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Michael S. Lewis: A father-son talk about the Electoral College



For the Monitor
Sunday, December 18, 2016

“Electors, although often personally eminent, independent and respectable, officially became voluntary party lackeys and intellectual nonentities. . . . As an institution the Electoral College suffered atrophy almost indistinguishable from rigor mortis.”

Supreme Court Justice
Robert Jackson, dissenting in
Ray v. Blair (1952)

On Dec. 19, a group of people chosen as “Electors” will cast their votes for the next president of the United States. In this dialogue, my 6-year-old son Sam and I try to understand the result we expect will come to pass:

Act I: On Democracy versus other Forms of Government

Sam: Daddy, how do we choose our leaders?

Dad: Well, in this country, in the United States, which is a democracy, we elect our leaders.

Sam: What does that mean?

Dad: It means that Mommy and I, and lots of other adults, vote for the people we want to be president or governor, or to do other important jobs as leaders.

Sam: What are the other kinds of ways to pick leaders?

Dad: Well, sometimes leaders pick themselves and make other people follow them.

Sam: Really? What’s that called?

Dad: That’s called a dictatorship.

Sam: Are those leaders good?

Dad: I think some want to be, but it usually doesn’t turn out very well.

Sam: What about other types of leaders?

Dad: Well sometimes leaders are leaders because they are the sons or daughters of leaders, like kings and queens and princes and princesses.

Sam: Like Elsa and Anna.

Dad: Right.

Sam: Are those leaders good?

Dad: Well, sometimes. We decided not to do it that way.

Sam: Why?

Dad: Because we wanted to pick our own leaders and we wanted more people to have a chance to be leaders – like you or your sister someday.

Sam: So what do we call our way of doing it again?

Dad: A democracy, which means that, at the end of the whole process, we want the person with the most votes to win.

Sam: So George Washington got the most votes?

Dad: Yes.

Sam: And Abraham Lincoln got the most votes?

Dad: Yes.

Sam: And Barack Obama got the most votes?

Dad: Yes. And they all became president.

Sam: And so Donald Trump got the most votes, too.

Dad: Well . . .

Sam: Wait. Donald didn’t get the most votes?!

Dad: Well, no.

Sam: Did Hillary get the most votes?

Dad: Yeah.

Sam: So Hillary’s going to be president.

Dad: Well, no.

Sam: (Listening)

Act II: On Our Republican Form of Government (Part 1: Some Ancient History)

Dad: Back at the very beginning of our country, George Washington and his friends wanted to make sure that all of the many people who voted for president were making really, really good choices.

Sam: (Listening)

Dad: . . . Because back then, people really weren’t as used to picking their own leader as they are now.

Sam: (Listening)

Dad: . . . So everyone agreed that, instead of voting for our president, we would vote for other people who would vote for the president.

Sam: Who are those other people?

Dad: Well, we call them Electors.

Sam: When did we decide to do it that way?

Dad: Almost 230 years ago.

Sam: That’s older than Mommy!

Dad: I think so.

Sam: And we still do it that way?

Dad: Yes.

Sam: Why?

Dad: Well, I don’t think we’ve really ever seriously considered doing it any other way. Most of the time it’s worked.

Part 2: Some Embarrassing Admissions

Sam: Okay, so these Electors, do you know any of them?

Dad: Actually, I’m not really sure I do.

Sam: Well, who are they?

Dad: Actually, I don’t think I know.

Sam: So how did you know whether they would be good at picking the right people to be president?

Dad: Well, I’m actually not very sure.

Sam: What about Mommy, does she know the Electors?

Dad: You know, that might be something Mommy doesn’t know, either.

Sam: Did you even actually vote for these Electors, Daddy?!

Dad: Actually, no. The Electors aren’t on the piece of paper we checked off.

Sam: Who was?

Dad: Hillary and Donald and some others.

Part 3: Some Math Problems

Sam: Ok, so if Hillary got more votes than Donald, why doesn’t she have more of the Electors to vote for her?

Dad: Well, this gets a little complicated. So you know how we live in New Hampshire?

Sam: Yeah.

Dad: It’s our state, right?

Sam: Yeah. We live in Concord, New Hampshire.

Dad: And our country is called the United States of America, right?

Sam: Yeah.

Dad: So our country is a bunch of states, got it?

Sam: Yeah.

Dad: Each of the states gets to pick a certain number of Electors to vote for president for us.

Sam: (Listening)

Dad: And each state gets a different number of Electors.

Sam: (Listening, trying to understand)

Dad: And some states get to pick more Electors than others.

Sam: Why do some states get more Electors than others?

Dad: Because they are bigger, they have more people who vote. So we want to give them more Electors.

Sam: Did Donald win more of those than Hillary?

