Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Philosophical Underpinnings of the Electoral College

Here is the story of Chesterton's Fence:

  • There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." 
    This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. 

The morale of the story here is simple, mainly because they tell you what the morale of the story is in the story itself: Don't do away with something until you know what the original reason for that something was to begin with.

I am a supporter of the Electoral College. A strong supporter of it in fact. Recently, it has not gotten much love  with many groups trying to do away with it entirely. All because of one event in recent history. That event was the infamous 2000 presidential elections, where Democrats won the popular vote and Republicans won the electoral college. Since the Electoral College is all that matters, George W. Bush took the presidency instead of Al Gore. Without going into too much detail, there was a mess in the Supreme Court, too. 

What was the purpose of the electoral college? Revisionist historians tell us that we should do away with it because it is for the antiquated reason of a lack of communications technology in 1700s. More accurate, but still incorrect, historians tell a story of small states wanting more relative weight compared to larger ones. That was a concern.

Records of the Constitutional Convention tell a different story. One that we are unlikely to think of today, but is just as relevant as ever. There were and still are significant discrepancies between state laws on who was/is eligible to vote. No matter the number that actually turns out to vote though, the entire population of the country is accounted for on a state-by-state basis.

Remember this was a time where you had to be a land-owning, free, white male to vote in some places and just merely some combination of that in others. Husbands were representatives of their wives. Land owners of their landless peers. Slave owners of their slaves. You can see the problem with this logic, but is that better than these people not having a vote at all?

Let's take this into a modern day context. People who do vote in a state still represent all of those that do not. Parents are representatives of their children. Families still vote on issues that affect their convicted felon family members. Those that are registered to vote are still voting with issues in mind that affect their non-registered peers. State issues are still present in each state that all voters want action on. The system is built in a way that the whole representation power of the state in the electoral college takes into account the number of people in a state even those people can not or choose not to vote. Is this proper compensation for disenfranchised voters?

This is a philosophical question without an easy answer. Should we be a republic that writes off people who do not (or can not) vote? Or a republic that builds in weight to people who are voting in states where they have non-voting peers?

Now ask yourself this question in a day and age where voter repression laws are ever more prevalent: Can we rely on popular votes where one party finds it strategically advantageous to pass laws that keep people from voting?  Would such laws become even more common if so much more was at stake?

That the debate we should be having. Until we have it, I still stand by the rule of Chesterton's Fence.

Another reason for maintaining the Electoral College.... money.

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