Why the Electoral College is Bad for America

Tomorrow America will stop by its local polling station and cast a ballot for the next President of the United States. Millions of engaged citizens will remind their friends, families and neighbors, “even your vote matters”. I’m one of them; on Saturday I canvassed in my small Massachusetts city and made this plea to dozens of people. But still, in a dark little corner of my mind, I know this isn’t true, because across America tomorrow, more than half of the ballots won’t matter.

Of course each ballot matters to the person who casts it, and people who care deeply about democratic participation will continue to urge others to vote, but in the eyes of the two major Presidential campaigns, more than half of the ballots don’t matter.

Over the last several weeks, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have spent most of their time focused on seven states: Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. These seven states saw the heaviest activity on the ground, and they hosted the greatest number of rallies for Romney and Obama. They had the greatest number of canvassers going door-to-door and talking with voters about issues. Polling numbers from these seven states got the most attention. Issues affecting these states were discussed most in the national media. Seven states out of fifty. Is it okay that presidential politics in the electoral system makes only the Significant Seven matter?

No.

Over the weekend Chris Hayes complained that “no presidential candidate cares about what people there think,” referring to the Bronx, home to that MSNBC host and almost 1.4 million other people. If presidential candidates did care about the Bronx, he argued, “they would find an issue landscape very different from the one we’ve been talking about nationally.” This is the problem.

The electoral college narrows the national political discourse to cover a tight, convenient list of issues that affect seven states. It works like this:
1) The importance of the electoral votes belonging to the Significant Seven forces presidential campaigns to focus there;
2) canvassers cover the Seven, taking polls, asking questions and urging voters to think about what matters to them;
3) pollsters learn that voters in the Seven care about a, b and c;
4) the candidates develop opinions and then talk a lot about a, b and c;
5) the national media follow the candidates;
6) national talking heads discuss a, b and c;
7) Joe and Jane Doe watch the national news from State #46 and hear about a, b and c. They meet no canvassers. No one asks them what they think. On election day, they cast a vote for the man whose opinions about a, b and c they prefer.

So what do a, b and c not include? There’s at least one elephant of planetary proportions: climate change. We also didn’t hear about immigration, poverty, civil rights, campaign finance or foreign policy other than soundbites about Iran, Libya and China. Oh, and there are probably a whole bunch of other important things that I can’t even think of, because I’m from Massachusetts, not Mississippi.

Here’s my point: pluralism is not just about a range of opinions on an issue; it’s about a range of issues. The “melting pot” self-image we glorify amounts to a pretty, many-colored facade unless each ingredient in that pot affects the flavor. Mixed metaphors (and puns) aside, our political culture can’t be called “pluralistic” unless it includes a big mess of different issues, arguments and perspectives. We won’t get that big, beautiful mess unless every state, every issue, every social group and every individual gets a voice. Every individual won’t get a voice until civic engagement knocks on every door. Civic engagement won’t exist in forty-three states (at the presidential level) until the candidates turn their gaze in fifty directions at once. I admit, that’s asking a lot. You better f*cking believe it’s asking a lot.

I’m not pissed that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama didn’t bother to come to Holyoke, MA (I mean, it’d be nice), but I’m disappointed they hardly came to my state (Michelle Obama did make a visit to Springfield, and Mitt probably stopped by his Massachusetts home on his way to Maine’s Congressional District #2). I’m disappointed that my neighbors won’t be asked to participate beyond an obedient vote on one fall day. I wish every Masshole were challenged to think about the wide range of tough questions facing our country. I’m an Obama voter, but I wish his party’s dominance in Massachusetts were questioned more often. I wish all of the Other Forty-Three were shown the love Obama gives to his Ohio auto workers. I wish more citizens felt the rush of knocking on a stranger’s door and the peculiar reward of stepping back down the driveway thirty unexpected minutes later.

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