Three Arguments Contra the Electoral College
A book could be written on this subject, but let me suggest the following as a good place to start
An interchange between Doug Mataconis and myself in the comment thread of this post inspires the following. Doug asked me “Isn’t the burden on the people who want to get rid of the Electoral College to make the case for why it should be done?”
Fair enough. Of course, a book could be written on this subject, but let me suggest the following as a good place to start. And note: I am assuming a couple of things, such as the notion that democracy is valuable, as well as concepts like political equality. I take Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration seriously, i.,e., “that all mean are created equal” (and that the phrase should be interpreted as an aspirational phrase that should be, ultimately as inclusively as possible). I further can accept Churchill’s description of democracy as “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” and further note that if tyranny of the majority is something that is to be feared, that tyranny of the minority is even worse. Of course, all of those statements are pregnant with other issues about which I will not address at the moment.
Here’s a starting list of issues that ought to be considered regarding the electoral college:
1. No, it doesn’t help small states, it helps battleground states. Contrary to most pro-electoral college arguments, the EC does not favor small states as much as it favors battleground states. Candidates don’t care about Wyoming (a solidly Republican state), but they do care about whichever states are competitive (large and small). The fact that we start election season dismissing huge swaths of the population as largely incidental strikes me as a prima facie reason for giving reform a serious look. This includes large states with large populations (of late that has meant California and Texas). A system that regularly dismisses tens of millions of voters as not worth fighting over (in a political sense) is a problematic system.
2. Individual Rights. Much is made of the notion of individual rights and the value of the individual (and I would not argue otherwise: individual rights are key in a democratic society), however, the electoral college system does not treat all citizens equally. First, small population states are overrepresented. Second, non-battleground states are secondary to the process. Third, opposition voters in battleground states do not count in the tallying of the electoral vote. A candidate can win millions of votes in California, but get zero electoral votes because of the unit rule.* This furthers the cause of individualism and individual liberty exactly how?
3. Competition. The electoral college (and even a system based on congressional districts) curtails competition. If a state is heavily Democratic or Republican, there is no reason for a given candidate to attempt to compete for the votes in that state. Likewise, if a state were to transfer its allocation of electoral votes to the district level we get the same thing: a lot of safe (i.e., non-competitive) districts. (Indeed, the district problem gets to the heart of perhaps the greatest flaw in our current political system: the lack of serious competition in a majority of electoral districts every two years, but that’s another discussion).
So let me get this straight: we all want competition in the marketplace to make businesses better and likewise we like competitive sports and think that competition, in general, in to be valued, but we don’t want competitive politics? We don’t want politicians to have to compete for all the votes, but instead would prefer that they only have to compete for some? This strikes me as a curious position.
*The unit rule is what guides the allocation of electoral votes in all states at the moment save for Maine and Nebraska, i.e., that the winner of the plurality of the popular vote gets all of the state’s electoral votes in one unit.
While I agree on all points, I think the argument vis the Electoral College helping the small states has to do with their outsized impact on the outcome, not their increased attention during the campaign. People in sparsely populated rural states, as you noted in an earlier post, can get many times their rightful voting power compared to those living in hugely populated states because of the 3 Elector baseline. Of course, this just mirrors the disparities in the Senate.
As intersting as this subject is on a hypothetical level, why are we discussing it so much here? It would require a constitutional ammendment to change it on the federal level (and I think we all agree that ain’t gonna happen), or require enough states at the state level to give up their rights and powers in a presidential contest first (which is why proposals on the statewide level have failed in Co, Ca, and I am sure elsewhere).
Isn’t all this really moot? If the 2000 election didn’t change the EC, nothing will.
That’s my thought as well.
@Polaris: @Doug Mataconis:
Well, if we are only going to blog about things that are certainties, then that rather limits the topics for discussion, yes?
I hear tell that the sun will come out tomorrow. After that, who knows?
@Polaris: A less snarky response would include the fact that the topic is relevant as we discuss the news of the day (i.e., the Pennsylvania issue) and the fact that I find it interesting (and clearly some others do as well). What more can one ask of a blog?
In my fantasies such discussions lead to further thought on these subjects by readers. What more can a writer ask for?
@Steven L. Taylor:
It’s one thing to argue about the wisdom of a certain bill passing, or if it will pass, or what the political fallout will be from a certain speech or policy. None of these things are sure things, and there is a significant probability that two very different interpretations might be correct (or even both in rare and wierd instances).
What you are harping on (and after three straight articles on this topic, I to think it’s fair to use the gerund, ‘harping’) is an artifact of this system that has a chance of happening so close to zero percent to be indistinguishable from it.
