We all know the types of people who, if they can’t win the game fair and square, will skirt the rules in pursuit of victory. There are also people, unfortunately, who if they still can’t win will re-write the rules in their favor. These are the kinds of people pushing Amendment 36 in Colorado — a plan to overturn the country’s winner-take-all electoral college system one state at a time. Colorado is their guinea pig.
Proponents of the measure, who receive most of their financial backing from California, argue that apportioning the state’s nine electoral votes according to the popular vote will more truly reflect the will of the people. They seem to hope that if Coloradans can be duped into taking this leap into the unknown, other states will follow in lemming-like fashion.
But even if we were convinced that the Electoral College has outlived its purpose — and we’re not — it seems potentially confusing and disruptive to make such reforms piecemeal, state by state. It also, quite frankly, seems suspicious that the wealthy Californian pumping most of the money into this effort isn’t pushing it in any Democratic party stronghold. This smells opportunistic and predatory to us.
The deadlocked political situation in the United States, and inability of either major party to win a decisive majority or convincing mandate, is leading to acts of short-term desperation that could do long-term harm to the nation’s political fabric. And this is clearly one of them. The piecemeal dismantling of an electoral system that has served this country well since its inception is a potentially dangerous idea, given the law of unintended consequences.
Besides political desperation, the movement to jettison the current system seems to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding about the political model under which Americans live. This is not, contrary to certain perceptions, a direct democracy. This is a representative democracy. And the differences are significant.
Most of the founders, though certainly believers in the sovereignty of the people, recognized that direct democracies could be dangerously self-destructive. They are more than just unstable, but prone to devolve into the rule of the mob or tyranny of the majority. The founders chose, instead, a republican form of government, building in numerous safeguards against the unchecked accumulation of power and passions of the moment. Though the majority was to rule, it was central to the founders’ plan that it not rule in a way that tyrannized the minority.
Thus was created the Electoral College system, which helps ensure that the larger and more populous states don’t completely dominate the smaller and less populous ones. It’s not a perfect system and there have been occasions when the popular vote and Electoral College count don’t add up — as in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush the presidency. But it’s one of the safeguards that helps prevent representative democracy from devolving into direct democracy. It has a noble and still valuable purpose, therefore, even if some Americans have either forgotten why it exists, wish to take their chances in a direct democracy, or couldn’t care less, as long as they get their cause, political party or candidate a few votes closer to victory.
When Colorado voters cast their ballots this fall, we hope they’ll do their part to uphold the republican — with a small “r” — principles championed by the founders and vote to nix 36.