Tangent: Michener’s “Presidential Lottery” (1969) on dangerous US Electoral College

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Hi Blog. On this fateful day in American history, where an utterly unqualified person has just been chosen by the US Electoral College to be the next POTUS, I went to the local library to take out one of James Michener‘s least-read books, “Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System” (Random House, 1969).  The points he raised back then are just as important now, if not more so.

The opening paragraphs, as always, pull you right in:

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“On election day 1968 the United States once again played a reckless game with its destiny.  Acting as if it were immune to catastrophe, we conducted one more Presidential election in accordance with rules that were outmoded and inane.  This time we were lucky.  Next time we might not be.  Next time we could wreck our country.

“The dangerous game we play is this.  We preserve a system of electing a President which contains so many built-in pitfalls that sooner or later it is bound to destroy us.  The system has three major weaknesses.  It places the legal responsibility for choosing a President in the hands of an Electoral College, whose members no one knows and who are not bound to vote the way their state votes.  If the Electoral College does not produce a majority vote for some candidate, the election is thrown into the House of Representatives, where anything can happen.  And it is quite possible that the man who wins the largest popular vote across the nation will not be chosen President, with all the turmoil that this might cause.

“In 1823 Thomas Jefferson, who as we shall see had long and painful experience with this incredible system, described it as, ‘The most dangerous blot on our Constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will some day hit.’  Today the danger is more grave than when Jefferson put his finger on it.” (3-4)

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The book goes on to describe Michener’s own experience as a chosen Electoral College member in his state of Pennsylvania, how the process worked for him, and how the tumultuous 1968 Presidential Campaign (Nixon (R) vs. Humphrey (D) vs. George Wallace (I)) could have caused the chaos he described.  And for those who remember, Alabama Governor Wallace was that bigot who famously stood in front of the University of Alabama and other school zones in protest of the forcible integration of African-Americans into the segregated South.

As Michener describes in his book, the “winner take all” nature of the Electoral College meant that all Wallace would have had to do is secure 67 Electoral College votes, and neither Nixon nor Humphrey (locked in a close race) would have secured the 270 minimum votes for the Presidency.  Then Wallace could assign his votes as he pleased, saying to either candidate, “What will you give me for my votes?”  In essence, one would have been able to choose the next President.

Fortunately, that did not come to pass, as Wallace wound up not doing that well.  And this time, it’s not a matter of Electoral College voters refusing to follow state electoral outcomes, but rather an election this time where yet again, another popular vote victory is stymied by the Electoral College (the last one being in 2000, with Bush vs. Gore).  And there, by dint of the outcomes in few counties in a few battleground states (again, thanks to the “winner take all” nature of the vote, not votes assigned as a proportion of the vote), one man can lose overall by nearly three million votes and still win.

Michener goes on in his book to talk about what happens in the rare cases when the Electoral College is inconclusive, where the vote goes to the House of Representatives; the debacle there pitted American historical icon Thomas Jefferson vs. Aaron Burr, a man so amoral (Michener:  “a man without principle …mercurial and undependable… who would later be charged with betrayal of his nation” (27, 30)) that he was essentially the Donald Trump of his day.  Jefferson won, but after the House had more than 30 times voting.  Again, the right man was chosen, so the Electoral College got let off the hook.

With today’s result, I bet that Michener would be as dismayed to see what little effect the protests about electors “voting their conscience” nationwide had in the end.  As Trump himself said, the election was rigged.  Perhaps Michener would say that the dangerous vestige of the Electoral College has finally managed to create the catastrophe.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

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