Thursday, December 1, 2016

How to Elect a President

In the wake of the presumed election of Donald Trump as our next president, there have been calls to abolish the Electoral College. This will be the second time in my experience that I personally was robbed, having also voted for Al Gore in 2000. So I have long agreed that we should get rid of this odd historical relic that now has the potential to subvert the will of the people. But I have come to realize that I was wrong. The problem is not that the Electoral College exists, but rather that we are not using it correctly.

Think about it. Hillary Clinton lost because she failed in the states that had the electoral votes she needed. But that was part of a much larger problem. Polls show that winning candidates are usually taller than their opponents. They tell us that who the voters would rather have a beer with is more important than what a person would actually do as president. Marital infidelity may tell us nothing about how a person would govern the nation, but it can end a political campaign or even be grounds for an unsuccessful impeachment.

I thought for a long time that the Electoral College was simply a historical anomaly. In eighteenth century America, the United States consisted of only thirteen states, but crisscrossing those to make yourself known to all of the voters was impossible in an age long before automobiles, trains, or airplanes. Likewise, the technology that makes mass media possible was at least a century away. So voters could not possibly get enough information to make an informed choice for president. As that changed over time, the current system developed, where we assume that any voter can easily get all the information they could possibly need, so we vote directly for the candidate of our choice. The problem we face now, however, is that we have access to too much information, much of it false or unreliable, and I can see no way that a filtering system could be devised to purify our information stream. This election was decided as much as anything else by fake news and the ability to spread it effectively.

If we go back to the original design of the electoral system, we may be able to solve this problem. The founding fathers knew that a lack of information could mean that direct election by the people of their legislators and especially their president could allow a tyrant to win. We now know that our modern-day information glut poses the same danger. So they devised a system where the voters, instead of voting for a president, voted for electors who would then meet and make that choice for us. Electors were people who were known in their respective states, and they would detail the qualities they would support in a president, and that would be the basis of the people’s choice. Today, even the size of the states is too big for this to be effective. Breaking it down further, even a congressional district may represent more than a million voters. To solve the problem, we must have a system that selects electors at a local enough level to bypass the problem of gerrymandering as well.

So here is how I would solve the problem. I live in a small town in New Jersey. My state is reliably blue in presidential elections, but there are red patches throughout New Jersey. No state is monolithic in this way. New Jersey had 14 electoral votes this year, meaning we have twelve congressional districts. But my town has two voting districts, and the surrounding township has fourteen more. There should be a national standard for the population of each of these voting districts, and a polling place for each one. We could then vote for a pre-elector, if you will, from each of these voting districts. Prior to the election, local candidates for pre-elector could hold a series of town halls where they could meet and greet the voters, and conduct Q&A sessions. They might have party affiliations, but they could not align themselves with any candidate nationally or for the office of statewide elector. On Election Day, people would go to the polls to select their pre-elector. The top vote getter in each voting district would win. These pre-electors would them attend a state electoral college. They would be presented with candidates from around the state, and they would be forbidden to vote for themselves. This could probably be best enforced by requiring that pre-electors could not run as statewide electors in the same year. In New Jersey, the top 14 vote getters at this state electoral college would then represent New Jersey at the national Electoral College, where they would choose the president. Variations on this system could also be used to choose members of the House and Senate.

Note that no member of the Electoral College would be bound to any candidate. The pre-electors would have to earn the trust of their communities with their presentation of the issues facing the country. Likewise, national media outlets leading up to the election would not be able to base their coverage on personalities, so they would hopefully spend more time on the issues of the day. This system would also take money out of the process of choosing our government. Because electors would be unbound, and pre-electors could not align themselves with any candidate, a sitting president or senator say would not have to neglect their duties to run for re-election. Lobbying would also have to change, because campaign cash would not be the incentive it is now. There are surely problems with this proposal that would only become apparent after it was implemented. Surely, powerful people who benefit greatly from the current system would resist making this change. Not only the moneyed interests who have so much say in our current system but also the media outlets who rely on their advertising dollars would suffer.But I am not sure that even a Constitutional amendment would be needed to make this happen, and the potential advantages are surely worth considering.

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