Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #113. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 3, 2016; in print Dec. 4

 “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy”  (@realDonaldTrump 10:45 PM, 6 Nov 2012).

This is probably the only one of his tweets that I agree with. Or I should say, “I agreed with,” because four years later, @realDonaldTrump 7:40AM, 15 Nov 2016 wrote, “The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!”

We all know what happened one week before to trigger this flip-flop, this about-face, from “disaster” to “genius.”

A Nov. 14 letter to the Times (“Electoral College gives us a voice”) anticipated by a day the president-elect’s recent tweet. There has, of course, been a lot of discussion, in print media and online, of this curious artifact of 18th-century government-fashioning and back room deal-making.

There are those for whom the sainted Founding Fathers could do no wrong, so even posing a question about the Electoral College is heresy at best, even blasphemy.

For those of us who regret the Constitution countenanced slavery, the Founding Fathers could indeed err, catastrophically. The connection between the endorsement of slavery and the concoction of the Electoral College is clear enough to warrant deep suspicion of the way we elect our president. Slaves could not vote, but they could be counted (at 60 percent each) in determining a state’s population for Congressional apportionment. In other words, Southerners profited electorally from the shameful “three-fifths compromise.”

Yes, I know, “we’re a republic, not a democracy” — which, to be sure, applies to Congress, but it’s not clear it should spill over into the executive.

Yes, I know, “the rights of the minority must be respected” — which is generally true, but not in the election of a president.

And, yes, I know, “only five times has the presidency gone to one who did not win the popular vote.” Wait. "Only five?” Once is too many!

Using 2015 population estimates from the Bureau of the Census, I have determined the vote of a citizen in Wyoming, the least populous state, carries 3.7 times the weight of the vote of a citizen of Texas, where it takes more voters to carry an electoral vote than even in California.

This perhaps would not worry or concern the writer of the Nov. 14 letter, especially since his vote weighs 1.32 times that of a Californian. But I wonder whether he is at ease with the fact that the vote of a North Dakotan packs 2.18 times the punch of his. There’s flyover country and then there’s flyover country.

And the specious claim that electoral votes mean candidates campaign in “small” states? How many visits did Trump or Clinton make to Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho? Actually, 25 states had no post-convention visits by either nominee, and seven more had only one.

There are no two states where the weight of an individual voter’s ballot is the same. It’s as if the Founding Fathers couldn’t resist assigning percentage values of personhood to everybody.

It’s preposterous to think states need more coddling than is provided by the Senate, where California and Wyoming, the former with 200 times the population of the latter, each gets two seats. The logical extension of supporting the Electoral College is that in electing the governor of Minnesota, Upsala’s votes should count more than Waite Park’s, which should count more than Sartell’s, which should count more than St. Cloud’s, which should count more than Duluth’s, which should count more than St. Paul’s, which should count more than Minneapolis’s.

Attempts have been made to amend the Constitution, but requirement of a two-thirds vote in Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states renders this change unlikely because many states want to protect their privilege.

The best chance is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. States that enter the compact pledge to award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact takes effect only when it will guarantee the candidate with the most popular votes is elected president.

Eleven jurisdictions, with a total of 165 electoral votes (61 percent of the 270 needed), have so far adopted NPVIC (in the order of adoption): Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, Massachusetts, District of Columbia, Vermont, California, Rhode Island, New York. If Minnesota were to add its 10, that would get to 65 percent of 270 — almost two-thirds of the way. Indeed, our state already has a stake: former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger (born in St. Cloud!) is a member of the advisory council of National Popular Vote, a nonprofit that advocates for adoption of NPVIC.

The Founding Fathers made a mistake. Minnesota needs to join forces with other states already committed to correcting it.