So why harp on it? It’s not like the system gives results radically out of line with the PV anyway. Seems to me there are more important things to harp about (such as how and what policies…and politics…are best to get this country back on it’s feet).
At least that’s how it seems to me.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I think the suggestion is that if the 2000 election didn’t lead to a widespread call for elimination of the Electoral College, then perhaps its deficiencies (and yes it has deficiencies, anything designed by a human being will) aren’t really that big of a deal.
The thing to keep in mind is that eliminating the EC and going for a National Popular Vote method of selecting Presidents would create potential conflicts with that portion of the Constitution that gives the states the right to determine the “time, place, and manner” of holding elections.
@Polaris: I would note, you are hardly required to read my harpings.
I really see no conflict here at all. As it is federal law dictates when congressional and EC elections take place.
@Doug Mataconis: That was exactly my point. Thank you.
@Doug Mataconis: BTW, you are the one who told me I should provide an argument for my position. I have attempted to do so and now your response is to ask why I am talking about this?
I’d say it’s fairly relevant given the continued progress of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, considering the adoption has continued the last couple years. There may not be much support for a constitutional amendment to change the electoral college now, but that could easily change if enough states sign up. Combined with Pennsylvania or Nebraska going through with changing how they award their electoral votes in a way that appears to be designed to reward a specific political party, and this could be a real issue.
That project funded by Soros is going no where. It has only 130 or so EVs signed up and no state of any particular importance. If you think the big dog states (of either party) is going to sign away the rights to their own electors, well, I have some Montana beachfront property you might be interested in.
It’s not gonna happen. If it ever gets close, the Soros connection will become front page news and that alone would likely kill it.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I’m not saying stop talking about it, but I think the fact that the deficiencies you cite apparently haven’t been enough lead to a real movement to eliminate the EC. Partly, of course, it’s simple inertia combined with the fact that it’s been 40 years since a Constitutional Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by the states. I’d also suggest, though, that it may indicate these deficiencies aren’t all that egregious.
Absent the approval of Congress, the NPV Interstate Compact is unconstitutional pursuant to Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 of the Constitution
@Doug Mataconis: While I don’t like the electoral college system as currently set, I don’t actually think the NPVIC is that good of an idea. I was just pointing out that this could help the electoral college to become an issue if enough states adopt it.
@Polaris: At least look past the scary Soros connection to notice California is on the list of states that have signed up.
Compared to direct election, small states benefit from the electoral college status quo because electoral votes are allocated on the basis of population and state equality. But that may not matter much. Since 1980, there have been a few studies using game theory that look at the theoretical and actual working of the system. As I read them, the studies indicate that large states benefit from the status quo in theory and in fact because they are more likely to be a battleground state. That might suggest that both small and (at least some) large states have reasons to value the status quo. A recent study in the American Economic Review indicates that only a minority of states would receive more attention from presidential candidates in the future if direct election replaced the status quo. (This is suggestive concerning the competitiveness of states on the whole). There is also the question whether an equal weighting of votes will lead to more attention to voters for the perennial minority party in some states; it is possible that the cost of obtaining those votes will sustain current patterns of campaigning for some time. I doubt that a majority of the states, let alone three-quarters, would benefit from changing to direct election. In that sense, the electoral college, though far removed from its origins at the Convention, is in equilibrium. My arguments and citations to the literature can be found in my Cato Policy Analysis, http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9708.
The National Popular Vote is a somewhat different matter. It is an attempt to use the state power to determine electors to amend the Constitution de facto without using the Article V process. It proposes a state compact which will not be sent to Congress for its approval despite the admonition in Article I, section 10: “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress…enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State…”
Well, first, I agree that we are unlikely to see change to EC or even a serious discussion about it.
However, I would submit that the following does not necessarily follow:
The lack of interest in the topic does not speak to the virtues of the EC. Rather, I think it is indicative of a general trend in American politics, which is that we rarely talk about political reform some reason (and we, in general, treat the constitution like it was carved in marble by the finger of God).
#1) I completely agree with this though would take it a step further. Even Montana, which has the capacity to go either way (Obama came close in 2008 and it has two Dem sens and a Dem gov) is ignored because an outside change at 20 EVs beats a competitive 3 (and rural states are harder to actively campaign in). On the other hand, one doubts Montana would get much more attention in a national race.
2) My only problem with this is that it could apply also to the very notion of congressional districts. If I live in a safe district, I may not even have a protest candidate to vote for (other than a libertarian). Yet I cannot get myself to support the idea of getting rid of them and indeed think we should make them smaller which would likely make for more uncompetitive districts.
