If the inevitability of a close presidential election has a silver lining, it’s that Gov. Mitt Romney might win the popular vote and lose the electoral college.
The hypothetical is enough to make small-D democratic purists wet their pants at the possibility of a nation united against the antiquated constitutional provision that cancels out the votes of millions of Americans. Romney would become a sacrificial lamb, along with former Vice President Al Gore, for the flaws of the system. Both major political parties would be united in their realization of this glaring flaw of an otherwise beautiful document.
Most opponents of the Electoral College appear to hold their beliefs because of a principled standard for the advancement of democracy, but I’m convinced something else is at play: the increased division of the country.
Given the extremely intense divisions apparent in the United States today, a group of commentators have taken a liking to describing our current political era as a “Cold Civil War.” The most prominent advancement of this theory comes from the “conservative” journalist Andrew Sullivan, an Obama supporter who hyperbolically claimed on ABC’s This Week that victories in Virginia and North Carolina for Romney would amount to the return of the Confederacy.
I should admit Sullivan is one of my favorite bloggers and has remained a constantly-open tab on my browser for years. But even though I completely disagree with his absurd assessment this weekend, I think the American electoral system is the root cause of his pessimism.
President Barack Obama has said it himself. Not long after launching his national political career with a keynote address in which he famously derided the splitting of our country into red states and blue states, Obama answered a Senate debate question in support of changing the system.
Since Gore’s electoral defeat in 2000, many liberals have bemoaned the flaws of the system as conservatives continue to support it. A Romney defeat would, at least hopefully, equalize the debate over the change. With an anti-Electoral College president in office and a Romney-loyal Republican majority also inevitable in the House of Representatives, a 28th amendment might be surprisingly politically feasible.
To make the possibility more heartening, an adoption of the popular vote would also diminish those cries of a “Cold Civil War” Sullivan has mentioned. In middle school, most of us learned about the battles that resulted from the free soil battles of Bleeding Kansas. The stakes and level of violence might be different, but the continuation of the Electoral College and the resulting division into red states and blue states has created a remarkable and noticeable geographic divide in this country.
Think about it: liberals hate the idea of living in Texas or Georgia because “their vote doesn’t count there.” Conservatives hate living in New York or California for the same reasons. The consequence is a continually increasing level of political and geographic resentment that paralyzes the lawmaking process. If Obama has no reason to worry about winning Texas, what political incentive does he have to visit or campaign in the state? Why would Romney dare enter New York, except to take donations from his friends on the Upper East Side?
This phenomenon of electoral exclusion is most obvious in Illinois, where the Chicago area renders the otherwise conservative state uncontested in presidential elections. Resentment levels are off the charts in places like Rep. Joe Walsh’s district. Although he will probably lose his election because of redistricting, a Republican like Walsh probably never would have made it into Congress in the first place without Barack Obama; some Illinois conservatives are so angry at the fact their votes mean nothing in Obama’s home state that they’re willing to send a radical like Walsh to Washington.
Overturning the Electoral College wouldn’t solve all of the divisive problems the United States currently faces. But partisan candidates would be forced to campaign in all 50 states and turn out voters in the most conservative rural corners of Mississippi or the most liberal urban stretches of Massachusetts. We are an exceptional nation because we pioneered modern democracy and civility in politics. We have no excuse not to continue breaking ground in the fight for more representative government.
Ryan Rainey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies.