Righteous Nerd Rage and the Electoral College

TLDR: There’s no excuse for not fixing important yet obviously broken systems when a easy fix is available.

When a process is obviously broken, and an appropriate solution is known and available — that solution should be implemented. Sometimes, due to political reasons or laziness, the easy solution is ignored or swept under the rug, and the process remains broken.

This is frustrating, especially to people with the hacker mindset; once a provably better system is available, with no downsides, there is no reason not to adopt it. To not do so seems foolish and backwards. There is an irreverence for bureaucracy among hackers that develops into what might be labelled “righteous nerd rage.” What evokes this justified anger is when purely political or bureaucratic concerns overpower a mathematical or technical truth. For example, if system Awful was clearly inferior to system Awesome, and yet system Awful remained in place only because the CTO received a kickback from system Awful’s manufacturer. It feels sleazy and undermines having a meritocracy of ideas, where more effective systems replace those that are less effective; it’s what enables progress.

A system that irks me in this way is the electoral college system in the US (indeed, 62% of Americans support getting rid of the electoral college). The main concept is that instead of tallying the overall popular vote throughout the country, what matters is the popular vote within each state. Whatever presidential candidate has a majority of votes in each state, wins the votes of all of that state’s electors. Because of this system, the candidate with more votes nationally need not win; in three elections, the popular vote did not agree with the electoral college system, and a president less-preferred by its citizenry was elected.

It’s a ridiculous system that disenfranchises voters and warps the political process. The main problem is that if you are in a state that has a safe majority for either party, your state effectively ceases to matter to either candidate during their campaign. If you are of the opposite party from the majority, your vote in that state has absolutely no impact. It cannot escape the bounds of your state to affect the national election.

So, what mainly determines an election are the “swing states,” that do not have a safe one-party majority. As a result, candidates tailor their policies, campaign promises, visits, and ad spending, to only a handful of states. In effect, the concerns of the swing states are amplified, while those of the unswingable states are ignored. For example, in the 2012 election, twelve states received all the post-convention candidate visits, and two-thirds of all campaign visits were to only four states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa. It’s silly — do these four states really carry 2/3 of the union’s importance? (If you have never seen CGPGrey’s informative video on the electoral college, or any of his other great videos, they are worth a watch).

But a simple solution has been readily available: Change how states allocate their electoral votes. One clever hack that is gaining momentum is the National Popular Vote bill, which has already been enacted by nine states. It ensures that the winner of the popular vote becomes president, once the bill is enacted by enough states to control more than 50% of electoral votes. It does nothing until that point. Mo Rocca (of Daily Show fame) has an informative video on the bill here.

There’s no reason that this bill should not be enacted; it would improve our democracy and political process. It’s embarrassing that we hold on to such a broken and flawed system while obvious superior alternatives exist. On nationalpopularvote.com, there is a “take action” tab, where you can send emails to legislators and donate money.

I can understand that it might at first seem silly to donate money to an abstract cause like overturning the electoral college — especially when there are people starving around the world. But what I’ve come to believe is that perversions in our political process often underlie and perpetuate injustice on grander scales. The electoral college impedes progress, as do other flaws in our political process, like our two-party system and the brokenness of campaign financing. These flaws in our politics are what breed cynicism and apathy in voters, and corruption and perversion in our politicians.

Fixing the electoral college would greatly reduce voter disenfranchisement; but even better, it would force politicians to focus not only on what is good for a few swing states, but on what is best for the country as a whole. Once again, I encourage you to visit nationalpopularvote.com, and send a letter to your legislator through their “take action” tab.

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