Dad: Well, actually, I’m not sure. There are four really big states, California, New York, Texas and Florida. Hillary won two and Donald won two.

Sam: So Hillary won as many of those as Donald!

Dad: Yes. And Florida was really close. Actually, Hillary got a lot more votes than Donald in the big states, especially California, which is the very biggest.

Sam: But Donald won more Electors. Why?

Dad: Well, because even if lots of people in Florida wanted Hillary, and even if Donald got just one more vote than Hillary in Florida, he would still win all of the Electors.

Sam: So all of the people who voted for Hillary in Florida, they don’t get any Electors who will vote for her?

Dad: Right.

Sam: Why?

Dad: I guess people decided that winning the most votes in a state is what matters the most.

Sam: So what happens to people who voted for Hillary?

Dad: Well, their votes won’t matter anymore.

Sam: Ok, but Daddy, if Hillary won California, the very biggest state by a lot, shouldn’t she get lots and lots of Electors?

Dad: Yes.

Sam: And Donald wouldn’t get any, right?

Dad: Well, yes, but that wasn’t enough for her to win.

Sam: Why?

Act III: On the Consent of the Governed

Dad: Well, because, and this is complicated, we haven’t talked about the smaller states. Donald got more of those, and votes in most of the smaller states actually matter a lot more than votes in the bigger states.

Sam: Why?

Dad: Well, actually that goes back many, many years to the beginning of the country?

Sam: Really? Were there lots of states back then, too?

Dad: Actually, no, there were very few states. Only 13 actually. And they were all pretty small back then.

Sam: Was California a state?

Dad: No.

Sam: Texas?

Dad: No.

Sam: Florida?

Dad: No.

Sam: New York?

Dad: Yep. That was a state.

Sam: So California, Texas and Florida, they weren’t part of the decision to do it this way?

Dad: Nope.

Sam: Really? Wait, so who do we know in the big states?

Dad: Well, Auntie Madeline and Uncle Adam live in New York. And Mommy’s friend Sarah, Cooper’s Mommy, lives in California. And Uncle David and Aunt Chelsey lived in Florida. And Great Grandpa Sidney used to live in Texas.

Sam: So their votes didn’t matter as much as yours and Mommy’s.

Dad: Yep. That’s right.

Sam: Daddy, are you and Mommy better at picking Electors than Madeline, Adam, David, Chelsey and Sarah?

Dad: Well, no.

Sam: Do they know the Electors?

Dad: I bet they don’t.

Sam: So no one knows the Electors?

Dad: You know, I bet they don’t.

Sam: Well, why do your votes matter more than theirs, then?

Dad: Like I said, we’re from a smaller state.

Sam: Are people from smaller states better than people from larger states at voting?

Dad: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think so. We love Madeline, Adam, Sarah, David, Chelsey and Great Grandpa. And they’re really smart, right?

Sam: Yeah, especially Auntie Chelsey, she is a blood vessel surgeon.

Dad: Right, she is really smart. So I’m not sure we’d be better, really.

Sam: Hmm. Does it make them sad that their votes don’t matter as much?

Dad: I think they’re sad now.

Sam: Daddy, do we know anyone who was alive when we decided to do it this way?

Dad: Well, we know of them, but they all died a long time ago?

Act IV: Returning to Founding Principles

Sam: Daddy, is there anything we can do about it?

Dad: What do you think we should do?

Sam: Well, I think we should make it so that they aren’t sad?

Dad: How would we do that?

Sam: Well, can’t we figure out how to make their votes matter the same as yours and Mommy’s?

Dad: I think we probably can.

Sam: Well that’s what we should do then. How do we do it?

Dad: Well, we have to convince lots of other people in the country to think the way you think.

Sam: That shouldn’t be too hard.

Dad: Why do you say that?

Sam: Because everyone’s an American.

Dad: What do you mean?

Sam: Well, remember last July 4th when we shot off fireworks and ate hot dogs and cupcakes?

Dad: Yeah.

Sam: Wasn’t that celebrating something about everyone in the country meaning the same as everyone else.

Dad: Yes it was.

Sam: You made us listen to Thomas Jefferson, remember?

Dad: Yes.

Sam: So it seems like we should be able to convince everyone else that every vote should mean the same as every other vote.

Dad: Why again?

Sam: Because everyone liked what Thomas Jefferson said, right?

Dad: I think you’re right. I guess we’ll see. There are lots of people talking about that right now.

Sam: Yeah. (Pause)

Dad: What are you thinking, buddy?

Sam: I’m glad they’re talking about it. I don’t want Madeline, Adam, David, Chelsey and Sarah to be sad.

Dad: Me neither, buddy. Me neither.

(Michael S. Lewis is an attorney in Concord and a former homicide prosecutor.)