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Let’s Imagine 2016 without the Electoral College

The Electoral College has long been the strange uncle of the American Constitutional order—little understood and even less appreciated. But there is a reason that hundreds of amendments have been submitted to change the system and none of them have come even close to passage in more than forty years: it works!

Tensions haven’t been this high in a post-election America since rumors circulated that President-elect Thomas Jefferson was coming to confiscate Bibles. Still, despite the tension and near depression among so many disappointed millennials, the Electoral College worked to give us a president-elect who is among the most controversial in history, but whose legitimacy is not seriously in question. And, the election was conducted across the country with strong participation of every demographic and ideology across the spectrum. The Electoral College did its job. But, let’s imagine 2016 without the Electoral College.

Imagine two candidates simply vying to achieve one more popular vote than their opponents and ending up separated by only 150,000 or so votes. That’s only a vote or two per precinct from Maine to San Diego. Now imagine a candidate who thought the system was “rigged” and who had potentially hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on lawyers and with agitated supporters to encourage him. Imagine the recounts and vote challenges happening in every precinct in every county in every state across the union; minority votes discarded, military mail in votes disqualified and a national nightmare dragging on for weeks.

Imagine an election being run where the Democratic candidate could count on automatically getting 35 percent or so of the vote without doing anything but who could then get tens of millions of votes representing the margin of victory simply from settling down into major urban areas like Philadelphia, LA, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and driving up massive voter turnout there. Would Hillary Clinton have ever talked to a western Pennsylvania steel worker or a North Carolina farmer?

Imagine life without the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system in the states. This is what drives the two major parties into broad, moderate coalitions that add stability to our electoral politics and our government. Without the need to win entire states, there would be no incentive left for people like John Kasich or Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders to leave the race. Rather, America’s natural four party system would be on display with Cruz taking the right, Sanders taking the left, and Clinton, Trump and Kasich sucking up the rest.

Now imagine none of those candidates getting more than thirty percent of the vote. Is that enough to elect a president of the United States? Would twenty five percent be enough? Do we want a president who seventy percent of the American people voted against? If not, then we would have to establish a run-off system and a second election.  Who besides the television ad salesmen want to go through a second national election with our living rooms being bombarded by negative ads?

2016 was an ugly election, but it was not because of the Electoral College. Rather, the Electoral College gave us a race fought in major cities and rural areas with the winner taking states in the south, rustbelt and west and the loser conceding in a timely manner and without any legal trials or serious controversy.  We have a legitimate president-elect and will have an uncontroversial transfer of power in January. You can’t ask for much more than that in any electoral system.

Reader Discussion

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on November 14, 2016 at 09:45:02 am

Well, if there was no Electoral College... It would be like in Europe, right? With popular vote election, third party candidates would have more chances. And yes, there would be a second round, nothing wrong with it. It works in a vast majority of presidential democracies.

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Averroes
on November 14, 2016 at 10:33:21 am

The USA is neither Europe nor a democracy, which is temporal mobocracy any way you explain it. I think the Electoral College helps secure the republic---the representative rule of law.

Referring to an alternative to the progressive aftermath of the triumph Gregg happily celebrates, please read "And now Security," on my website.

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Phil Beaver
on November 14, 2016 at 12:21:31 pm

Hoo-boy. No.

Let's not look away from imaginings and other apologetics and look to reality instead.

There is a reason why every congress proposes changing the electoral college. It's a problematic institution. Parts of it work, yes. But parts of it don't. Focusing on the parts that work and ignoring the parts that don't is just counter productive.

The electoral college is still essentially democratic rule, not representative rule. The electors do not filter the candidates. They vote according to the will of the majority of voters and the will of the majority of voters--the statistically average voter--is not only misinformed, but usually intentionally malinformed. Propaganda rules the day and the best propagandists tend to dominate democratic politics.

In my state, Oregon, as in most states there was no point voting for president. The majority tyrannized the proceedings. As with all federal and state elections, I have no representation in office.

The electoral college system gave us folks like Trump, Hillary, Obama, Kerry, and McCain. None of these folks was (or is) fit for office. The electoral college was supposed to prevent that kind of thing from happening. The reality is that it is happening.

Like most democratic institutions the college is a big fail. This election is just one more case in point. Some parts work. Some key parts don't. Let's not bury reality under half-truths and imagings, please. That's propaganda, and some of us don't appreciate perpetual bad government-by-propaganda.

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Scott Amorian
on November 14, 2016 at 12:50:48 pm

Yes the Republic is secured by this but ONLY when the laws and their interpretation reflect the law as written and NOT as interpreted by the majoritarian whims of sitting judges.

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Tom Umland
on November 14, 2016 at 16:09:49 pm

Well, do you really consider all the European countries, not to mention Canada, Australia, Japan or South Korea, temporal mobocracies? Come on. As the new president-elect put it in 2012: "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy." Let's hope he will advocate for a change.

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Averroes
on November 14, 2016 at 17:06:17 pm

By "temporal" I meant "of or relating to time. synonyms: secular, nonspiritual, worldly, profane, material, mundane, earthly, terrestrial."

By "mobocracy" I meant "rule or domination by the masses."

The USA has a representative republic under the rule of law. President Obama, prince of the by-gone progressives rather than the millennials and younger, just finished a press conference wherein he cited the rule of law in a desperate attempt (IMO) to constrain Donald Trump. Obama has been the most lawless president since George W. Bush, IMO.

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Phil Beaver
on November 14, 2016 at 17:31:01 pm

Your point about areas being potentially underserved by the candidates is not a disadvantage of not having the electoral college. It's actually a fairly stupid assertion because more of the population is underserved with the electoral college. For example, why are the candidates focused on Iowa and not population heavy places like Baltimore or San Francisco in the waning days of the election. Either way, certain areas will be overlooked but with the electoral college much of the population is neglected. Where did you do your doctorate??

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Jay Lowe
on November 14, 2016 at 18:15:53 pm

Very good point. I advocate that the classical nature or nature's God arguments or science vs reason arguments be resolved by focusing on the-indisputable-facts-of-reality (The Facts) vs majority-opinion argument. It is a change from social morality to civic morality, where "civic" refers to justice in willing human connections for persons in the here and now.

In a simple example, according to The Facts, same-sex partners can neither independently procreate nor participate in series monogamy---cannot provide a child a hierarchy of monogamy. Cannot provide parents, grandparents and so on, as heterosexual role models.

While same-sex partnerships may be celebrated and their mutual obligations upheld in a civic culture, they are not eligible for civic marriage, based on The Facts, IMO.

The court neglected the dignity and equality of the persons who are children in same-sex families.

In another aspect of The Facts, the court subjects such children to romance with one of (or both in an anything-goes morality) of the same-sex partners that head the family. In terms of fidelity to persons, such romance may be harmful, while in both physical and psychological realities, there may be nothing wrong with a son causing a divorce between his father and father in order to fulfill a romance of the son and one father's dreams. The divorced father might be perfectly happy to see the other two find happiness. Both Caligula and Hollywood love such experiments in infidelity. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court majority condoned it. Beforehand, it was really none of my business---private rather than civic.

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Phil Beaver
on November 14, 2016 at 18:59:13 pm

But these are precisely the disenfranchised masses that voted for Trump. And they succeeded, without having a majority. In this sense, America is an ultimate mobocracy. The Soviets called it "the Dictatorship of the proletariat". It didn't matter what the majority wanted, the proletariat had the final word. it is the America of today.

Moreover, I didn't say anything about Obama. I said that Trump is against the Electoral College institution. He even conceded it yesterday in an interview. In other words, the new president is against what you call the rule of law and the republic. It seems to me that you won't like him. And you just said that you didn't like neither Obama nor Bush. I bet you didn't like Clinton neither. Basically, you don't like the presidents this system produces. Don't you think that Electoral College might be a part of the problem?

