Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The Electoral College debate, once more with feeling

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama (Associated Press) President Barack Obama (Associated Press)

Since the drafting of the Constitution, Americans have argued about the necessity and relevancy of the Electoral College in the presidential election process. We're pleased to continue the debate.

Is the Electoral College an important feature of America's democratic system that should be preserved, or is it an antiquated anachronism that needs to be abandoned?

Pignanelli: "Where is the Electoral College — and does it have a winning football team?" — Mo Rocca. The Electoral College and LaVarr are similar: outdated, arbitrary relics that impede rational thought. The elector selection process was stitched together as a default mechanism and rushed through the 1787 convention to appease various interests. Scholar George Edwards explains that James Madison and other framers wanted a direct election for president but were unsure how to construct a national election in a country as geographically vast as America.

The current system of "winner takes all" in each state warps presidential elections. Through polling, candidates and media divide the country into red and blue states, and those categorized as "swing" acquire the attention. A Washington Post analysis shows the 2012 election will be decided by 916,643 "undecided" voters in six swing states.

The notion that the elector procedure protects small states' rights is a nice fantasy. Analysts prove presidential candidates do not exert campaign resources in most states of the Great Plains, Rockies, Southwest and the deep South. Further, aspirants never bother to develop some alliance of states for support.

Eliminating the Electoral College would promote concepts and ideas that transcend swing state boundaries. A successful national candidate will construct a broad alliance of many categories of Americans, not just rely on a coalition of the party base with a sliver of independents. As Sen. Bob Dole observed, "Direct election of the president is commonsense federalism."

Webb: I plead guilty to being old, ugly, arbitrary and as antiquated as the founders of this country. But at least I haven't been brainwashed by fuzzy-headed, ivory-tower, liberal mischief-making that would do serious damage to our free society. The Founders knew precisely what they were doing when they established the Electoral College. They were fearful of a pure national democracy that could be captured by charismatic, rabble-rousing group-think (of the sort that has captured Frank), so they placed checks on it.

They also wanted and expected states to counterbalance the federal government and gave states important tools, including the Electoral College, to prevent the national government from becoming too big and too powerful, jeopardizing the rights and freedom of the people.

Clearly, the federal government has already grown far too large, expensive and unwieldy. Eliminating the Electoral College will only encourage presidents to further ignore and devalue states.

The truth is, we do have a democratic election for president, but it is democratic within each state. Thus, the Electoral College forces candidates to take into account overall state issues and state concerns, not just the views of various interest groups. Without the Electoral College, presidential candidates would divide up the country by population and demographic groups — not by states. The big population centers with the big media markets would get all the attention, along with targeted campaign messages to interest groups. State boundaries and state priorities would be ignored.

The argument boils down to this: Do we care about the states? Do we care about balanced federalism? Or are we just one big mass of people with state lines meaning nothing? And do we want to concentrate more and more power at the federal level and in big population centers?

Would Utah benefit or be harmed by the elimination of the Electoral College?

Pignanelli: Utah is a "victim in denial" from Electoral College abuse. Other than serving as an ATM for Mitt Romney, our voters are once again ignored in this election. According to Electoral College Primer, Utah is one of the six states with the least voting power in national elections. Because of our unique and valuable characteristics, Utahns would receive extra attention from presidential contenders unobstructed by the college.

Webb: The Electoral College works for all states, not just the swing states. Presidential candidates don't spend time in Utah (except to raise money) because we (and they) already know who we support. We know we're being well-represented by the candidate of our choice. He is in tune with us and cares about our issues. If our favorite ever stops representing us well, that opens the door for a challenger and we then get more attention as a swing state. We're not being ignored because we don't matter. We simply require less attention because our choice is clear. Nevada, a state smaller than Utah, gets attention because it's still trying to make up its mind. The Electoral College ensures that when we get upset with our candidates, we get attention. Candidates compete state-by-state, ensuring state relevancy and political viability. Eliminate the Electoral College and candidates no longer care about states. They consider only population centers and demographic groups.

Is there an actual possibility that the Electoral College could be eliminated or drastically modified?

Pignanelli: More states may implement elector selection by congressional district, but this guarantees redistricting nightmares. On several occasions, Congress came very close to sending a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification. Should Romney win the popular vote but lose the electoral process, there will be an army of GOP converts pushing the amendment that best reflects the ultimate desires of the Founders.

Webb: Small states won't ratify an amendment and render themselves irrelevant.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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