The Game of Presidential Elections: Don’t Blame the Rules

The Game of Presidential Elections: Don’t Blame the Rules

The board and card games come out in my house at holiday time. It’s part of a long family tradition.

Both my wife and I can tell childhood stories about games of Monopoly, Careers and Risk very early on Christmas mornings. We knew we shouldn’t be up. We knew equally well that we weren’t going to sleep. So we’d slip into our siblings’ rooms, pull out the pre-positioned board games, and play.

From such beginnings come grand traditions.

So it was that, this past Thanksgiving weekend, we gathered several of our children, pulled out a new game (one called Spontuneous) and began the very serious business of play.

Before we could play, of course, we had to learn the rules.

As often happens with a new game, game play started before some of us grasped all of rules. It happened to be Carol who had studied the rules carefully and then, appropriately, exploited them to advantage. And I paid the price for not knowing the rules as well.

What follows was a brief review of the relevant rule and some related rules, some discussion and grumbling (by me, alas).  Then we all got back to the game and had a good time.

I actually managed to win (!).

With games, of course, the outcome really doesn’t matter.  But games aren’t the only social activities with rules. In politics in particular, there are a host of “games” we play. With each game, there are rules. And the rules create opportunities that can be exploited by the sharp player.

Some of the rules of our political games make a lot of sense, at least to me. The idea, for example, that one should be a resident of the area one seeks to represent. Of course, then we can debate what constitutes “residency” . . . and many have.

Some rules made sense at the time they were adopted, but that sense has been lost to memory or undermined by changes over time.

Such is the case with the Electoral College.

Those less familiar with our system may be puzzled by an electoral process that awards the highest office in the land to the person who wins the right combination of states. It’s not the candidate who wins the popular vote: twice in the last 20 years, the winner of the presidency received fewer popular votes than the other major party’s candidate. Nor is it the candidate who won the most states, though one must go back to the election of 1976 (when Carter beat Ford) to find an actual example of this occurring.

When the Electoral College was conceived in the late 18th century, however, we should remember that it was not imagined that the general electorate would vote for president at all. There wouldn’t be a popular vote to refer to until the era of Andrew Jackson.

In the 21st century, we’ve embraced a broader range of roles for the general electorate. Given that embrace, couldn’t we get rid of the Electoral College?

Of course. There’s an amendment process for that.

But will we get rid of it?


Once a game has been played a few times, intelligent gamers know which rules help them, and which rules don’t. These skilled players will fight for the former set of rules, using logic, pleas to fairness and, if necessary, brute political force.

Those who have speculated about the effect of eliminating the Electoral College generally agree that a lot of states, and perhaps especially the less urban areas of a lot of states, wouldn’t matter at all in most presidential elections. It’s not like the present system in which the Democrats ignore deeply red states and the Republicans ignore deeply blue ones. At least those deep-hued states matter to one of the parties!

No, in a truly popular vote-driven system, there would be little if any reason for either party to be attentive to vast swaths of our nation, at least in the presidential contest. And those “swaths” know who they are.

It takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states to amend the Constitution. Not happening.

There’s a larger lesson here, beyond the objections of Democrats who may feel cheated by an 18th century political compromise. It’s a lesson many of us learned as children . . . perhaps at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning in our older sibling’s room.

Decide whether or not you want to play the game. If the answer is “yes,” master the rules and play to win.

And if you don’t win, don’t blame it on the rules.