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Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 10, 2009

The Electoral College is a Joke

Filed under: 2008 elections,Congress,Constitution,Media,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:35 pm

Literally. Or at least, jokes are all that the media can seem to find to write about the official counting of the electoral vote:

The Republican highlight of the afternoon: a lonely Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) clapping when it was announced that John McCain and Sarah Palin won the electoral votes from her home state.

But perhaps the funniest moment of the session: Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, sticking his fingers in his ears when the results were announced from his home state of South Carolina. McCain pulled that one out despite Clyburn’s efforts to get one more Southern state in Obama’s column.

It is hard to blame reporters or participants for taking this attitude, given the manifest pointlessness and vestigiality of the Electoral College as an institution. The automatic reverence for the Constitution that suffuses our culture has induced a considerable number of pundits and political scientists to defend the EC over the years, but most defenders and detractors seem to conflate the institution itself with the state-based apportionment mechanism embedded within it.

It seems to me that the weighting of the votes for president is a separate question from the operations of the institution. The thing the institutional EC was intended to do, act as one of the filters between local popular majorities (and parties) and the choice of the presidency, it never did properly even once. One of the things I have learned from my current research on the election of 1796 is that even back in the very earliest days of presidential electioneering, when presidential electors actually ran (or stood) under their own names, the primary matter discussed was not “Which local big-shot (elector candidate) do we trust to choose a president for us?” but “Which well-known national candidate will he support?” I have an example of an elector candidate in Maryland writing to the newspapers to deny a candidate affiliation that was already circulating in his neighborhood. In other words, no one ever gave a rodent’s behind about the electors or their non-existent college even when there was nothing else to vote for, presidentially speaking.

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