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The Electoral College Needs to Graduate

This is about something I've disliked since I first heard about it, and which has been more salient since the election, the Electoral College.

Something seems evident on its face: anything involved with elections which has the potential to overthrow the popular will is inherently undemocratic. From that one would conclude that this thing would be immediately abolished, yet one would be wrong. The framers of the Constitution saddled us with the Electoral College right from the day it was ratified, and despite what is now the fourth election in which the presidency went to the candidate with the second most votes, we're still stuck with this most elitist, anti-democratic part of the Constitution. Okay, slavery was even worse. Women couldn't vote at all. In fact, the original interpretation even denied the vote to white men without property---so now we know why the Electoral College lasted so long: bigger fish to fry. So now what's the excuse?

Let's be clear about the problem for those for whom it's not completely obvious, which is about 40% of the public according to a poll I recently heard (sorry, I don't remember where, and that figure has probably changed by now anyway). In the presidential election, unlike any other election, the winner might not be whoever got the most votes. There is a layer put between the people and the choice of who will represent them, yet one of the bulwarks of democracy and the basis for any fair election is the principle of one person, one vote. An election in which some votes count more than others is inherently unjust. An election in which the will of the majority can be overturned by a small elite cannot be fair. It is only by happy coincidence that the result in the Electoral College usually is the same as the popular vote. As we've just seen in this last election, the will of the people can be thwarted due to the simple fact that some votes count more than others.

The consequences of this undemocratic way of choosing presidents go beyond inaugurating the loser of the election. All voters for a candidate who loses a given state are effectively disenfranchised, meaning their votes simply don't count. Even if their candidate loses a state by one vote, that candidate might as well have gotten nothing since the effect is the same. When votes are thrown out to all intents and purposes, no wonder we can have second place presidents.

The undemocratic nature of the Electoral College is firmly demonstrated by a simple bit of math. It takes only the ten largest states to choose the president provided they agree, which is not inconceivable. They needn't agree by much. If the average majority in the ten largest states was 10,000, that would make a popular majority of only 100,000. That's a number that could be overcome by any one of the 40 smaller states, yet it wouldn't matter since the election is already decided. As a consequence, presidential candidates need campaign only in those biggest states. If they can't win them all, they just need the next biggest states until they have a majority. The only way the smaller states can get any attention is by being "swing" states. As a result of the math candidates must do, the interests of only a select minority of voters need be addressed, and any other voters or interests are a waste of time.

The principle of one person, one vote requires that the presidency be settled in the only way that can represent the will of the president's constituents: a direct popular election. The word "constituents" is normally applied only to legislators, but the members of the executive branch represent the people too. In the case of the president, the constituents are all Americans. All Americans have an equal interest in how the president does his job. All Americans are affected. Shouldn't all Americans have an equal voice in choosing this individual? Simple justice demands it, and rails against allowing some votes to count more than others. Though the Electoral College is part of the Constitution, it certainly violates the Declaration of Independence.

If we had a popular election, though the big states would still get most of the attention due to the sheer quantity of votes they have, a vote in North Dakota would be worth as much as a vote in California. Fargo would have as much to say as a similar size city in California. California's interests are bound to be addressed in any event. Are North Dakota's? Maybe, in a rare circumstance where there are only a few electoral votes deciding the winner and North Dakota is a swing state. What are the odds of that happening? How much candidate attention has any three vote state ever received? Small states can only get more attention in a popular vote.

A popular vote would reward states for turnout instead of for population. The national turnout was 51%, yet some states had turnouts in the high 60's, which means some must be down in the 40's, maybe even 30's. Which states should get more attention from candidates? States would have a strong incentive to improve turnout, which would cause them to address problems that discourage turnout, like difficulties registering, or early poll closing times. These are serious obstacles in some places, and was part of the mess in Florida. Certainly as we who are actively engaged in public affairs wonder at those who aren't, we must be keenly aware of how essential an engaged citizenry is to a functioning democracy, and what a grave threat comes from mass apathy.

Apart from what incentives to vote states may add, or disincentives they may eliminate, a popular vote removes that huge obstacle of knowing a losing vote doesn't get counted. If a vote is anything other than Democrat in Minnesota, or other than Republican in Texas, what's the point? However, a popular vote means there are plenty of Democratic votes in Texas with its large population, and many Republican votes in Minnesota with its high turnout. It becomes worthwhile to vote for one's preferred candidate, and worthwhile for candidates to address those states' issues since there are votes to be had.

So why hasn't the Electoral College been dumped before now? Partly it survives through obedience to the maxim "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." We went the whole 20th Century without a different result between the popular and electoral votes. Of course, if everyone's votes had counted equally, candidates addressed the concerns of smaller states, and turnout had been encouraged instead of discouraged, some elections might have been different. We'll never know whether the system was really "ain't broke".

The other problem is that some, like the 40% in that poll, think the Electoral College is a good idea. Why? The most common defense cited is one of the main reasons it doesn't work, that small states have more to say through the electoral college than they would through a popular vote. An oft heard phrase is "California and New York will decide every election," or a variation is "the big cities will decide everything." Since the small states get a disproportionate share of the electoral vote, they get more to say about the election.

