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20080731 Electoral college

Complicated maze leading from Democratic Party voter in voting booth to Republican elephant at end of maze.

Detroit Free Press 2008

“Young adults … feel less strongly about the importance of democracy than respondents over 29 … just 39 percent rated it as ‘absolutely important’— far below the 60 percent figure for respondents as a whole.”

The Democracy Project: Reversing a Crisis of Confidence

Consider the past decade in American politics through the eyes of a millennial. Maybe she cast her first-ever vote for Barack Obama. Most of them did, which helped him win two terms with clear national majorities.

Yet when a Supreme Court seat came open almost a year before the end of Obama’s tenure, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — in a stunt that should make “Mitch” a name no future Americans give their babies — refused to allow consideration of Obama’s nominee, holding the seat open for the next president. “Let the people decide,” McConnell sanctimoniously declared, ignoring both the Constitution and the fact that “the people” had already decided (twice) to give Obama that authority.

Maybe that millennial responded to this outrage the way you’re supposed to in a democracy: by voting — in this case, for Hillary Clinton. Clinton got almost 66 million votes in 2016, more than any other candidate, making her the clear choice of “the people.” Yet Donald Trump, who lost to Clinton by almost 3 million votes, took office because the random factor of vote distribution gave him the edge in that 18th Century oddity, the Electoral College.

Trump went on to fill two Supreme Court seats, including the one that was, by any honest assessment, stolen from his predecessor. That millennial is now watching a 5 to 4 majority on the court poised to take America in directions that the majority of Americans, her included, don’t want to go.

Consider all that, and then ask yourself: Why on earth would that millennial revere democracy?

Many don’t. Recent studies, by the bipartisan Democracy Project and others, have shown Americans in or around their 20s have significantly less regard than their elders for the once-undisputed proposition that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. A Pew Research Center study found almost half of U.S. millennials believe government should be controlled not by elected leaders but by experts or technocrats. Other studies have suggested many young people are open to leadership based on strength rather than democratic legitimacy.

Older commentators offer varying explanations, none flattering: Young people are too lazy to do the intellectual work that democracy requires. Or they’re too selfish, preferring to focus on their personal lives instead of their civic duty. Or they’re too coddled, growing up in a world of unprecedented stability, not understanding that democracy provided it.

The explanation that doesn’t seem to get any consideration, but should, is that perhaps young people are giving up on American democracy because they’re looking around them and concluding that it doesn’t work.

And maybe they’re right.

Understand, that’s not to reject democracy as a concept. Government with the consent of the governed remains the only legitimate form.

But after enduring two second-place-vote-getter presidents in two decades, it’s become obvious that — thanks to the Electoral College — America’s “democracy” is, in practice, a demographic oligarchy. A minority political party, which over the past seven presidential elections has won national support exactly once, has nonetheless controlled the White House for almost half that period. By what twisted definition does that represent “the consent of the governed”?

As debate grows today over the Electoral College, the arguments for keeping it in place have become more familiar, but not more reasonable. The notion that small states need added vote leverage to counter the numerical advantage of big states would make sense if we were all residents of our states first and Americans second — but that hasn’t been America’s mindset since the Civil War era. Some say a popular-vote system would cause candidates to ignore less-populated rural regions, which is debatable. What’s not debatable is that the current system causes candidates to ignore most of America, urban and rural alike, outside a handful of swing states.

Ponder two simple, virtually unassailable ideas about how democracy should work: Every vote should count, and the candidate who gets the most votes should win. The Electoral College thwarts the former in every single election, and has already thwarted the latter twice in this young century.

It’s been estimated that Trump, the least popular American president in modern times and probably ever, could lose the 2020 national vote by as many as 5 million ballots and still win reelection under the bizarre way we manage our democracy.

The kids, as they say, are watching. The longer America allows this warping of the voters’ will, enabling these kinds of travesties, the more likely it is that today’s young people — already wobbly in their commitment to democracy — will decide to ditch it altogether once they run things.