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Averroes
on November 14, 2016 at 19:26:15 pm

1) THE Electoral College did not give us anyone or anything. Trump, Obama, etc etc were offered to us by the PARTIES! That is it, plain and simple, We then had a choice to make or not make.
2) Let us all remember that the purpose of the Electoral College was to *facilitate* the election of a Chief Executive, i.e., President, BY the STATES, which under the original Madisonian structure were to play a far more significant role in the overall governance of the Republic than any of us alive today have witnessed. In effect, the States, being the essential component of the republic were to be charged with (s)electing who would lead them. A rather clever mechanism, I would say, that permitted both the citizenry AND the States to have a voice in the choice of a leader.
3) All this talk of who won the "popular" vote is beside the point. Had there not been an Electoral College, I can assure you that the campaign would have been conducted on ENTIRELY different grounds AND the citizens of ALL STATES NOT NAMED California, Illinois, Texas, New York, etc WOULD have not only been underserved but would have been VIRTUALLY IGNORED. Who the hell would have needed their votes to win?

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gabe
on November 14, 2016 at 20:56:02 pm

Gabe, I like your post. However, its seems to me Trump did not come from a party, and that's only one of the beauties of his victory. Some of the sixteen GOP candidates represented GOP factions, but Trump was a loner from the day he announced his candidacy. In the last few weeks, many of the GOP leaders said they would not even vote for him.

He never revealed it, but he had an Electoral Vote strategy. As you say, otherwise his strategy would have been different. Still secret, but different.

I think we'll never know the truth, but his victory may represent the people---whatever that is. If he succeeds, I'm going to back track and say his victory represented the people. :-)

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Phil Beaver
on November 15, 2016 at 09:09:59 am

Phil:

Yep, in a sense The Trumpster did not come from a Party - but clearly, he did not come from the Electoral College. He was nominated by the GOP as Ms Hillary was nominated by the Dems.

Without the electoral college, we would be left with nothing more than a plebiscite.

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gabe
on November 15, 2016 at 13:51:11 pm

No statewide recount, much less a nationwide recount, would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 57 presidential elections if the outcome had been based on the nationwide count.
The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.
“It’s an arsonist itching to burn down the whole neighborhood by torching a single house.” Hertzberg

The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush's lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore's nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger). Given the minuscule number of votes that are changed by a typical statewide recount (averaging only 274 votes); no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state by-state winner-take-all methods.

The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less likely with larger pools of votes.

The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884 elections.

The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. With both the current system and the National Popular Vote, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a "final determination" prior to the meeting of the Electoral College. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the states are expected to make their "final determination" six days before the Electoral College meets.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8FwrXRmGA4

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otto
on November 15, 2016 at 18:37:36 pm

Again, you National Popul(ist) Vote folks miss the significance of the Electoral College and are willfully blind to its consequences.

Yep, let's just be l;ike Europe and have a plebiscite every four years.

Say Goodbye to the States!

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gabe
on November 15, 2016 at 21:13:00 pm

Good point. He lifted them up.

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Phil Beaver
on November 16, 2016 at 11:12:43 am

Recent and past presidential candidates with a public record of support for the National Popular Vote bill that would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate with the most national popular votes: Congressmen John Anderson (R, I –ILL), and Bob Barr (Libertarian- GA), Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee (R-I-D, -RI), Governor and former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean (D–VT), U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R–GA), Senator and Vice President Al Gore (D-TN), Ralph Nader, Governor Martin O’Malley (D-MD), Jill Stein (Green), Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO), and Senator Fred Thompson (R–TN).

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otto
on November 16, 2016 at 11:14:01 am

Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in Article II, Section 1
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors….”
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation's first presidential election.

In 1789, in the nation's first election, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors by appointment by the legislature or by the governor and his cabinet, the people had no vote for President in most states, and in states where there was a popular vote, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

The current winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes is not in the U.S. Constitution. It was not debated at the Constitutional Convention. It is not mentioned in the Federalist Papers. It was not the Founders’ choice. It was used by only three states in 1789, and all three of them repealed it by 1800. It is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method. The winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes became dominant only in the 1830s, when most of the Founders had been dead for decades, after the states adopted it, one-by-one, in order to maximize the power of the party in power in each state.

The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding a state's electoral votes.

