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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/15/16

The Rube Goldberg Electoral College

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Simplified pencil-sharpener: Open window (A) and fly kite (B). String (C) lifts small door (D) allowing moths (E) to escape and eat red flannel shirt (F). As weight of shirt becomes less, shoe (G) steps on switch (H) which heats electric iron (I) and burns hole in pants (J). Smoke (K) enters hole in tree (L), smoking out opossum (M) which jumps into basket (N), pulling rope (O) and lifting cage (P), allowing woodpecker (Q) to chew wood from pencil (R), exposing lead. Emergency knife (S) is always handy in case opossum or the woodpecker gets sick and can't work.

Rube Goldberg was known as an inventor, sculptor, author, engineer and cartoonist and would make a mark in history for his extraordinary achievements. His cartoon strips were popular but the work that gave him unforgettable lifelong fame was the character he created, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. Using the character, he would illustrate inventions that later became known as the "Rube Goldberg Machine." A "Rube Goldberg Machine" is an extremely complicated device that executes a very simple task in a complex, indirect way. This is now used as an expression to describe any system that's unnecessarily confusing or complicated and came about from Goldberg's illustrations of absurd machines.

Which brings us to the Rube Goldberg Electoral College. In the 2000 presidential election we got a taste of the damage done by this archaic system. Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, something that had happened 3 other times in our electoral history. In 2000 democracies of the rest of the world were shocked that the winner of the popular vote could lose the presidential election. Many of these countries thought that our electoral system resembled a "banana republic." With the exception of 2 small states, the Electoral College is a winner-take-all state by state election controlled by each state's secretary of state, an elected partisan position. This results in a mathematical anomaly caused by the lack of proportionality. It also encourages state by state electoral fraud and voter suppression as was clear in Florida in 2000 and other elections such as Illinois in 1960.

In case of a tie, or if no candidate receives a majority of all electoral votes cast for president, the choice of president is thrown into the House of Representatives but the vote is conducted on a one-state one-vote basis. (Yes, Wyoming -- population 563,000 in the 2010 census -- would have equal say in the selection of the president with California -- 37 million.) And to win, a candidate must receive the support of an absolute majority of states.

But states that have an even number of House members may deadlock. (Minnesota, with its current delegation of four Democrats and four Republicans, would be a good candidate for this fate.) A deadlocked state cannot vote at all for a presidential candidate. But, to produce a winner, one candidate would still have to win 26 states, even though several states would presumably be deadlocked.

If no presidential candidate can get to 26, there is no constitutional mechanism for producing a winner. The vice president (whose selection in this scenario would be thrown into the Senate) could serve indefinitely as acting president. This has never happened, although it has come close. If we wait long enough, it will happen someday.

Why do politicians keep this unfair and expensive state by state election? Who does it benefit? This system benefits two major parties because a third party candidate is unlikely to win a plurality in any state. It also benefits those who provide advertising and promotional services in key "swing" states. These costs will range between 1-2 billion dollars in this election cycle. A national election would take away the problem of costly state by state advertising because the winner of the election would simply be the one who got the most votes nation wide. But, the major media companies would be against this because it would reduce their advertising revenue significantly. Ironically, members of both parties have ignored the benefits of the popular vote for their own interests.

The Democrats clearly know that the 2000 election of George w. Bush was a consequence of this undemocratic system. The Republicans should also recognize that the demographics of the states favors the Democrats. The states of New York, California, and Illinois account for 104 electoral votes. There are 126 electoral votes from other solidly blue states. That gives the Democrats 240 out of the 270 votes needed leaving only 30 votes the Democrats need to win. Adding states like Florida with 29, Nevada with 5, and Ohio with 18 which are likely blue states, the total is 322 without North Carolina and Virginia that the Democrats won in 2012. As you can see each major party is hurt by this system.

The only winners in this system are corporate advertisers and the major print and broadcast media. Again the corporate lobby is negatively influencing our democracy. Furthermore, the media has the power to influence the perpetuation of this self serving system since it controls the dissemination of all news in America, the news that they deem fit to print or broadcast.

A Constitutional amendment requires a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress and ratification of 3/4 of all the states. In 1913 the 17th Amendment changed the selection of U.S. Senators from the state legislatures to the popular vote a similar defect of the original Constitution. Those in favor of popular elections for senators believed that two primary problems were caused by the original provisions: legislative corruption and electoral deadlocks. There was a sense that senatorial elections were "bought and sold", changing hands for favors and sums of money rather than because of the competence of the candidate. Between 1857 and 1900, the Senate investigated three elections over corruption. Does this sound familiar? The corruption possibility by state legislators was prevented by this change just as the popular vote in Presidential elections would minimize the affect of any state corruption. In other words, winning all of Florida 29 electors by a margin of a few hundred votes whose results were questionable in 2000 would have made the Florida vote inconsequential. No one state could possibly determine the outcome of the popular vote. There would be no incentive for state election fraud.

Both parties need to face up to the fact that the present system forces them to raise billions of dollars to compete in the many swing states. Accordingly, they are vulnerable to the influence of rich donors with their own agenda. A national campaign would be far less costly and would probably decrease the cost of such elections by 90%. The only swing voters would be those in the United States. Candidates would have to appeal to all voters not those in swing states. I wonder what Rube Goldberg would have thought.

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Sheldon Drobny was the co-founder of Nova M radio and Air America Radio. He has supported many philanthropic causes. Mr. Drobny specializes in business and tax matters and is admitted to practice before the U.S. Tax Court as a non-attorney. Less (more...)
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