3) Agree with this one, though truth be told as long as out maps are so red and blue (The Big Sort) I am not sure how much time would be spent actually competing in the sense of changing minds and how much time will be spend with each side trying to rally up the vote count in safer locales. I’m not sure how it would work, though I don’t consider this reason not to do it in light of other reasons.
Sure. California has signed up and you still only have 130 EVs on an interstate compact that is probably unconstitutional. That’s 55 out of the 130. I notice not one of those states is a red or purple state.
You need to get 140 more from the states that would be hurt the worst over this idea.
Good luck with that. It ain’t happening, even if the Soros connection doesn’t kill it (which it will politically) or it was legal and constitutional (which it isn’t).
The irony is rich, especially considering that Doug seems to write posts about Sarah Palin almost every time she has a bowel movement…
Oh well, everyone has a dream, I suppose…like the one you have where government totally gets out of the health care business…
Actually, as I allude to above, I think that our most fundamental problem are, in fact, noncompetitive congressional districts. At a minimum I would like to see them drawn by nonpartisan commissions (an imperfect fix, but better than what we have). A more complex fix (i.e., serious electoral reform) is basically impossible (or, at least, would make getting rid of the EC seem like child’s play)
@Steven L. Taylor: Even if you had them drawn by computer or non-partisan commissions (a move which I would support), though, you’d still have a lot of relatively uncompetitive districts, due to the convergence of where one lives and one’s political preferences. And so the fundamental problem of congressional votes “not counting” would remain, albeit for not as many people as at present.
@Trumwill: All true, but that would be better than having X number drawn to be Democratic no matter what and Y to be Republican no matter what.
In my fantasies I would prefer to see an adoption of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (as in Germany) where half the seats are chosen by single member districts and half by national proportional representation.
If your problem is that the Congress is too partisan, proportional representation won´t solve it. In fact, it will only worsen it.
I beg to differ. The Constitution vests plenary power in the states as to how they will select their electors.
In the conflict between this and Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 of the Constitution, I think Article 2, Section 1 would prevail.
BTW, Nate Silver points out:
As I said, plenary power.
Sorry, didn’t supply the link to Nate’s piece. Here is is: Pennsylvania Electoral College Plan Could Backfire on G.O.P.
MYTH: The National Popular Vote compact requires congressional consent to become effective.
I’m not saying there aren’t arguments against its constitutionality, but it’s not a given that the NPV Compact is unconstitutional. I agree with samwide that Article II, Section 1 is likely to prevail over Article I, Section 10.
Yes, states have the right to determine their electors as they see fit, but you need to read the whole consittution. The constitution forbids states from entering into legal compacts with other states without the consent of congress. That’s what makes the National Popular Vote initiative unconstitutional.
NPV comprises two parts: a state uses its power under Art. II to allocate all its electors to the winner of the popular vote. Second, the state enters a compact with other states who wish to allocate their electors in the same way; the compact becomes effective if states with a majority of electors enter into it. You can believe that the states have full power to allocate their electoral votes as they wish and that the NPV compact must go to Congress. After all, their Art. II power does not include a power to have other states allocate their electoral votes according to who wins the popular vote; they have a power over their own state but not a right to a collective outcome. That collective outcome is governed by the compacts clause whose language seems clear. The Art. II power of the states and the compact clause are compatible. Without reading a lot into the Art. I power, there is not reason a Court should rule that Art. II “trumps” Art. I, sec. 10. Indeed, the NPV folks in their book do not argue that such “trumping” is needed. They argue that precedent indicates the NPV compact need not be approved by Congress.
In the end, why all the gimmicks for NPV? Ignore the compacts clause, institute direct election through a Rube-Goldberg process, run the risks of state withdrawals post-election or just before an election, and so on. Why not just argue for a constitutional amendment?
There is no conflict. A state has the right to choose it’s own electors. A state does not have the right to enter a compact with other states without congressional approval. The NPV initiative is in clear violation of the constitution on this later point making this unconstitutional. If the pact part were stripped out, then yes, it would be perfectly constitutional for a state to destribute it’s electors based on national popular vote. It would be dumb for that state, but constitutional.
That’s easy. The NPV people know that their proposal dies if it ever sees the light of day especially if it comes out that Soros is backing it. That makes it political poison to any purple or red state. They know that an open amendment process won’t get them what they want, so they want to change how our system works by getting what they want like a thief in the night.