States have the responsibility and constitutional power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond.

The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency in 2020 to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.

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otto
on November 16, 2016 at 11:14:56 am

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states) (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed recently. In the 41 red, blue, and purple states surveyed, overall support has been in the 67-81% range - in rural states, in small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled.

Most Americans don't ultimately care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that no matter where they live, even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it is wrong that the candidate with the most popular votes can lose. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

The National Popular Vote bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
Since 2006, the bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, Democratic, Republican and purple states with 261 electoral votes, including one house in Arizona (11), Arkansas (6), Maine (4), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), and Oklahoma (7), and both houses in Colorado (9).
The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate with the most national popular votes and majority of Electoral College votes.

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otto
on November 16, 2016 at 12:13:38 pm

Gregg raises some arguments praising aspects of the Electoral College. Many of these aspects are laudatory. But they are not dependent on each other. That is, we could devise different—and perhaps better—systems that would retain some or all of these valuable aspects while avoiding the less laudable aspects.

1. Yes, dividing the presidential race into 51 winner-take-all fights may have the advantage of limiting the scope of disputes and recounts. (For this discussion, Ignore the fact that Maine/Nebraska already compromise on the winner-take-all dynamic.)

Yet otto makes a persuasive case that we elect all other officials via popular vote, the risk of recount notwithstanding, and that evaluating a nation-wide popular vote count might render irrelevant disputes about the specific vote totals in individual states. But I think otto overlooks one aspect of Gregg’s argument.

At base, Gregg is arguing here that the current system erects firewalls on how much the corruption in any given state can contaminate the presidential race. Imagine the electoral systems in Illinois and Texas are utterly rigged. Under the current system, neither state can do more damage than their amount of Electoral College votes. But in a popular vote system, Illinois and Texas might each report that their states generated 100 million votes for their respective sides—fraudulent outcomes that would utterly swamp the vote totals of other states. Yes, federal officials might eventually ferret out and punish the corrupt individuals involved—but the process would be not be swift. The electoral system in the “Solid South” was indisputably corrupt for decades. We can flatter ourselves that we have miraculously transcended this type of corruption, but only at our peril.

2. Gregg also argues for the benefit of getting candidates to campaign in less-populated areas a/k/a rural areas.

Imagine an election being run where the Democratic candidate could count on automatically getting 35 percent or so of the vote without doing anything but who could then get tens of millions of votes representing the margin of victory simply from settling down into major urban areas like Philadelphia, LA, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and driving up massive voter turnout there. Would Hillary Clinton have ever talked to a western Pennsylvania steel worker….

I surmise this was just a poor choice of example. If we imagine that a candidate could be confident of winning simply by appealing to people in urban areas such as Philadelphia, I can’t see how the Electoral College System would prompt them to go talk to a western Pennsylvania anybody. It is only because candidates are NOT confident of winning by going to urban centers such as Philadelphia that they are motivated to campaign outside those areas.

Note that California is a MAJOR agricultural state. Has the Electoral College System prompted presidential candidates to campaign in rural California? No. They largely ignore the rural vote because they know it will be swamped by the urban vote. The Electoral College System only encourages candidates to reach out to non-urban voters only in states where candidates cannot count on the urban vote to swing the state. Thus they pander to rural voters in New Hampshire and North Carolina, but not in California. And if politicians pander to voters outside of Philly and Pittsburg, that tells me that they’re not confident of winning PA solely on the strength of the vote in Philly and Pittsburg—even under the current system.

3. But in the absence of the Electoral College System, would politicians would ignore rural areas entirely? Perhaps—and so?

Asian Americans represent a reasonably large share of the population—yet because they represent only a small share of the vote in any swing state in our current system, our Electoral College System leads national politicians to largely ignore them. In short, the Electoral College System promotes geographically concentrated interests (e.g., rural) to the denigration of geographically diffuse interests (e.g., Asian Americans, Muslims, the physically disabled, autistic people, etc.). It is far from clear to me that this is a good trade-off.

