Answer Man

You won’t get Sulu’s vote to reform the Electoral College

Despite discrimination over the decades, actor George Takei, Sulu on “Star Trek,” thinks the Electoral College is still the fairest way to elect the president.
Despite discrimination over the decades, actor George Takei, Sulu on “Star Trek,” thinks the Electoral College is still the fairest way to elect the president.

Q: Like many, I was shocked by the election results. But what is really upsetting was that the losing candidate actually won the popular vote. Is there any move to reform the electoral college to where it reflects the voters’ will?

Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville

A: As his green-blooded, pointy-eared crewmate would have said, I find it fascinating that George Takei and I are polar opposites on the Electoral College issue.

Now 79, Takei, who brought helmsman Hiraku Sulu to life on “Star Trek” for 30 years, often was subjected to the worst the U.S. could offer, as he reminded his audience recently at the Touhill Performing Arts Center in St. Louis.

When he was just 5 years old, he and his family were forcibly removed from their Los Angeles home during the anti-Japanese-American hysteria that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. For much of the next three years, he was forced to live in the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas before they were released with next to nothing after the war.

Then, for the next 60 years, Takei had to hide his homosexuality lest such a revelation sink his Hollywood career. As a result, he kept his 18-year relationship with Brad Altman secret before finally telling Frontiers magazine in 2005 that he was gay — and then marrying Altman in 2008 on their 21st anniversary.

After all that, it was not surprising to hear Takei say that he and Altman were “devastated” on election night when Donald Trump surpassed the 270 electoral-vote mark needed for election.

“It’s ironic that he made that comment on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day — the very event that put us in those internment camps,” Takei told MSNBC on Dec. 8, 2015, when Trump called for a ban on all Muslims traveling to the U.S. “(A congressional commission) found that it was three things that brought that about. One was racial hysteria, second was war hysteria and third was failure of political leadership. Donald Trump is the perfect example of that failure. ... What Donald Trump is talking about is something that’s going to make his logo ‘America disgraced again.’”

With all that in his background, you would think that Takei would be leading the charge to abolish the Electoral College. Yet when asked that very question, Takei likely stunned more than a few in the packed house when he gave a ringing endorsement of the centuries-old system. Far from being dangerously undemocratic, Takei said he thought the Electoral College was still needed to prevent the kind of tyranny that had so unfairly uprooted his family decades before.

After all, that was the reason our Founding Fathers gave for creating the system in the first place. In Federalist Paper No. 39, James Madison argued that the Constitution called for a mixture of state-based and population-based government. In choosing the nation’s top leader, the Electoral College would offer the best of both worlds.

More important, though, Madison in Federalist Paper No. 10 warned against “an interested and overbearing majority” and the “mischiefs of faction” bringing undue weight to bear on presidential elections. In other words, he feared the masses in a few big cities or populous states might be swayed by a handful of unscrupulous local bosses to continually dominate the many more agrarian states. The Electoral College would give the latter more influence with its system of giving states as many electoral votes as they had senators and representatives. That way, too, candidates cannot totally ignore these less populous states in favor of the New Yorks and Californias while campaigning.

Agree with it or not, it apparently has worked as envisioned. Five times now in the nation’s history, the electoral vote has overturned the popular vote because D.C. and 48 states use a winner-take-all electoral-vote system: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and now Trump.

I have never suffered the indignities that Takei has lived through most of his life, yet I, too, admittedly have been railing against the Electoral College since writing a paper about it in college. (And I swear I’d be saying the same thing had Trump lost in the same manner.) I suppose I was brought up being taught in civics classes that my vote was equal to everybody else’s. And, it is — except, for some reason, when choosing the nation’s commander-in-chief. In this case, the votes of someone in North Dakota or Wyoming may enjoy more weight than mine because of the Electoral College.

Think about it. Hypothetically, a couple of dozen votes in the right states could thwart the wishes of millions or tens of millions in others. Yes, if Trump had won the popular vote by just one vote in the 30 states in which he won the electoral vote, he would have beaten Clinton no matter how large her winning margin would have been in the 19 states and D.C. she won. In fact, as it stands, Clinton will claim the largest margin of victory in history for a losing candidate — roughly 2.5 million votes. That’s about five times the margin Al Gore had over Bush in 2000. I suppose I wonder why an “overbearing majority” in the most populous states is any more or less potentially tyrannical than one created by agrarian states banding together. Or else maybe we should elect our governor with electors from each county to diminish Chicago’s influence.

In any case, there have been numerous movements to abolish the system, but they’ve all gone nowhere so far. The closest apparently came during the 91st Congress from 1969-1971. In 1968, Richard Nixon had routed Hubert Humphrey 301-191 in the Electoral College despite having a popular-vote edge of less than 1 percent. Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) proposed a constitutional amendment that would have replaced the college with a simpler plurality system based on the popular vote. Ultimately, however, the idea died because of a filibuster led, as expected, by Southern and smaller states, which would have lost the extra influence they now enjoy.

Two proposals remain, but the prospects are equally dim. In one, several states and D.C. have joined something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. All jurisdictions who sign on pledge to give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. But this compact will take effect only when the states who sign on total at least 270 votes. So far, the idea has won over only 10 strongly Democratic states and D.C., which total 165 votes.

And just two weeks ago, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a constitutional amendment calling for the popular election of the president, but similar efforts in 2005 and 2009 went nowhere. Even so, I take some hope from polls since 1944 that have shown the public favors direct election, including a 2007 poll that had 78 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans favoring the abolition of the Electoral College.

Today’s trivia

Which state is arguably most overrepresented in the Electoral College?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: It was the TV series “Branded” (1965-1966) in which the opening title sequence showed a colonel breaking Capt. Jason McCord’s (Chuck Connors) sword across his knee each week.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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