The Electoral College Made Me Not Vote

For years, I've taken a fair amount of grief over my absolute refusal to vote, under any circumstance, in any election, big or small.

I hear phrases like, "You're ignorant, "You're apathetic," or "You can't complain if you don't vote."

None is true. If politics were a drug, I'd be a good candidate for rehab. Who else do you know spends restless nights wondering who will be the next Postmaster General? For two decades, I've covered politics at papers large and small. I do indeed care about my child's school, air quality, and the health of the economy. As for whining when things don't go my way, the First Amendment guarantees my right to balk whether or not I go to the polls.

So why my refusal to vote?

Simple. To me, the mere act of voting only endorses the myth that we actually live in a democracy, where one person's vote would be just as valid as another's.

Let's forget for a moment that nearly all candidates are bought and paid for by rich folks, special interest groups and back-room deal brokers, resulting in Tweedledumb vs. Tweedledumber. Instead, let's focus on the issue at hand, this year's presidential election.

In a true democracy, Al Gore would have been declared the winner on election night. He won by about by about 200,000 votes, give or take a few confused sugar barons and their beach-bunny girlfriends in Palm Beach. In a true democracy, Florida would have been irrelevant the minute the final votes were counted.

Instead, as most of us know, we have an antiquated system where the president isn't elected by the people, but by an enigmatic group known as the Electoral College. Under this system, the popular vote only counts in each state, where the victor at the polls gets all of that state's Electoral College votes. Win 270 EC votes, and you're president. Did you vote for Gore here in North Carolina? Your vote was meaningless in the grand scheme of things

It hasn't happened since 1888 -- when the Electoral College selected Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland -- but this system allows for a candidate who loses at the polls to smoke victory cigars in the Oval Office.

How unfair. How un-American. How un-Democratic. At least now, that is.

Back in 1787, when the Constitution was drafted, the Electoral College made sense, or so went the consensus of the Founding Fathers.

They decided that Congressmen couldn't make such a lofty decision, because the president would owe them a favor or two. State legislators couldn't make the choice because it would give the states too much power. Voters couldn't be trusted because that would lead to mob rule and ballot fraud. So in a compromise decision, the Founding Fathers decided to let the Electoral College make the final decision.

Remember, at that time, only white male landowners could vote, and even they didn't vote for actual candidates. Between 1789 and 1824, voters elected members of the Electoral College, who in their wise and collegial deliberations selected the next president.

The College was ordered to select candidates of "virtue and ability," and to ignore those who only portrayed "the little arts of popularity," wrote Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 68.

Members of the Constitutional Convention wanted an intricate and elitist system of checks and balances so power couldn't be shared or abused among the masses. Working men, women and minorities weren't allowed in the original good ol' boys club. And it wasn't until blacks were given the unrestricted right to vote in 1960s did the phrase "One man, one vote" become part of our culture.

"This system was created in an era when there were no political parties and the existence of political parties was, in fact, frowned upon," says Alexander Keyssar, a history professor at Duke University and author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. "The case for getting rid of it is pretty overwhelming. I don't think we need to pretend everything the Founding Fathers did is wisdom for the ages."

Imagine if you will, how letting the popular vote dictate the presidential election would affect a third party candidate like Ralph Nader. It would put a whole new spin on politics.

Instead of facing the daunting task of winning a majority of electoral votes through superb field organization and TV commercials in numerous states (a process that takes a huge amount of money), third party candidates would be judged by how many votes they get.

Face it, winning the support of one of every five voters, as Ross Perot did in 1992, seems so much more meaningful than winning Z-E-R-O electoral votes, as Perot also did.

Instead of hearing, "Don't vote for Nader in Oregon because it only takes away from Gore," we'd hear candidates say what they believe in because they wanted to earn our support, regardless of what state we lived in. Online vote swapping would be rendered meaningless and we'd become a nation, not a media market.

One reason why supporters of the Electoral College love their system is because it does, in fact, discourage third party candidates.

"The winner take all feature of the Electoral College discourages third party efforts," admits the U.S. Electoral College Web Zine, "In contrast, a direct election system encourages candidates to run, simply because they can.... [D]irect election could produce a choice between Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, or Jesse Ventura and Jesse Jackson."

So what? If my vote actually meant something, I could make an educated choice -- and even have an educated choice to make. Instead of having to pick between, ugh, the likes of Gore and Bush -- who are really the same bozo performing in two different circuses -- my vote would actually mean something. I wouldn't be voting for the "lesser of two evils," but for a candidate I actually believed in.

If a popular vote system encouraged diverse and qualified candidates, then people might actually take an interest in government. And who knows, an upstart might actually pull off an upset victory.

More than 700 proposals have been made to change the Electoral College system, more than any other cause, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. So far, those proposals haven't mustered enough political support to make the necessary change to the Constitution.

The last serious attempt came in 1977, when a proposal called for letting the candidate with the most votes win, so long as he or she had at least 40 percent of the vote. If the 40 percent threshold wasn't reached, the top two candidates would face each other in a national run-off election, and the one with the most votes would win the presidency. Like all the others, the 1977 proposal died.

What we're left with, writes Washington Post staff writer Michael Powell, is akin to a sports team winning the big game, but being denied victory because some higher authority deems it so.

"The Redskins take the Super Bowl, 41-38, in overtime. And the NFL's Board of Governors announces that the Redskins have, in fact ... lost," Powell wrote in a satire just before the election.

So instead of giving me grief for not voting, you should demand that your U.S Representative lobby to change the rules of the game. Such a sad system of rules wouldn't be tolerated in sports. Riots would break out in the stands. Nor should they be tolerated in politics.

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