PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — If you want an exercise in sheer frustration, try explaining the US political system to a foreigner — in my case, a good friend from the United Kingdom, in for a short visit.
Over lobster sandwiches and white wine on the tip of Cape Cod, I made a stab at educating Anna on the intricacies of presidential politics.
We should have had more wine.
The recent furor over Congressman Todd Akin’s rather original views on rape and pregnancy had Anna in a bit of a state.
“What is going on here with women’s rights?” she demanded to know. Anna, at 36, is a strong, liberated, well-educated woman with a very responsible job in international development.
You may remember that Akin, in attempting to defend his stance that abortion should be banned in all instances, even in cases of rape, had expressed the startling opinion that women almost never get pregnant as a result of forcible intercourse.
A woman’s body, he explained vaguely, had the capacity to “shut that whole thing down.”
Akin’s views have very little support in the medical community, and there is now a push to have him thrown off the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology since, as President Barack Obama put it, Akin “somehow missed science class.”
But Akin and his supporters can cite one physician, Dr. John Willke, who is considered the father of the anti-abortion movement. Willke provided the theoretical background for Akin’s misconception in an essay published in 1999.
Willke, by the way, is an avid Romney supporter.
The fact that abortion rights are under attack — abortion has been legal in Britain since 1967 — was, to Anna, mystifying.
“So, are you telling me that we are fighting a war for women’s rights in Afghanistan but letting them slip here in America?” she asked. “You care more about Afghan women than your own?”
I met Anna when we were both working in Kabul a few years back. I had no answer, but had to admit it was a great question.
Unsatisfied, Anna moved on to bigger topics.
”Who’s going to win the election?” she asked.
A well-informed news consumer, Anna cited recent polls showing that Obama and his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, were virtually neck and neck.
Minus a crystal ball, I couldn’t answer that one, either, but tried gamely to explain that national polls meant little — the secret to the elections was in Electoral College math, which still favored Obama, albeit slightly.
“I don’t understand the American system at all,” complained Anna.
She is not alone.
The Electoral College is not a self-evident institution. The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, did not really trust the colonists with the all-important task of selecting their leader.
According to one delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, "The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men."
Much better, in their opinion, to give the masses the illusion of democracy by allowing them to vote for a roster of electors, who would then select the president. This became Article 2 of the US Constitution.
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As we know, the Electoral College operates under a “winner-take-all” system. So a liberal in Kansas or a conservative in California is kind of out of luck.
“I’m voting Third Party,” shrugged a well-known political science professor at Boston University over dinner last spring. “I live in one of 41 states in the country where my vote does not really matter.”
Massachusetts is a “safe Obama” state and, except for an unexplained fondness for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, has been solidly Democratic since 1960.
Clay, a 26-year-old in Princeton, Idaho, had the same reaction.
“I’m a Democrat. Of course I’ll vote, but Idaho is going to go for Romney. Does it bother me? Of course, but I’ll vote anyway,” he said.
The oddity of the Electoral College system accounts for the fact that most attention — and money — in an election is focused on those few states that are up for grabs. These include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Nevada and Florida, which pretty much sums up the candidates’ travel schedules over the past few weeks.
“Is it true you could win the popular election and still not become president?” asked Anna, somewhat incredulous.
Yes, indeed, I told her. It has happened exactly three times in US history, most recently in 2000, when George W. Bush assumed the office after several painful weeks of wrangling over Florida’s 25 electoral college votes.
Al Gore had won the popular ballot — by just half a million votes or so, but still, he was the clear victor nationwide.
Florida, however, was too close to call. After a long and contentious recount involving heretofore unknown concepts such as “hanging chads,” “dimpled chads” and even “pregnant chads,” the Supreme Court shut the whole mess down, effectively awarding the election to “W.”
Since then, a majority of Americans has turned against the system. According to a Gallup poll released in 2011, 62 percent of respondents thought the Electoral College should be scrapped in favor of a popular vote for president.
That, of course, would require a constitutional amendment, and would not help us in this election.
I droned on and on, and Anna was looking a bit dazed. I realized I crossed the Too Much Information line.
“Well, in any case, that’s how it works,” I finished lamely.
Anna drew a deep breath, and in her cultured, upper-class British voice gave perhaps the most succinct characterization of the whole system I have ever heard.
“What utter bollocks,” she said.
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