When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the founders—seeking the broadest consensus possible among the Jewish community—adopted a system of proportional representation, a system that guaranteed that an Orthodox Jewish political party or parties would have representation in the Israeli Knesset or legislature. It was meant as a temporary measure until Israel had a quiet moment to write a constitution.
Well, Israel never had that quiet moment, and writing a constitution proved to be a bridge too far. Israel is still living with the temporary system it adopted just to get things under way.
Seventy years later, with virtually every government formed having been dependent on one or all the religious parties for a majority in the Knesset, the religious parties have inordinate power, which is to say power disproportionate to their numbers. The price of their participation in the government has been high over the years, imposing all kinds of religious practices and prohibitions on a largely secular society. Any effort to alter their power has been stymied by a simple fact: Barring an electoral (and I use the word advisedly) miracle, the religious parties would have to support legislation reducing their power.
Why do I bring this up? Two hundred plus years ago, the Founding Fathers in their infinite wisdom decided that allowing eligible American voters to directly elect the President was a bad idea. So they had the voters elect men (and it was men at that time) to vote for them. These men were called electors, and the collective group was called the Electoral College.
Every state was given electors based on their population equivalent to the number of representatives they were entitled to in Congress, plus two more electors because every state had two United States senators. That reality is now embedded in our constitutional democracy.
The system ran into trouble pretty quickly. John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote in 1824, but won the electoral vote. Ditto for Rutherford B.Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and, of course, more recently George W. Bush in 2000 and the current president in 2016.
Not accidentally, since two of the last three Democratic candidates, have lost their elections despite winning the popular vote, the cry has gone up that the electoral college has to be abolished, allowing the direct election of the president.
Elizabeth Warren, running for president in 2020, has announced the abolition of the electoral college as one of her campaign goals, which is a little strange because the president would play no role in amending the Constitution to change the selection process. Leaving that aside, the idea is laudable, but really an exercise in baying at the moon.
The very unfairness of the electoral college, its undemocratic nature is the reason why changing it is a political impossibility.
Seven states and the District of Columbia have three electoral votes. Wyoming is the least populous state with a population of 578,000. That gives Wyoming one elector for every 192,000 persons. California, the most populous state with 39,560,000 people has 55 electoral votes, one for every 719,000 people. In other words although California has 18 times more electors than Wyoming, California’s individual electoral votes are worth only 25 percent of each of Wyoming’s three electoral votes. And there are six more states plus the District of Columbia with similar disproportionate sway in the electoral college.
At the risk of belaboring the point, I’ll just point out that less populous states are over-represented, in terms of population, not only in the electoral college but also in the House of Representatives and, by design, in the Senate.
So, to abolish the electoral college, two-thirds of the House and Senate and 38 of the 50 states would have to ratify an amendment to do so. What are the chances that any of the seven states with three electoral votes or the five states with four electoral votes would give up their out-sized power in electing a president in the name of democracy and fundamental fairness? (And we haven’t mentioned Nebraska, New Mexico and West Virginia, each with five electoral votes).
Back to Elizabeth Warren, an otherwise very smart person. Why is she wasting time, energy and resources firing up the electorate in pursuit of an unrealistic goal? Why discuss a goal in a presidential election when the president has no official role in achieving it? Why, in other words, squander the public’s attention on a marginal issue? Why not talk about an unfair tax system weighted toward the very rich; an economy that still isn’t rewarding the labor of hard-working middle class people; a president who is selective in supporting only parts of the Constitution, who can’t bring himself to condemn racism, fascism or the cold-blooded murder of journalists; cottoning up to our adversaries while we offend long-standing allies; basing foreign policy on whimsy with no discernible strategy behind it, or on doing something to deal with a health care system that ignores those who can least afford it?
The electorate has a limited attention span. Let’s focus on realizable, bread-and-butter issues that voters care about rather than feel good proposals with zero chance of being adopted.