This year the good citizens of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia will choose our president. The media and the candidates will genuflect in the direction of Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but this a silly show. They’ll all go for Obama in the end.
People hate it when I say this, but here goes: The American presidential electoral system is a joke. I said this on a local radio show a couple of weeks ago and I encountered an angry mob of callers who helpfully reminded me that America was not designed to be a democracy, that the Electoral College was designed to protect states’ rights and prevent tyranny, that the founders were smart guys…the litany of clichés was endless. No one could ever explain to me, however, how it is a good thing that every four years in America’s most important election the vast majority of citizens are completely irrelevant. No one could tell me why it makes sense that little New Mexico is lavished with presidential visits, and plucky Iowa attracts sycophants singing the praises of ethanol, while the more than ten percent of all Americans who live in California are ignored (or insulted by Republican candidates who raise money by bashing the gay-friendly hellhole that is San Francisco).
This indefensible situation is made all the worse by the fact that the candidates regularly travel to the irrelevant states where most of us live to raise the ungodly sums of money they spend wooing corn farmers and tire makers and gaming enthusiasts. When Mitt Romney travels to Beverly Hills or Barack Obama travels to his native Illinois, neither bothers to ask for votes. Each candidate telegraphs his true position, in essence saying, “I don’t care if you vote, because your vote doesn’t matter. But please give me several thousand dollars. I have a plane to catch to Akron!” So we now have a situation where presidential candidates and their allies have more and more money and spend it in fewer and fewer places.
Do I have a solution? Yes. It is a general one, however: Try something different. I actually remember a time not too long ago in this country where we actually valued political participation. We tried to get people to register to vote. We told people it was their duty to vote. We asked citizens to pay attention to politics. It’s depressing enough that we now have one party that actively seeks to discourage voter participation. But hey, at least someone is paying attention to that travesty. No one with any real power in this country seems to have any problem with the silly way we elect our presidents—a method that is utterly indefensible in its indifference toward the vast majority of Americans. Something needs to change.
Most of now live in political flyover country. Sure, we get state elections and local elections and even an occasional congressional election. But when it comes to big one, we’re nobodies.
Nownes is professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.