thanksgiving turkey recipes. We might not know their politics, but, hey, who needs that? We want a leader with pearly teeth. In an election year, there is no escaping the campaign bombardment. When we go to the polls on the first Tuesday in November, we are not staring at Chester A. Arthur and Franklin Pierce. We know these guys inside and out, for better or for worse. Okay, we’ve established why this system was created in the first place, but why vanquish it now? Because unless you live in West Virginia, New Mexico or one of the few other swing states, your vote for president is about as useful as voting for Ulysses S. Grant. Again, for those I’m patronizing, you can just quit reading this article now; I’m not likely to have any fresh ideas. For those of us residing in New York of California or Texas, the electoral winner is predetermined. According to nytimes.com’s Electoral Vote Calculator (which appears as on the screen like a Jeopardy board – click on it sometime, it’s fantastically fun), Kerry already holds a 225-213 advantage. 438 of 538 electoral votes are virtually guaranteed, two weeks before anyone will cast a ballot. Now, don’t mistake this criticism as a reason to skip voting on November 2 – it’s not. All I’m arguing is that your vote deserves more importance. The disproportionate significance of the swing states was of course brought to the forefront in Florida in 2000. President Bush won the state by a mere 537 votes, and the 25 electoral votes boosted Bush to the White House. Al Gore, however, won the national popular vote by about 500,000 votes, the fourth time in U.S. history that the winner of the popular vote did not become president – the others being 1824, 1876 and 1888. A system in which the individual has the support of the people but is unable to assume leadership is a faulty system. The argument that the electoral college protects the voters in the smaller states is ludicrous. Presidential elections should not be decided by states but by people. And by that, I mean all the people equally. I really don’t understand why an individual’s residence dictates his/her importance in a national election. As it stands now, nominees ignore most states, concentrating on a few and catering to specific interests (i.e. prescription drug plans for seniors in Florida). But the procedure’s not changing. The electoral college seems here to stay. To alter it would take a Constitutional Amendment, which requires the support of three-quarters of the states. And the states enjoy having so much influence, so their opposition to such a measure is certain. Let us not forget the good things James Madison instituted. Checks and balances, separation of powers, enumerated powers – the man surely had a solid sense of democratic government. But let us not ignore where he fell short, and the ignominious shadow of the electoral college remains. So, on Election Night, drink your Sam Adams, watch your CNN and, please, no matter the result, at some point curse the rampant federalism of James Madison.