Why the Electoral College? Because State and Regional Diversity Matters. (updated)

Thomas Hart Benton's America Today mural series, Coal

This article is part of one or more series – see bottom

Where you live, your day-to-day experiences gained through interacting with your physical environment, influence your political viewpoint. The Founders realized this. When the Electoral College was born through compromise in 1787, each former-colony-turned-state had a unique history and perspective giving rise to significant political differences between it and its neighbors. The Founders had to resolve these interstate differences in order to form a more perfect Union. The Electoral College was an important part of the Founders’ efforts to ensure our election process gave voice to these regionally diverse viewpoints.

What critics of the Electoral College fail to realize is the strong influence state and regional diversity continues to exert today. In fact, differences of opinion concerning most hotly contested political issues, past and present, can be traced to the influence of state and regional diversity. Neutering the Electoral College, as 48 states have done with their winner-take-all systems, deadens the impact of intrastate diversity on election outcomes.  Ridding us of the Electoral College entirely, either by amending the Constitution or by the states conspiring to do an end-run around the Constitutional provision by awarding all of their respective electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, would render our election process deaf, dumb, and blind to both state and regional diversity.  I contend either change makes our electoral process more prone to something the Founders referred to as “the tyranny of the majority” or “mob rule.”

Still skeptical? Some examples are in order:

1) Colonial Times to the Founding Era:

Although the large majority of the early colonial settlers made their living on the land, geography — soil, climate, resources, topography — dictated that they use their land differently. By the time the delegates gathered at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, regional patterns of development had become clear and reasonably stable. The landscape of the new nation was diverse. Settlements were generally both more numerous, more populous, and closer together in the north, where business (e.g., shipbuilding and whaling) and trade (e.g., shipping and commerce) were more common occupations than in other regions. The further south one traveled, the more agrarian the region, the larger the farming operations, and the less numerous and densely-settled the population itself.

Thomas Hart Benton's America Today mural series, SteelThe former northern colonies (New England and the Middle colonies), now states, held roughly twice as many people as the southern states. Even within the northern coalition, there were big and small states, both in terms of geographic size and population. These differences among and between all of the states led to a concern about representation — that each state have an equal say, regardless of its geographic size and how numerous its population. Remember, these former colonists broke with Great Britain over decisions made by King George and his Parliament in the absence of any representatives from the colonies to speak on their own behalf, so representation was a major issue.

Each state was assured an equal voice by the delegates’ compromise dictating each state send two Senators and a number of Representatives determined by population to the new Congress, a balancing of both regional and popular interests. The Electoral College is the result of a similar compromise,1”To summarize, the Brearly Committee, composed of Gilman, King, Sherman, Brearly, G. Morris, Dickinson, Carroll, Madison, Williamson, Butler, and Baldwin—a veritable cross-section of the delegates—proposed the adoption of an Electoral College in which both the people and the States are represented in the election of the President. This resolution of the difficult matter of Presidential election clearly meant that the partly national -partly federal model had become the deliberate sense of the convention. This structural compromise—Congress is partly federal and partly national—became the deliberate sense of the community by the end of the Convention. It is the model to which the delegates returned for the resolution of the most durable of issues, namely, the election of the President.”  Quote from the Teaching American History website re the Electoral College. reached for the same reason — a concern that each state, regardless of size, and its citizens, regardless of number, have an equal say in the selection of the head of the Executive Branch of the new federal government.

2) 1800s to the Civil War:

The spread of the institution of slavery, and the politics surrounding it, were the product of diverse state and Thomas Hart Benton's America Today, Deep Southregional interests. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made removal of the seeds from cotton bolls both faster and more efficient, thus making cotton a much more profitable crop, and the climate and soil in the Southern States were ideal for growing cotton. Southern planters reacted to this innovation by clearing more acres and planting more cotton. But the harvesting of cotton remained highly labor-intensive, necessitating an increase in the numbers of slaves to work in the cotton fields.

Consequently,

“the slave population in the United States increased nearly five-fold in the first half of the 19th Century, and by 1860, the South provided about two-thirds of the world’s cotton supply. Southern wealth had become reliant on this one crop and thus was completely dependent on slave-labor.

“In terms of understanding what the cotton gin means for Civil War history, the connection to the growth of slavery and its economic centrality for the South is clear. Between the political conflict of the 1820s to 1850s regarding new states and slavery; the election of Lincoln, whom Southerners perceived to be anti-slavery; and the high tariffs imposed on cotton and cotton goods by laws written in the North, the fact that the cotton states of the Deep South chose to secede seems far less surprising.”

3) 1870s to 1890s — The Dispute Over the Gold Standard:

The Populist movement behind “bimetalism” had its roots in a bad agricultural economy and banking interests who held farmers’ debt and who were largely unsympathetic to calls for relief. In his “Cross of Gold” speech, delivered at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, July 9, 1896, William Jennings Bryan2Whether Bryan was correct in advocating devaluation of the dollar through bimetallism is not the issue.  This author happens to disagree with Bryan regarding the monetary system and, actually, regarding most of his politics generally.  But as even a blind sow manages to pick up an acorn once in a great while, Bryan hit and sounded a very deep chord in his description of the popular divide from heartland America’s perspective in this instance.accused the urban business and banking interests of attempting to crucify rural citizens on a cross of gold for refusing to base the value of money on silver as well as gold. In the text of that speech, Bryan did a good job of describing the diversity of the interests on both sides:

“But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities in the state of Massachusetts. When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who, in a backroom, corner the money of the world.

“We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen. Ah. my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose —those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds — out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead — are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country.
. . . . .
“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

bentons-farm

4) 1960s — Taxation in Nebraska:

In 1966, two referendum measures made it onto the statewide ballot in Nebraska.

