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Cleisthenes Wept

The best that can be said about the Electoral College system is that it keeps the democracy debate alive.



I’ve heard a few proud Icelanders argue that their proud island was home to the world’s first naturally occurring democracy when Vikings settled there sometime in 870. Still, everyone knows the story of Cleisthenes of Athens in the sixth century B.C. Coming back home to Athens after the expulsion of the Spartans, and no doubt tired of violent conflict, he chanced upon a novel way of deciding civic questions. Just put a colored stone inside a sack. A white stone voted “yes,” a black stone voted “no.”

The Greeks, or at least the ancient Greeks, get all the credit where the invention of democracy is concerned. Just ask City Weekly founder John Saltas. Military tacticians credit Greek naval power and its mighty fleet of triremes for the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. Those who speak of democracy’s unifying power will tell you the vastly outnumbered Greeks beat the Persians because their decision to fight was a collective, democratic decision, while the Persians simply served at the command of Xerxes. Democracy speaks to the best in us, or at least the best in most of us, because no other political system harnesses the collective will so effectively.

Keep in mind, though, that not all Greeks were so enthusiastic. Plato gave democracy slight shrift. It was, he snorted, a system valuing opinion over true knowledge. Democracy lets fools steer the ship.

Western civilization has built itself up and torn itself down ever since in attempts to find just the right mix between the voice of the people and the voice of others who claim they know what’s best for us. Which is why this country’s Electoral College system is such a blessing in disguise. It forces a debate between the merits of deciding for ourselves who will be president versus the watery, almost mysterious entity that meets 41 days after a presidential election.

Yes, the presidential election is a ways away in 2008. And earthquakes are currently topic du jour for most media outlets. Still, the biggest political earthquake most of us will remember for some time was the 2000 presidential election, in which President Bush won the presidency despite losing 500,000 popular votes that went to Al Gore. Call me “Sore Loserman” all you want. This ain’t about settling old scores. It’s about what we call democracy.

Which is why it was such a pleasure to have a short visit with Rob Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based FairVote, while he was in Salt Lake City two weeks ago. While carrying hints of liberal bias here and there, FairVote is that rare entity working to see that elections are fair, and that no one misses the chance to vote. FairVote would like to see automatic voting registration for graduating high school students. FairVote also raises some disturbing points about the Electoral College system in a recent report, “Presidential Election Inequality: The Electoral College in the 21st Century.”

As articulate as Richie was in person, FairVote’s report speaks for itself. Underpinning all its findings was this main thrust: Because politicians pay attention only to swing states, the United States has become, in the words of the report, a “two-tier democracy” where citizens are valued not for their vote, but based on where they live.

Tell us something we don’t know, you say? True, that’s hardly a shocking observation to anyone paying attention. But the growing effects of the Electoral College system are becoming all too plain. We saw it during Hurricane Katrina, when it was revealed that the perennial swing-state of Florida got the lion’s share of hurricane preparedness funds over the more politically reliable state of Louisiana. The irony of this shouldn’t be lost on Republicans. Should Louisiana suffer more during a natural disaster because they’re more likely to vote for Bush? Should any state, for that matter? That’s what the spoils system of our Electoral College says, in so many unspoken, but loud, words.

FairVote’s report documents other well-known truisms. Rural states are predominantly Republican; metropolitan areas overwhelmingly Democratic. It scores big points, however, by pointing out the ramifications of how we’ve developed politically as a nation. As more states settle into one-party dominance, swing states get harder to find, suggesting that the 2008 presidential race will once again focus on Florida and Ohio, to the detriment of more and more states. Back in 1992, the report notes, as many as 22 states were up for political grabs. “In 2004, for the first time,” the report notes, “the number of completely uncompetitive electoral votes exceeded the number of electoral votes in competitive states.

All this, of course, is really another way of saying that in recent years the Republicans have kicked lots of ass while Democrats have taken lots of naps. But what’s happened to voters between the ages of 18 and 29? If they live in one-party states, they take a nap during Election Day. In fact, according to FairVote, 17 percent fewer young voters even bother to vote in the 40 states now considered shoe-ins for either political party.

Here, then, is what we face with the current Electoral College system: A shrinking number of swing states breeds a shrinking number of voters breeds, in turn, an increasingly anemic, calcified democracy. If more and more voters in partisan states become irrelevant, so too does democracy.

For FairVote, the solution is a national vote. Lord knows voters in partisan states have gotten very creative over the years through vote swapping and proposals such as proportional voting. Whether you believe the Electoral College was the founding fathers’ clear intention, or a last-minute fluke of compromise during the Constitutional Convention, the debate is sure to grow louder.