4. Gregg argues that the Electoral College System helps winnow down the list of rival candidates.

Whether or not you find this a desirable outcome, the Electoral College System is irrelevant to this dynamic. As others have observed, this dynamic is driven by the mechanisms that the parties have created for picking their own nominees. I would expect the parties to continue to have some mechanism to select a nominee, even if we switched to a popular vote system.

Yes, under a popular vote system, rivals could continue to run even in the absence of a major party endorsement. But they can do that under the current system, too. The chief difference is that under a popular vote system that lacked the 51 winner-take-all race dynamic, a rival might have a more credible chance of depriving both major party candidates of gaining the 50% of the vote required in order to avoid having the election referred to the House of Representatives for resolution. Would that be a bad dynamic? Hard to say.

5. So here’s an alternative that Gregg doesn’t address: Retain the 51 winner-take-all feature, but make each jurisdiction’s vote proportionate to its population. We would retain pretty much all of the benefits of the current system, but eliminate one point of distortion. And if we had adopted such a system, I surmise that we might have retained most of the advantages of the current system, but rendered a result more in keeping with the popular will—which might have achieved a different electoral outcome on November 8.

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nobody.really
on November 16, 2016 at 13:28:14 pm

nobody:

good to see you back AND very excellent comments on this issue.

I think one advantage of your suggestion to retain the winner take all is that it retains the vestiges of what I perceive to have been the intent of the Electoral College, i.e., to have the States as States (s)elect that person who is to lead them. Recall that this republic is called the United STATES (no, I ain't doing the whole States Rights thing, a concept ruined forever by some miscreant neo-Confederates) of America, NOT the United Peoples of America. Thus, the decision was to be made at the State level. (I'll skip the nuances of the hybrid people - legislature nexus of the Electoral College for now). Combined with a *selected* US Senator for each State, the States were (theoretically) assured of some influence in matters of national governance. (Oh, well, "The Best laid plans -" and all that!).

I am however not so certain as to the proportional representation issue.
1) There is no constitutional assurance or guarantee of equal representation (SCOTUS notwithstanding) as the constitution clearly envisions (encourages?, but clearly recognizes and permits) unequal representation via the assurance of TWO US senators per State.
2) To insist upon equal representation would, in effect, reduce the Presidential election process to a process similar to the House of Representatives where all votes are, theoretically equal.
While this may be appealing to the popular mind of today, it is clearly not consistent with the original intention / structure of this Federal Republic.
3) It may as you also suggest, although in support of a different aspect of your argument not the "equal" part, lead to some unforeseen consequences. "Why even bother campaigning in Vermont, Wyoming, etc" as the number of votes is on offering is unable to sway any election - and would be worse under the "equal" part.

Then again, in an age when it may be safe, if not fair, to assert that Federalism is dead, just a vestigial appendage of a once "great notion," your suggestion may find widespread acceptance. Who the heck am I to say? Then again, in some sense, was not this part of the *undercurrent* to this past election - a "longing" (proper or otherwise) for a now defunct Federal system and some measure of subsidiarity. i mean can't the grandkids have a "lemonade stand" w/o Federal authorization.
Anyway, glad to see you back. Hope you did not catch cold during those long hours scouring headstones for eligible voters! (insert smiley face, here)!

take care

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gabe
on November 16, 2016 at 22:30:03 pm

Thanks, dude.

“Why even bother campaigning in Vermont, Wyoming, etc” as the number of votes is on offering is unable to sway any election – and would be worse under the “equal” part.

All true. But, as I asked above, is a rational outcome a bad outcome?

I'm surprised how often I find that people who disparage the idea of Affirmative Action policies for historically subordinated groups are perfectly happy to embrace Affirmative Action policies for whites.

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nobody.really
on November 28, 2016 at 18:10:52 pm

[…] ugly as the 2016 election was, it would have been far uglier without the moderating, stable process afforded by the Electoral […]

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How Abolishing the Electoral College Would Destroy the Power of the States - Western Free Press
on November 28, 2016 at 20:02:09 pm

[…] ugly as the 2016 election was, it would have been far uglier without the moderating, stable process afforded by the Electoral […]

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Abolishing the Electoral College Would Destroy States Rights

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