In Defense Of The Electoral College
The Electoral College is the worst way to elect a President, except for all the others.
As both James Joyner and Steven Taylor noted earlier this week, Massachusetts became the latest state to sign on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a proposed agreement between states that would, effectively, bypass the Electoral College in Presidential Elections:
Under the U.S. Constitution, the states have exclusive and plenary (complete) power to allocate their electoral votes, and may change their state laws concerning the awarding of their electoral votes at any time. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).
So far, only five states totaling 55 Electoral votes have passed NPV bills. If the Massachusetts bill becomes law, that would make it six states totaling 67 Electoral Votes, 203 votes short of the majority. So, we’re not looking at something that is likely to go into effect any time soon.
Moreover, there appears to be a fairly good argument that the NPV would be unconstitutional if it ever went into effect. While it’s true that the Constitution largely leaves up to the individual states how Electors are chosen, Article I, Section Ten clearly prohibits states from entering into inter-state compacts without the approval of Congress:
No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.
The National Popular Vote “compact”, therefore, would clearly be unconstitutional unless it also received the approval of Congress, which seems unlikely.
But the fact that something is unconstitutional doesn’t stop some people. For example, writing about the proposal in the Washington Post about three years ago, E.J. Dionne made this rather astonishing comment:
Yes, this is an effort to circumvent the cumbersome process of amending the Constitution. That’s the only practical way of moving toward a more democratic system. Because three-quarters of the states have to approve an amendment to the Constitution, only 13 sparsely populated states — overrepresented in the electoral college — could block popular election.
So, basically, the NPV is a blatant end run around the Constitution because, well, it’s too hard to amend the Constitution. As I noted a few weeks ago, that’s sort of the idea behind Article V.
Nonetheless, the NPV represents only the latest attack on the Electoral College, which is commonly denounced as an undemocratic relic of the past. As Rick Moran notes, though, there are arguments in favor of keeping the Electoral College that far outweigh the arguments against it:
The original intent of the College was to keep the decision for president entirely out of the hands of citizens and place it in the hands of “wise men” who would presumably act in the national interest in choosing a president rather than base the choice on the selfish interests of the rabble. The Electoral College was amended in 1804 to reflect the emergence of political parties, and states mostly settled on a “winner take all” formula for choosing electors.
This boosted the influence of states in national elections by forcing candidates to run campaigns that reflected the federal nature of our republic. The early divisions of big state vs. small state in the country were augmented by urban vs. rural, west vs. east, north vs. south, and agriculture vs. manufacturing divisions to which a candidate for president had to address if he were to be successful.
The magic formula to reach a majority of the electoral college votes, therefore, was a test of the broadest possible appeal of a candidate. It guaranteed that no region, no interest would be slighted by a candidate who did so at the risk of alienating key groups and losing precious Electoral College votes in the process. Rural voters from north and south, urban voters from the coast and the interior, were lumped together and specific appeals were tailored to win them over.
The other major reason to maintain the Electoral College is that it confirms the federal nature of the United States government. It is not surprising that the impetus for the Compact is coming from heavily Democratic states. Direct election of a president would place a premium on wholesale politics. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama took 9 of the 10 largest states, running up huge majorities in the popular vote in states like California, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and Michigan. In a race decided by the popular vote, the Republican would be at a distinct disadvantage in that he would be forced to run a defensive campaign, trying to cut into the Democrats huge advantage in coastal and heavily urbanized areas while defending turf in far less populous regions. The disparity would mean that the Republican would spend far more per vote than the Democrat.
That, in essence is the biggest argument against getting rid of the Electoral College. Without it, Presidential candidates would concentrate their resources even more in the areas where the votes are, ignoring the vast middle of the country. That’s exactly what the Founders were trying to prevent when they set the current system up; the Presidency was supposed to be an office that represents the entire country, not just it’s population centers. Eliminating the Electoral College would leave small states at the mercy of large ones even more than they are now.
Instead of eliminating the Electoral College, it would be far preferable to reform it by adopting the District Method:
This method divides electoral votes by district, allocating one vote to each district and using the remaining two as a bonus for the statewide popular vote winner. This method of distribution has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996.
This resulted in Barack Obama winning a single Electoral Vote in Nebraska in 2008 as a result of his win in the state’s Second Congressional District.
The District Method has many advantages over both our current system and the NPV.
First of all, it maintains the Electoral College’s purpose of balancing large states against small ones, and regions against regions while at the same time addressing one of the biggest criticisms of the way that we elect Presidents. By tying at least one electoral vote in each state to a Congressional District, the proposal would put nearly every state into play in a Presidential election. Yes, the proposal would benefit Republicans in California, but it would also benefit Democrats in states like Florida and Texas. In the end, the benefits would probably balance themselves out across the nation, and candidates would be forced to run a campaign that addresses the country as a whole, rather than one that merely focuses on a few big states.
Second, unlike the NPV, the Congressional district allocation method has been tried before, and works. Both Nebraska and Maine have had this system in effect for several years and it’s worked just fine.
Finally, unlike the NPV, the Congressional district allocation method is completely constitutional.
If the District Method had been in place in 2008, Barack Obama would have won with 301 Electoral Votes to John McCain’s 237. Still a victory for Obama, but a much closer reflection of how close the race actually was.
And what if the District Method had been in place in 2000 ?
Well here’s how I think it would’ve turned out:
- Bush won 228 Congressional District, while Al Gore won 207 (Source here), so we start out at Bush 228 Gore 207.
- Bush also won 30 states (if you include Florida) to Gore’s 20 + D.C., (Source here)which would give Bush an additional 60 Electoral Votes to Gore’s additional 43.
Thus, that would have given Bush a total of 288 Electoral Votes to Gore’s 250. Even if you did give Florida to Gore, assuming no shift in the district allocation, the total would have been Bush 286 Gore 252. There would have been no hanging chads, no Constitutional crisis, no Bush v. Gore.
Sounds like another reason we should consider adopting this nationwide.