Clearly it does. Gore won the 2000 popular vote 48.4% – 47.9%, i.e., by more than 500,000 votes in an election with about 101.5 million voters. Yet he still lost the electoral college.
That looks pretty radically out of line with the PV. Your mileage may vary, depending on your definition of radically.
Proponents of the Pennsylvania trial balloon need to clarify what problem it’s supposed to be fixing. The superficial answer is the unfairness of winner-take-all to the electoral minority. However, the Pennsylvania plan “fixes” this unfairness by relying on extensive gerrymandering to ensure that the electoral minority receives a majority of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. As far as fairness goes, proportionate disenfranchisement of the electoral majority would not seem to be particulary optimal. So one is left to wonder what problem this plan would actually fix … with the immediate, obvious answer of “A majority of Pennsylvania voters might select the Democratic presidential candidate in 2012.” So why not just have the legislature choose the electors and be done with it?
That has only happened three times in american history, and the PV result was a statistical tie, and thus to no one’s suprise the EC had to act as a tiebreaker.
So No, the EC does not give results radically out of line with PV results. I think someone is just sore they got on the wrong side of a tiebreaker in 2000. Get over it.
You think recounts are a problem now, just wait if there is a popular vote to decide the presidency.
Any election decided by 3 million votes or less – 2% of votes cast – is going to get the recount treatment unless you include restrictions in the constitutional amendment getting rid of the EV.
Beyond that, do we think that the country is going to remain this polarized forever? Will CA always vote heavily democratic? Will Texas always be a Republican state?
But the most important reason to keep the EV is that it nationalizes the race. Look at a population density map of the US and you will see the largest numbers clustered along the coasts. The EV forces a candidate to appeal to every region of the country. And despite the homogenization of America because of TV, we still are, in many ways, divided and defined by what region we live in.
A candidate would be crazy to come up with a rational farm policy because it would make far greater sense to favor consumers of food over producers. What about transportation funds? More for city mass transit rather than rural road building. You could go on and on. As a practical matter, the EV forces a candidate to appeal to a much broader cross section of the electorate and therefore, a president is more representative of the entire country than if elected by popular vote – won by spending the vast majority of candidate resources where there are the most people; more bang for the buck.
I find this to be a dubious proposition, given that what the EV actually does is focus competition to the battleground states. It does the exact opposite of nationalizing the race.
And in regards to the policy objections: since those policy decisions are made by Congress, and not the president, there is more than sufficient protection for various constituencies within the whole of the country.
Steven, your point earlier about the intent of the Electoral College is a good one, and deserves restating. All of the things that people are pointing out about the Electoral College, even if true, are not things that were its intended design, given the ways that we’ve mucked about with it in the meantime. Can anybody point to a Founder explicitly stating that the goal of the Electoral College was to nationalize the race?
Getting away from Founder Father Fetish reasoning, though, like Steven says, it’s just wrong that the Electoral College nationalizes the race. Instead it focuses not just on battleground states, but states that have the right combination of size and closeness. A function based both on the amount of electors in play in a state and the recent polling margin there would determine what states would get focus. Wyoming really gets more electors per voter, but since everybody knows which way Wyoming is going to go, they’re effectively disenfranchised (actually disenfranchised, as in, they may as well not vote, because the outcome is predetermined no matter what the relative weight of their votes). Even if it were close, though, it’s too small to really count unless the election was super-tight.
Going to allocating electoral votes by congressional district presents you with exactly the same problem, except instead of 51 times, it presents it 436 times. Most of the work of electing the president would be done during the redistricting process, after which everybody would just sit back and wait for the results they knew would come. Not incidentally, Republicans have been much better at gaming the redistricting process, which is why such a system would favor them over Democrats implicitly.
One more point: for those supporting apportioning EVs by Congressional district, what exactly is it as a Congressional district that makes it so that their votes deserve to be yoked together into one EV? The process for creating Congressional districts is inherently political and artificial.
You cannot say this enough times — the EV does not, not not nationalize the race. Several tracking studies done since the 60’s show that presidential campaigns focus, in time and money, on battleground states. If you use that as an argument, you are just factually wrong.
Please pick another argument as to why someone in Wyoming has 5 times the influence I do in a presidential election, because I moved to where my job was.
@John Rogers: Except that the reason battleground states are battleground states is because the tensin and population make-up tend to most resemble that of the country as a whole at the time, so in essence the countrywide battle is fought by proxy in the battlefield states.
An interesting “What if?” question would be… “What if John Kerry had picked up another 150k votes in Ohio?” Winning the presidency, but losing the popular vote (and by a more substantial margin than Bush did against Gore).
