Friday, November 7, 2008
El Colegio Electoral
If you think the Electoral College system is complicated, try explaining it to a group of foreigners. In Spanish.
You know, though, I learned an awful lot about why we have the electoral college (to equalize voter turnout discrepancies, give smaller states more power, and preserve the federal character of our nation, to name a few reasons), why maybe we shouldn't have the electoral system (it gives inordinate power to a small handful of "swing" states; it occasionally nullifies the popular vote; it discourages voter turnout in solidly "red" or "blue" states, etc.) and the history of the whole bizarre system (the Founding Fathers didn't want the President being able to claim that he had a direct mandate from the people, making him more powerful than the then-indirectly-elected Senate, or the still indirectly-elected Supreme Court, and they didn't want the uneducated masses to be choosing the leader of the entire nation because we are too, well, uneducated; disturbingly, Constitutional Convention delegates from the South favored the system because it allowed southern states to count slaves in the population census that determined their allotted number of electoral votes, but of course denied them the right to choose electors (aka vote). The latter = bogus; the first made sense at the time; and the second maybe still holds water?? okay, okay, sarcasm. Sort of). Thank you to Miss Mary and Wikipedia for the civics lesson.
It was gratifying to see how interested the our Mujeres Unidas were in the whole process, given that none of them could vote in this past election (still waiting on visas, permanent residency, and/or citizenship. Sigh). They wanted to know what the new president's views on immigration would be (hard to say, as he wasn't very forthcoming on policy specifics during the campaign--I'm hoping he'll be pro-immigration reform, like John McCain was before campaign strategy made his rhetoric migrate more towards the reactionary immigration policy of his base). They wanted to know why the Republican symbol is an elephant when Republican starts with an "R," not an "E" (good question; here's the answer). They had questions about what happens if electors vote against the state's popular vote (it's happened before, but most states have a slate of electors for both parties, and the slate belonging to whichever party's candidate wins in that state is the one that then casts all that state's electoral votes on December 15th. Nebraska and Maine, however, split their votes proportionally instead of using a winner-take-all system). They wanted to know if voting is obligatory--which might seem like an odd question, but it is in other countries such as Peru, where you are fined for not voting. I had an interesting conversation with my Peruvian friend/coworker Rosa about how, for three years, she toiled as an activist working to restore democracy during the Fujimori dictatorship, but she now no longer votes because she doesn't believe in being forced to make a choice, one way or the other (her family in Peru pays her fines for her). Another reason she disagrees with mandatory voting: it is a huge burden for poor, rural citizens who sometimes live up to five or six hours distant from their polling places and must lose a day's or more wages just to obey the law. Oh, and if you thought early voting lines were bad here, just imagine the traffic jams when EVERYONE has to get to the polls instead of just 30 or 40 percent of the population. Gives new meaning to the term "civic duty," no?
But seriously--what would it look like if voting was mandatory here? I believe that voting is a vital part of ensuring that our democratic republic functions as it's supposed to--really, it's the whole basis of our system. And of course, the more people vote, the more our government will serve as an accurate reflection of the people's will (at least in theory; I'm not allowing for shady political maneuvers, Congressional corruption, failed promises, wild misuse of expense accounts, etc.), and that's a good thing. So, again in theory (disregarding traffic jams), it would be great if everyone voted. And that will never happen if we are left to our own devices--apathy, ignorance, logistics, and those pesky other priorities called "work," "family," "health," etc. see to that. But it's a little Orwellian--taking away your free will about whether to exercise your free will--to make it the law of the land that one must vote.
Then I think of my South African friend Craig, who is weeks away from obtaining his citizenship, and how much he wanted to be able to vote in this election. And I think of our SafeSpace homies who, even though they have paid their "debt to society," they are, as ex-felons, ineligible to vote. And then there are folks like my buddy Scottie, who, simple soul that he is, wanted to vote for McCain/Palin because "That Sarah Palin sure is a nice-looking lady," but come Election Day, his registration hadn't come through and he had to cast a provisional vote, which most likely will not count--a vote lost to bureaucratic error.
So no, voting shouldn't be mandatory--but even though it's sometimes a pain to stand in line, and we have a seemingly counterintuitive, Rube Goldberg-ian system of electing our President, every single one of us with the right to register should be out there exercising our civic privilege (since, thanks to the freedoms outlined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, we have no obligatory "duty" to do so. Sorry, Peru).