Until we end Electoral College, hundreds of thousands of Kansans’ votes for president won’t matter

November 1, 2020 3:45 am

A display at the Kansas Museum of History. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

I’m a native Kansan, born in Baxter Springs, and every presidential vote I’ve ever cast has been in my home state. But none of my votes has counted, not even when my candidate was elected president.

In Kansas, only six votes really matter.

That’s our state’s share of the 538 votes in the Electoral College, which amounts to one vote for each member of a state’s Congressional delegation (and three votes for the District of Columbia). The electors are required by law to cast their votes for whoever wins the state, no matter the national popular vote. We differ from most states only in the number of electors we’re allotted; only two states, Nebraska and Maine, allot their votes proportionally.

There is no constitutional guarantee that individual Americans get any kind of vote for president. All the power is vested in the states to make those decisions for us.

In Kansas, not a single electoral vote has gone to a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and that was largely driven by the landslide against GOP nominee Barry Goldwater, who wanted to roll back the New Deal.

I was too young to vote in that election, or even remember it. My first presidential vote was cast in 1976, just a few days after my 18th birthday, and my polling place was the same elementary school in Baxter Springs that I’d attended not that many years before. Washington Elementary is now gone, but I still remember how strange it was walking into the familiar old auditorium and closing the canvas flap to the voting booth and marking in pencil my preference for Jimmy Carter.

Carter won, of course, but with no help from my vote; all seven of Kansas’ electoral votes went to Gerald Ford, who won 52% of the state’s popular vote.

President Gerald Ford, First Lady Betty Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and vice presidential candidate Bob Dole celebrate winning the nomination at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. (John T. Bledsoe/Library of Congress)

The state had seven electors back then because we had a bigger proportion of the country’s population. We lost a vote when the old Fifth Congressional District — my district, in Southeast Kansas — was taken away in the 1990s. In those days, states weren’t even considered red or blue — that color scheme wouldn’t be adopted until about 2000, when major news outlets just decided to standardize colors.

In the past, Kansas had even more electoral votes. From just before the turn of the 20th century through 1928, when Kansas was considered a bellwether state and had a bigger share of the nation’s population, it had 10 electoral votes. Kansas was front and center in national politics, and our opinions mattered.

“Kansas is the Mother Shipton, the Madame Thebes, the Witch of Endor, and the low barometer of the nation,” celebrated Emporia newspaper editor William Allen White wrote in 1922, brilliantly mashing together prophecy and science.

A falling barometer signals a change in the weather.

“When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas,” he wrote. “Abolition, Prohibition, Populism, the Bull Moose, the exit of the roller towel, the appearance of the bank guarantee … these things come popping out of Kansas like bats out of hell.”

Kansas hasn’t been as influential since White’s tenure as editor (he died in 1944) because our population didn’t match the growth of the country, because our temperament was suited to an earlier time, and because we lost voices like White’s.

After World War II, our influence on national politics waned. Bats seldom come popping out of Kansas any longer, unless you count “vote with their feet” Kris Kobach (the architect of modern voter suppression) or the disequal opportunity haters at the Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not counting Trump flying monkey Mike Pompeo, the current Secretary of State, because he didn’t move to Kansas until he was in his mid-30s. And yes, you are the lowest order of flying monkey if you deny credible evidence from your own intelligence community that the Saudi crown prince had a Washington Post correspondent assassinated and chopped up with a bone saw.

In recent years, it’s been common to refer to Kansas as among the most conservative of states. But that’s not been strictly true, even though we have been a solid Republican one. We have been GOP since the Civil War, when the party really was the party of Lincoln.

In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt, who had already served two terms as president, came to Osawatomie to deliver a speech that would eventually form the platform for the progressive Bull Moose party. In the speech, Teddy declared the protection of human welfare was a chief executive’s highest priority. He also called for electoral reform, including the direct election of senators — something that would happen, by ratification of a constitutional amendment, in 1913.

Theodore Roosevelt speaks to a crowd gathered at the rear of a railroad car in Baldwin on Aug. 31, 1910, the same day as he gave his famous speech at Osawatomie. (Library of Congress)

Through the mid-20th century, the fortunes of our native sons with presidential aspirations swung from Alf Landon — who was so crushed by FDR in 1936 that he didn’t even carry Kansas — and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in two elections won every region of the country except the Deep South (a Democratic stronghold) and served from 1953 to 1961.

But by the time Russell native and longtime senator Bob Dole won the GOP nomination in 1996, and eventually lost to Democrat Bill Clinton, the party had changed.

The Deep South was now deeply Republican. Ronald Reagan, who’d been elected in 1980 on a strategy of courting the southern white vote (one of his first campaign stops was at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, where he stressed “state’s rights” but not civil rights) had begun to lead us back to the past, with the nation polarized by racial, cultural and wealth issues. He was following in the footsteps of Goldwater, who’d lost in 1964 but succeeded in sparking a fire of resentment against progressive politics, from Reagan to the Tea Party to Donald Trump.

The way Republicans have kept power is in all the ways they can keep people separated from their vote, from voter ID laws to gerrymandering to the chains of the Electoral College.

For a state to matter much in a presidential election, it must be either a swing state, which might reasonably go for either candidate, or it must have an early primary that attracts a disproportionate amount of attention. New Hampshire has only four electoral college votes, even less than Kansas, but the dozen residents of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, a village just 20 miles from the Canadian border, get more attention from presidential candidates than anyone else because they all vote in the first minute of primary day.

Kansas is neither a swing state nor has an early primary. We are a safe, reliably red Republican state. But in 2016’s presidential election, about half a million Kansans, or 43%, voted for somebody other than Donald Trump. Still, all six of our electoral votes went to this political arsonist. This year, our six votes will all but certainly go to him again, further fueling the conflagration that threatens to turn American democracy to ash.

Our centrist tendencies may be reflected in other ways, of course. We might send our first Democrat to the Senate since the Great Depression. And, we have a long history of centrism when it comes to voting for governor.

But when it comes to president, about 4 in 10 of us are historically left out, especially if we live in Wyandotte or Douglas counties. Most Americans were left out in 2016, because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million, which is more than the population of Kansas.

Five times in American history, the Electoral College vote has not matched the popular vote. The first three were more than a century ago. The last two were in 2000 and 2016.

If it happens this time, we may lose our republic.

So, let’s abolish the institutionalized voter suppression that is the Electoral College. It doesn’t provide stability, as its defenders have long asserted, but instead is a clearly destabilizing effect on American politics.

It would take a constitutional amendment to do away with it, but then we’ve managed that before, such as when we allowed in 1913 for the direct election of senators.

A ballot dropbox outside of the Lyon County Courthouse in Emporia. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Failing an amendment, the states have broad powers in designating rules for their electors. Sixteen jurisdictions are already signatories to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would require that a state’s electors go to the winner of the national popular vote, but the compact faces stiff legal challenges.

For now, the direct election of president remains out of reach. But at one time, so did the abolition of slavery and votes for women and allowing those old enough to be drafted the right to vote.

We deserve a constitutional right to directly elect the president.

Until then, I’ll continue casting my symbolic votes, for as long as I’m allowed. This year, I voted by hopping out of my Jeep and dropping my carefully prepared ballot envelope in a dropbox outside the Lyon County Courthouse at Emporia.

It was the first time I did not cast my vote in person. I was wearing a mask, even though there was nobody else on the sidewalk at the time. It felt as strange as that first time so long ago, at Washington Elementary School.

As I drove away from the courthouse, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this might be the very last time I get to vote in a presidential election. This year has been like one of those plane crashes in which a series of otherwise survivable errors contribute to an unimagined catastrophe. For those of us whose vote for president doesn’t count, it feels as if we’re just passengers strapped into our seats, waiting for the sound of shrieking metal.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.