Electoral Justice for Climate: Time to End the Electoral College

As a Unitarian-Universalist (UU), my beliefs about sacred action are grounded in the UU seven principles. These include the inherent worth and dignity of every person (1); justice, equity and compassion in human affairs (2); a free and responsible search for truth and meaning (4): the use of the democratic process in society at large (5); the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all (6); and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part (7).

My values are also rooted in my family. My father hailed from Springfield, Illinois. We are proud descendants of Richard Elkin, one of the six “tall Republicans” elected to the Illinois house with Abraham Lincoln, whom we revere.

Growing up in Georgia in the 1950s (before my family was UU), I came to be aware of appalling transgressions of the principles that my family and my future religious home hold sacred. I have one clear memory in particular, of sitting with friends at a grade school lunch table, talking about news coverage of the Supreme Court’s recent Brown II case (the “all deliberate speed” decision on school integration), wondering what the future held in store for us, when a classmate bragged that where his people came from in Mississippi, a black man found in town after sunset would be swinging from a tree the next morning. Whatever else happened, he was darn sure that he and his people were never going to school with any “n-word”.

My first experience with sacred action was in Indiana in the mid 1960s. Now a UU, I was a member of an interfaith panel of high school students who visited congregations to talk about the evils of discrimination and racism. My part was to bear witness to what I experienced in the deep South; we youth spoke of justice, of respect for all, of how the world needs to change. About this time some other UUs were also practicing sacred action. They went to the South to stand against the particular evil of electoral injustice.

And so it happened that in April 1965, two Unitarian Universalists—one a minister, one a lay volunteer and single mother of twin daughters—alighted by the fire of their commitment to the worth and dignity of all persons, the imperative of justice and equity in human affairs, particularly in the exercise of the democratic process, laid down their lives on the battlefield of justice in Selma, Alabama. As a UU, the fight for electoral justice is sacred and personal.

In the past two years, I have come to appreciate how profoundly unjust is the institution of the Electoral College: it violates almost all the core principles for which I and other UUs stand. I feel a calling to do everything in my power to prevent the Electoral College (or, more precisely, the state-by-state “winner take all” system that is the mechanism through which the Electoral College undermines our democracy) from continuing to inflict harm on our politics, our people, and our world.

The Electoral College was born of the nation’s original political sin: the three-fifths compromise that expanded the political power of the slave states by counting a slave as 3/5 of a person in determining the slave states’ representation in the House of Representatives. By choosing the president on the basis of state electors—whose number equals the number of Representatives plus Senators— the Electoral College system extended the influence of this unholy compromise to the selection of the president. Even after the Civil War, during the era of Jim Crow—right up to Selma and the Voting Rights Act—the Electoral College perpetuated an unjust allocation of political power by allowing states that systematically deprived large numbers of their citizens of the right to vote the same full measure of influence as states that treated all of their citizens with equal dignity.

The fact that the Electoral College remains in place can be attributed in part to the racial politics of the South. In 1968, George Wallace ran a racist campaign (“segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”). His plan was to win enough electoral votes to prevent either Richard Nixon or Hubert Humphrey from winning an Electoral College majority, after which he would negotiate with one of them (presumably Nixon) to get a commitment to block progress on civil rights in exchange for Wallace’s votes. (Wallace had secret agreements with his electors to follow Wallace’s directions.) Wallace did carry five states with 45 electoral votes, but this was not enough to block Nixon’s win. When the strategy to manipulate the Electoral College process for racist ends became known, there was outrage. A joint resolution to abolish the Electoral College and implement national popular vote for president passed the House with strong bipartisan support, 338-70. In the Senate, however, Wallace’s segregationist allies led a filibuster that blocked consideration of the resolution. Only 5 years after two UUs laid down their lives in Selma, racist politics saved the Electoral College.

In myriad ways, the Electoral College continues to violate sacred principles of justice. The sole concern of presidential candidates is to win the so-called “battleground” states, where the result is uncertain and where the election will actually be decided. Some 80% of voters are ignored—there is zero respect or dignity shown to them or their votes. The intensely partisan campaigns carried on in battleground states violate all norms of responsible inquiry or truth-seeking. Divisiveness and racial stereotyping infected the most recent campaign to a degree that could scarcely be imagined if the process compelled candidates to appeal to all voters in all states and all localities—including all the nation’s cities. 

As we witnessed in the 2016 election, the Electoral College system also allows a campaign to devise an election strategy that ignores issues of fundamental, existential importance for maintaining human civilization on a livable planet. Thus, the 2016 election saw one candidate cobble together a campaign that was grounded in the fossil fuel interests of states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio but that completely ignored the voters—and the issues of importance to those voters—in states such as California, which is a leader in efforts to tame global warming. The resulting impact on policy-making and other work that is essential to preserve our planet’s interconnected web of existence, and to build world community around this effort, could not be worse.

The Electoral College’s time is almost up. After the 2018 elections, prospects for change have never been brighter. For details, see this recently completed paper, https://cleanelectionsmn.org/wp-content/uploads/Repairing-Presidential-Elections.-Final-1.27.pdf , and follow developments on this blog, https://www.makingeveryvotecount.com/mevc-blog/.

Mark Bohnhorst, a retired attorney, has been a volunteer with Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light’s Solar Team for several years and is a member of the Policy Team. He is also Chair of the State Presidential Elections Team at Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections and a member of the Environmental Justice Team at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis.