By Rob Burgess
Thirteen days from today, voters across the country will head to the polls to select our next president — kind of. The Electoral College assigns each state a number of delegates equal to their representation in both houses of Congress. These delegates are supposed to vote for president based on the outcomes of the elections in their respective states. This dubious system has deemed that voters in the following 10 states will be the ones who determine our new leader this cycle: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. That’s it. None of the other 40 states or Washington, D.C., will have anything less than a 90 percent probability of a Mitt Romney or Barack Obama winning, according to the latest aggregated polling data from the New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight. For example, FiveThirtyEight currently lists the chance that Indiana’s 11 Electoral College votes will belong to Romney as 99.5 percent – a near certainty.
The Electoral College is the racist appendix on the body politic, a holdover from the early days of the nation when the abomination of slavery loomed large. When the originators met in 1787 in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, almost half of the assembled Founding Fathers owned slaves. The vast majority of these unfortunate souls were imprisoned in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Southern delegates expressed concern that if direct elections were to determine the president, Northern states would always hold sway. However, they figured if the numbers of slaves were counted towards each state’s proportional representation, these agrarian areas would then have more of a say.
But, wait, you might be asking, these slaves weren’t considered “people” in any other sense, but instead property — how could they be counted? The answer was the so-called “Three-Fifths Compromise” in which 60 percent of the slaves would be counted for representational purposes.
The framers of the nation knew this was problematic even as they were creating this broken compromise. Future president and “Father of the Constitution” James Madison wanted the popular vote to determine the president, but knew it wouldn’t be accepted. “There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people,” reads the Records of the Federal Convention. “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”
Since we’ve all since decided slavery is wrong (and we do all agree on that point, right?) there’s no legitimate justification for this ridiculous system to continue any longer. Alas, it persists. Yet, this wouldn’t even be so horrible if the Electoral College vote always affirmed the popular vote.
Of course, it hasn’t. In 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000, the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency. If you think I hate the Electoral College, just ask Andrew Jackson, Samuel J. Tilden, Benjamin Harrison or Al Gore what they think about the subject. And you want to know the worst part of all this? Electoral College delegates aren’t even required by federal law to cast their ballots in the manner prescribed by the popular vote in their respective states. They’re called “faithless electors,” and though nearly half of all states have laws against such actions, no one has ever been officially punished for changing their vote.
This, despite the fact that it’s happened a total of 158 times in the history of this country. It’s a shame they already assigned a meaning to the term “faithless elector,” because that’s pretty much how I feel.
• Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.