Writing in Utah Policy (www.utahpolicy.com) this past week, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff tried to inoculate Utah voters against the ill will that might emerge if Mitt Romney wins the U.S. popular vote but loses in the electoral college. Shurtleff rehearses several tired arguments for why the country should keep the electoral college system, even if it sometimes allows a loser to be the winner (as it did for George W. Bush in 2000).
Although the prospect of a popular-vote winner losing the presidency is the most prominent and glamorous of the arguments against the electoral college system, even that is not the worst of its faults. There are several even starker reasons why we ought to consider abandoning the strange electoral status quo in which we now find ourselves.
First, it is painfully obvious during this particular season that 39 or 40 states in our country are completely ignored by the two presidential campaigns. While most citizens have no particular love for campaign ads, they still are wise enough to recognize that candidates who consistently ignore 80 to 90 percent of their prospective constituency are not serving the purposes of democracy very well. Does anyone in Utah (or Texas or New York) even know what exactly it is that the presidential candidates are selling this year?
Second, our current winner-take-all method of allocating each state's electoral votes decimates respect for, and faith in, the democratic process. Democrats in Utah know very well that it makes no difference to President Obama's chances for reelection whether they show up to vote for him or not. And even many Utah Republicans feel the same way about going out to vote for Mitt Romney.
Third, the platitude that we need to preserve the current system because "that is how the wise Founders set it up" does not hold up under even casual scrutiny. The authors of the presidential selection procedure in the U.S. Constitution really did mean for a small group of elite electors to deliberate and decide on a president for the rest of the citizens in the country. There can be arguments about whether that system was a good or bad idea, but there can be no argument with the fact that that is not the system we are using today. When Mark Shurtleff proudly cast "his" vote as one of Utah's five presidential electors in 2008, that act was a meaningless charade.
What we today call the Electoral College (a phrase found nowhere in the Constitution) is in reality nothing more than a strange way of doing math. Nowadays, we ask all citizens in the country to cast their votes for president, but then when we add up their votes, we ignore basic arithmetic and perform some hocus-pocus by limiting the number of votes that each state is allowed to add to the winning national total and by extinguishing millions of losing votes cast in every one of the 50 states.
This leads to the most hallowed defense of the current electoral system: the preservation of federalism. As a lifelong student and devotee of federalism, I still cannot fathom how doing math incorrectly fosters the cause of states' rights or checks federal power. Instead, all it does is arbitrarily assign a very minute amount of additional electoral influence (approximately two-tenths of one percent in Utah's case) to the voters in smaller states.
Is two-tenths of one percent more influence really worth Utah being completely ignored in presidential campaigns? Or having large swaths of Utah voters whose votes don't even count at all? Even a second-grade math student can probably see that it is time we check our work and look for a better calculator.
Kraig Powell (R) represents District 54 in the Utah House of Representatives.