I think, with each party having been burned by the EC in two consecutive elections, you might have seen some real movement on this issue. Or maybe it would have just been four years of Republicans making the popular vote argument and Democrats defending the EC.
With regard to 2000, I think one of the issues was that the popular vote sort of got overlooked due to the Florida election problems. They spent the time and energy claiming that Gore was the legitimate winner of Florida, and when that was done the country wasn’t really in the mood to hear anything more about how unfair the process was. Had Florida been a cleaner victory, all of the focus might have been on the EC itself.
I also think that 2000 sort of “played to type” wherein liberals are more generally opposed to the EC and Republicans generally more in favor of it. Had it been reversed, and the system that liberals opposed produced President Kerry and the system they supported ousting President Bush, it might have been a more fluid situation (as to how to approach future elections) rather than everyone digging in their heels.
Except, of course, for the fact that this is utter nonsense.
@Steven L. Taylor: Is it? Florida and Missouri are (just to name two examples) two classic battleground states, and for much of the 20th century, MO was a classic bellweather. As Mo went, so did the national election. Both places share strong similiarties with the naitonal electorate as a whole.
So I don’t think it’s “utter nonsense”. Battleground states are battlegrounds for a reason. It’s where different ideologies collide.
That is not the same thing as having a “population make-up tend to most resemble that of the country as a whole at the time”
IN regards to Florida classic battleground case of late, it has a much higher Hispanic population that the country as a whole. And off the top of my head, the share of Florida’s economy that derives from tourism is much higher than the US as a whole.
Ohio, a battleground state of late, is more white by something like 10 points as the nation as a whole.
So, yes, your assertion is utter nonsense.
@Polaris: And BTW, what is your alleged academic discipline again?
I’ve already told you. You are trying to bait me which is a violation of your own rules of your own blog. Just saying.
As for the rest, I didn’t say that the battlefield states were identical only that they showed strong similiarities and they do esp when viewed as a composite. Florida may have more hispanic votes for example, but those hispanic votes tend to be more conservative than the national average too. Florida also has enclaves much like the NE US while the northern part of the state is much like the deep south. Ergo, Florida is a classic battleground.
Seems to me that you think someone can’t be an “acedemic” unless they agree with you.
We have a rule that forbids people from identifying their area of expertise? Wild. I was unaware of that one.
I do have doubts at this point as to your claims of academic bona fides, yes. But not because you don’t agree with me. Your assertion that all ones need to know about a concept is the word’s ancient origins is what is making me wonder. Most academics understand that dealing with complex terms is a bit more involved than that. Further, the way you make claims is not what I would expect from someone in the sciences (which is what you claimed in a previous thread–although in a vague way, hence my direct question).
There is a point missing here: the problem of the popular vote is not to give or not to give power to small states. The problem is that there is a tendency in the popular vote that just one or two larger states or metropolitan areas deciding the elections.
Wyoming has the same population of a medium sized city. It can´t have much influence in any election.
I like the idea of proportional distribution of the votes: no more battleground states. Another problem is that the size of the Congressional Districts is too big: that´s already creating lots of problems, and that´s distorts the Electoral College.
I believe your own rule here is the same as in most blogs. “Baiting” is a no-go, and that includes trying to create an argument for the sake of an argument. IMHO that is what you are doing here. It does seem to me that you are trying to cause trouble because you disagree with me.
If you really do not want me to post here than ban me. If course if you do so after I’ve been polite, that will merely confirm my charge, but you do have that option.
No, I am not trying to bait you (bait you into what?). I am not making derogatory comments about your parentage, I am honestly curious as to your background (given that you brought it up, even if vaguely) the first time you ever commented (to my recollection) in a thread to one of my posts.
Do i suspect at this point that your initial claims of academic connection are questionable? At this point yes, mostly because asking about it is making you evasive and because you are treating with a discussion of the definition of terms in what I would consider a non-academic approach (or, at least, not what I would expect from someone with a Ph.D. in any field). I did think that, perhaps, if I knew your field it would shed some light on your mode of reasoning.
1) You should know better than to claim things like “democracy” means “rule by the people” (demos+kratos) and therefore that’s all you need to know.
2) Your claims that battleground states are battlegrounds states because they are representative of the country is pretty imprecise (to be kind) and especially imprecise for someone who claims to have a background (or so you inferred) in the sciences.
I would have been less surprised by these approaches had you not claimed an academic (and hard science) background.
I fail to see how this is a problematic line of inquiry.