“One was a referendum spearheaded by the Omaha interests to repeal an income tax law passed in 1965 and scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 1967. The other was an initiative sponsored by the Nebraska Farm Bureau to amend the state constitution so as to prohibit the state government from levying property taxes, leaving such harvests to local governmental units such as counties, cities, and school districts.”

bentons-oilThe voters approved both measures, thereby temporarily depriving state government of any means to raise sufficient funds to cover two-thirds of its annual budget.  Urban versus rural diversity at its finest, best characterized as “tax the other guy.”

5) 2000s — Gun Ownership:

Gun ownership and gun control laws vary by region. In the northeastern states and on the west coast, most people do not legally own guns, and gun control legislation is both more common and more stringent. In the upper northwest, midwest, and south, guns are more commonly legally owned, and gun control legislation is relatively less common and less stringent.

Although I have not done a controlled study, these regional variances appear to me to be explainable by the rural/urban dichotomy. When you grow up in the country, as I did, you’re more likely to encounter guns in your environment, and not in a violent context. Hunting, both as a sport and as a means of securing food, is common. My grandfather, father, and brother used guns to deal with everything from snakes to rabid stray animals to small herds of deer that wandered onto our farm fields damaging crops. (And, no, they didn’t randomly shoot Bambi and/or his mother. Gunfire was sufficient to scare the deer away.)

I began to learn to shoot when I was too small to hold my father’s rifle. I remember being steadied by my dad’s arms as I sighted down the barrel at a target he’d nailed to a tree and then I pulled the trigger. Along with that skill, I was taught the responsibility of caring for the gun; unloading it and securing it in a rack, closet, or cabinet when not in use; and never pointing it at a human being unless I was prepared to wound, possibly kill, that person to prevent a threat to my own life.

In rural areas, law enforcement is not down the block or, even, across town. It can be miles removed and, therefore, a long time coming to your aid if and when a life-threatening situation occurs. Consequently, people consider it wise to rely, first, on themselves to protect themselves, their families, and their property.

Urban dwellers experience guns differently. Most have no personal experience with them, never touching one or even having a chance to see one in a non-threatening situation. They have never been taught that there are valid reasons for average citizens to responsibly use such a weapon. To the contrary, their experience is that guns routinely fall into the hands of people who use them to shoot and kill other people for no apparent reason, other than the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because law enforcement is relatively more immediately available to urban residents in the event of an emergency, they are more comfortable relying upon armed law enforcement to protect them, their families, and their property.

In these divergent experiences lies the differing appeal of the slogans “Guns Kill People” versus “Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People” and the ongoing debate about gun ownership in the United States.

6) November 8, 2016 — President-Elect Donald J. Trump:

nyt-pres-election-map-by-counties-2016

For those still scratching their heads in wonder, having difficulty wrapping their minds around the Trump election victory, I would explain the outcome in the following manner. Trump managed to piece together a coalition of voters from middle America, mostly from small towns and surrounding rural areas, but also from the slightly more urban rust belt of the upper Midwest. The media dismisses these voters as predominantly white and male, implying some sort of racist/misogynist motive behind their vote. Far from it. They have very real concerns and interests that the media — and the population bubbles on the east and west coasts — do not understand because they’ve never, literally, “been there, done that, have the t-shirt” as the saying goes.

Although I enjoy it, I realize not every reader is a country music fan.  Whether you are or you aren’t, please listen to the following video for its message more than the music.   I think it gives strangers to the Heartland an accurate glimpse of the people who live here and the hardships so many face each new day with strength, grace, and faith. It’s a beautiful thing.

This article is part of the following series:

What’s Wrong With the Electoral College? The Electoral College is part of the electoral system to elect the President of the United States. We will add additional articles as they are published to this list.

  1. “What’s Wrong With the Electoral College?”
  2. This article

You might also be interested in a related article we wrote several years ago: “GiN Response to Presidential Popular Vote Advocate”.

Images & Graphics Sources


The images and graphics in this article were obtained from the following sources:

The paintings featured here are from a mural series, America Today,  by painter Thomas Hart Benton, completed 1930 – 1931.

The 2016 map showing popular vote by counties is from the New York Times.

 

References & Notes   [ + ]

1. ”To summarize, the Brearly Committee, composed of Gilman, King, Sherman, Brearly, G. Morris, Dickinson, Carroll, Madison, Williamson, Butler, and Baldwin—a veritable cross-section of the delegates—proposed the adoption of an Electoral College in which both the people and the States are represented in the election of the President. This resolution of the difficult matter of Presidential election clearly meant that the partly national -partly federal model had become the deliberate sense of the convention. This structural compromise—Congress is partly federal and partly national—became the deliberate sense of the community by the end of the Convention. It is the model to which the delegates returned for the resolution of the most durable of issues, namely, the election of the President.”  Quote from the Teaching American History website re the Electoral College.
2. Whether Bryan was correct in advocating devaluation of the dollar through bimetallism is not the issue.  This author happens to disagree with Bryan regarding the monetary system and, actually, regarding most of his politics generally.  But as even a blind sow manages to pick up an acorn once in a great while, Bryan hit and sounded a very deep chord in his description of the popular divide from heartland America’s perspective in this instance.

About Grassroots in Nebraska (GIN)
Grassroots in Nebraska is a Lincoln, based group, founded in March of 2009. While we began as a Tea Party group, we have recognized that Tea Party rallies tend to be a means by which concerned citizens gather together and meet people of like minds. These gatherings have little meaning if they do not result in substantive, effective action. Visit Grassroots in Nebraska to see more.