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Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Headshot

Abolish the Electoral College: House Joint Resolution 36

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I am not an advocate for frequent changes in the laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

--Thomas Jefferson

The conventions are over, and the major tickets are set. The race is no longer about delegates, determined by party rules, or even ultimately about the popular vote, it's now about electoral votes. And because the race is close, once again a major Constitutional flaw is exposed--the Electoral College.

The late Tim Russert used a chalk board to educate the American people about the Electoral College. John King of CNN has been using his computerized map to provide the nation with a crash course in swing states, with his red-to-blue and blue-to-red analyses.

As we learned to our dismay in 2000, it takes 270 electoral votes, a majority of the 538 cast by D.C. plus the 50 states, to win. Imagine how the past 8 years might have been better had Al Gore taken office on the strength of his more than half-a-million popular vote win, rather than the man selected by the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore abuse of our outdated Electoral College system.

The Electoral College is a relic, a throwback largely due to the slave-owners who dominated the politics of our new nation at its beginning. There were lots of reasons put forward for the Electoral College, but basically the Founding Fathers were suspicious of a mass popular vote that included everyone, and a significant number of the "states rights" Southerners worried about the more populous Northern states outvoting them and restricting or eliminating slavery.

One compromise between Northern representatives and Southern representatives at the Constitutional Convention was the Electoral College, setting up a system where the winner would determined by state vote pluralities, not by the national popular vote.

Because whites in the South were not as numerous as in the North, and feared being outvoted by anti-slavery activists, the slave-owners insisted on another compromise, a particularly ugly one. Despite not being allowed to vote, slaves were to be counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of Congressional representation and the Electoral College. But like Thomas Jefferson, who "trembled for his country" when he thought of slavery while also reflecting "that God is just," I worry about the unjust nature of our Electoral College, a legacy institution that should make all of us tremble.

Subsequent Constitutional amendments have increased access to suffrage for African-Americans (15th Amendment), for women (19th Amendment), for the poor (24th Amendment), and the young (26th amendment). Yet even as the abolitionists, the suffragists, the unionists, and the civil rights martyrs all struggled and built a more perfect union, the 18th-century legacy of the Electoral College continued to haunt future generations.

Ironically, U.S. foreign policy demands one-person, one-vote in the Balkans, Africa, South America- where the popular vote winner is supposed to win the election--but we don't make the same demand on our own country. Ignoring the flagrant hypocrisy of our 2000 election results, the U.S. has chastised and boycotted countries where popular leaders were elected but not seated, sent in observers to make sure elections were fair, and insisted that every vote be counted. Yet we do not live up to these standards in our own elections, and the violation of one-person, one-vote due to the Electoral College is Exhibit #1.

While the popular vote should serve as the democratic expression of the "will of the people," the race for electors is the Founding Fathers' unfortunate gift to us. The 21st century--our future--is still determined by 18th-century rules, which make some votes and states worth far more than others, and leave far too many voters irrelevant in the fall campaigns every 4 years. It is conceivable this year, for instance, that one candidate could carry the popular vote by millions of votes, given the density of New York and California, yet still not win the majority of the electoral votes.

Abolishing the Electoral College is a worthy goal, which would require amending the U.S. Constitution--precisely why several years ago I introduced House Joint Resolution 36. H.J.Res. 36 would provide for the direct popular election of the President and Vice President. I will continue to push for the passage of H.J.Res. 36 in the next Congress.

Between now and November 4th, however, we must follow the current Electoral College system rules, even though they degrade the power of the popular vote. We must adjust our efforts and strategies accordingly. The goal now is to win enough individual states (plus D.C.) to amass 270 electoral votes. I personally want to see Senator Obama roll up a record number of electoral votes all across America while winning the popular vote by a large margin, to give him a political boost when he takes office next January.

But we all need to understand that the most important goal is to win at least 270 electoral votes. Thus, extra voters in New Mexico or Nevada or Colorado, three Southwestern swing states, mean a great deal. An extra new voter in Virginia, a swing state this year, may mean even more. And, of course, we know from bitter experience how important new voters are in the eternal swing states of Ohio and Florida.

We want all the votes we can get, everywhere in America. But we want our extra volunteer efforts, our phone calls and door-knocking and voter registrations, to be focused on the key swing states that will determine this election, states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa & Minnesota in the Midwest; New Hampshire in the Northeast; Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana & Colorado in the West; Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida in the South.

Al Gore "lost" in 2000 by a very few votes in Florida, and a small number of votes in New Hampshire. John Kerry would be president now if he could have come up with a couple percent more in Ohio, or in New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. Every vote counts and every vote in a swing state counts more. So let's keep our eyes on the prize, and work extra hard in the states where the election will finally be decided. With only six weeks left till election day, we can all do something to help overcome the "peculiar institutions" that still distort our democracy, like the Electoral College--and the time to start is now.