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Why Texans Should Support Electoral College Reform

Democracy, loosely defined, is government by the people — rule by the ruled. When most Americans think about democracy, they think about the right to vote.

Democracy, loosely defined, is government by the people — rule by the ruled. When most Americans think about democracy, they think about the right to vote. There are good reasons for this, especially now as we witness Vladimir Putin moving to eliminate the popular vote of regional governors in Russia and enlarge the powers of his own office and party. But before we become too smug about how safe our own voting rights are in this country, Americans would do well to consider how not just voting, but voting systems, make a democracy. Texans would especially benefit from this kind of introspection.

Texas is a patriotic state. One thing that you can always count on if you live here (especially these days) is that you’re going to see flags. A great deal of our time is spent in cars, driving by the stars and stripes in peoples’ yards, on billboards and on bumper stickers. It’s “the Power of Pride.” But as we celebrate our freedom and gear up for that moment in November when it comes time to flex our democratic muscles, Texans need to face up to how its own voting system has made Texas precisely the kind of place our founding fathers hoped to avoid when they drafted the Constitution. The Electoral College — originally created to prevent any majority from becoming to powerful — has had the opposite effect in Texas. And the negative impact it makes on democracy is, ironically, exacerbated by the House of Representatives, another institution that was also meant to protect that power of the masses.

The Electoral College, which is the system through which we elect our President, was created with two goals in mind: to prevent largely populated states from becoming kingmakers and to ensure that Presidents would be chosen based on qualifications rather than mob appeal. It achieves this by granting states a number of electors equal to their number of Senators and Representatives. Texas has 32 Representatives and 2 Senators, and thus 34 electors. The “mobocracy” factor that influenced the establishment of the Electoral College can, and often has, been criticized as an undemocratic impulse exhibited by the framers, all of who were educated, propertied white men of considerable social standing. It assumed that electors would be better equipped than voters to make intelligent, informed decisions. However, fears of populist excess were not the main impetus behind the Electoral College system and they are not what has kept it alive for over 200 years. Above all, the founders were interested in protecting the power of the states, particularly the power of less populated rural states. Property holders in general, and farmers especially, were considered the backbone of the Republic and the framers wanted to make sure that the nation’s agrarian core, spread out as is was, would not be disenfranchised.

But where does Texas fit into this equation? The Electoral College, as it operates today in Texas, undermines its original purpose, first and foremost, by giving the majority party all of the state’s power to choose a President. Founding fathers like George Washington were wary of partisanship and would turn in their graves if they knew how parties of the future would unabashedly use their power to reinforce their dominance at the expense of democracy. Texas enjoys the privilege of being the second most populated state in the nation, which gives it the second largest number of electors. But as everyone following the red-state-blue-state polling wars knows, Texans who do not belong to the majority party do not celebrate this privilege since the candidate who wins the popular vote in each state (except in Maine and Nebraska) takes all the electoral college votes. This winner-take-all policy was adopted by most states (not the federal government) in the 1830s, when political parties came to dominate the election process. In other words, Democrats in Texas are a non-factor in this upcoming election. Also, because Texas is solidly Republican, the candidates do not reach out to voters as they do in swing states like Ohio and Florida. The clean air issue, so important to millions of people in Texas as well as California, will never get same election year attention as Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where the election is still up for grabs. The electoral allocation system in Texas also undercuts the mission of the Electoral College by disenfranchising rural people. The Rio Grand Valley, a center of Texas agriculture with an increasingly urgent water shortage problem, is a Democratic stronghold made thoroughly irrelevant by the winner-takes-all mechanism. South Texas growers and their agricultural laborers have virtually no say in how our President is chosen.

If Texans want to be patriotic and follow through with the intent of the founding fathers, they should pressure legislators to change the electoral system from winner-takes-all to proportional allocation. Such a reform would mean, for example, that the candidate who won 40% of the popular vote would receive 40% of the electoral vote. This would not undermine the U.S. Constitution, since it has always been up to the states to set their own policy for choosing electors. This is why Maine and Nebraska are able to buck the winner-takes-all tradition. There is no need to throw out the Electoral College; it could still be used to protect the power of the states.

But this will not happen anytime soon in Texas since the Republican majority has less interest in democracy and honoring the Constitution than it does in holding onto power. Winner-takes-all benefits them, so there’s no reason to consider how many people it disenfranchises. For evidence of how partisanship trumps patriotism and democracy in this state, Texans need look no further than its Congressional Districts. The U.S. House of Representatives was originally created to be the legislative body of the people, with one Congressman granted to each geographically-defined district. However, in the state of Texas (and I hasten to add, many other states) we now have Congressional districts mapped by the majority party to give them as many seats possible. Texas made history just one year ago when Republican legislators broke a longstanding tradition and redrew the districts mid-decade instead of waiting until a new census was released. As a result, we now have a convoluted map of creatively shaped districts — one of which resembles a wrench — and the Republicans will likely gain 7 seats in the House.

To be fair, Republicans in Texas did not pick up on these anti-democratic tendencies all on their own. They had strong role models: the Democrats. For an entire century, from the end of Reconstruction through the 1970s, Texas Democrats had no qualms about hoarding power. But Republicans should learn something else from this example: that political minorities should be made to feel like they have some stake in the current system (even if they don’t) to prevent them from organizing against it.

What this all means is that the two institutions designed to equitably distribute the franchise, the Electoral College and House of Representatives, have now become the institutions through which majority parties reinforce their control and weaken the power of their opponents. But the Electoral College system in Texas can be reformed, and Coloradans are showing us how. Although Colorado has chosen a Republican for President in virtually every election of the last half century, petitioners have managed to put an amendment on the ballot that would abolish the winner-takes-all mechanism and replace it with proportional allocation. Republicans are opposing it, just like Texas Governor Rick Perry, who recently declared that he had no interest in reforming the electoral process in Texas. But if the land of Pete Coors and the Promise Keepers can get 134,000 signatures in support of proportional allocation, who knows what progressive Texans could do?

Appearing on Glasstire as part of the Voting Machine project, fall 2004.

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Michelle Nickerson is Research Associate in History at Southern Methodist University. She is writing a book about women and anti-Communists called Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right, to be published by Princeton University Press.

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