So I see. And Kansas got how many candidate visits? Any? How about Delaware, or South Dakota? The utter lack of attention for smaller states belies this argument. Though the votes of the small states did matter this time, their votes are completely immaterial to a typical election. Even this time, they received no attention unless they were swing states, which most weren't.

The same problem is found with the idea the cities will decide every election. Again, how much time did the candidates spend in rural areas? Nearly none. The people, the airports and, more importantly, the media are in the cities. Candidates focus on cities as is. How is that different from what Electoral College defenders claim would be the result if the college were abolished?

There is mistaken math behind the whole idea that the few biggest states, or the biggest cities, would decide the election. For either to be true, voters in those states or cities would have to vote as a block. Central cities tend to be Democratic, but suburbs tend to be Republican, which means they about cancel each other out. The winner of the 10 or maybe even 20 biggest metropolitan areas, assuming one candidate won them all which seems a stretch right there, probably wouldn't have that big a lead in the popular vote. However, since the biggest cities are generally in the biggest states, he would have a huge electoral advantage.

Another defense of the college, again where the reverse is actually true, is that candidates are forced to campaign in every region instead of just their geographical base. Again, real life shows this to be false. President-elect Bush ignored the northeast and the west coast. Democratic candidates from the southeast have been able to win some southeastern states, but other Democratic candidates ignore the region. Maybe their attention could encourage more Democratic turnout, but they wouldn't win the whole state, so what's the point? Candidates need address the concerns of every region only if they have hopes of winning a majority in one of those states. If they believe they can't win or can't lose, they may safely ignore it. Sure, maybe Bush would have just stayed home and encouraged huge numbers of Texans to turn out for him, but if the Texans had gone to the polls in huge numbers for one candidate, wouldn't they deserve to pick the winner?

An argument that seems to make some sense even when thought about is that the problems of disputed ballots were confined to one state. True, we didn't care about other states, and maybe there were problems elsewhere. On the other hand, with Gore's lead in the popular vote being proportionately many times the size of his Florida deficit, we needn't have cared about 500 votes in Florida and would have been spared the whole thing this time. Given Florida's prior election problems, let's not discount the idea that Florida's problems are considerably worse than most other states. That's a whole different subject I won't go into here except to say that if it's true other states do much better at accurate counts, then the whole nation wouldn't have had the same problem. Besides, other nations manage to count votes accurately, whether with technology more advanced than our antiquated systems or by hand, so why can't we? We're a bigger country, but we have more people to count votes. There are real issues of old machines, racial discrimination, absentee fraud, and confusing ballots, but they would have actually been less important in a popular vote this time.

There is a natural reluctance to throw out what the framers of the Constitution gave us when their wisdom is daily demonstrated by the American political system's stability and endurance. However, allowing that, there is another mistaken assumption, that the college works as the framers intended. That's not at all the case.

That they didn't trust the mass of people with so important a decision and wanted a layer of their own class between the people and the choice of president is certainly true. However, they didn't intend the Electoral College to be a rubber stamp of the popular vote within a state, nor did they mandate a winner take all system. They allowed the state legislatures to choose the electors (which means the Florida legislature was acting legally, aside from the question of ex post facto law, when it prepared to choose electors itself and ignore the election results). The electors would actually meet, and the college would be an assembly of some of the leading men of each state who would use their superior knowledge of the candidates and national politics to choose a president. They would actually debate the issue, not just vote. Presumably the voters just elected some favorite son from their own state or a neighboring state, and knew nothing of national political figures, so there would be several candidates for the electors to consider.

Does this sound like any real electoral college? Do any defenders of the college really want to try things that way? Then let the legislatures choose the electors. The public won't go for that? All right then, how about if the electors run for election themselves, meaning their names are on the ballot and they have to win the most votes. Too complicated? In other words, the system is not at all what the framers intended, and what they intended can't be done. Sounds like a good reason to chuck the whole thing.

Supporters of the president-elect have been fond of pointing out the Bush had a huge advantage in the number of counties he won. If each county had a vote, it would have been a landslide. Somehow this is supposed to indicate that the Electoral College is more representative of the country that the popular vote.

There are a number of problems with this, besides the fact we don't vote by county. There is a presumption a rural vote should be worth several times as much as a suburban or urban vote, which is not a presumption that urbanites and suburbanites can be presumed to support. Even more than congressional districts, counties are creatures of the states, which can change their boundaries at will. If counties mattered, then guaranteed their boundaries would be changed by whoever controlled the state government. Five counties voted the same way? Combine them into one and take away four votes from the other side! If all counties had the same population, Bush probably wouldn't have won most of them, which shows again the problem of voting by regions instead of individuals.

I mentioned congressional districts above because an idea for reforming the college is to give one electoral vote to each district and the more for the state at large. Yes, this would be more fair, but only like letting 10% of women vote would be more fair than prohibiting all of them from voting. The potential for a difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote is lessened, but not by much. In fact, were that system in place in 2000, the electoral vote would have been exactly the same. If the system were made more proportional by removing the two at large votes and only the districts counted, Gore would have won. In other words, change the lines and thereby change the election result with the exact same votes.

Two questions more throw the ridiculousness of voting this way in stark relief: if this system is more representative, why don't any states elect their governors or senators this way? Every state votes by popular vote, not by county, legislative district, etc. Why don't other nations adopt our system? There are many other nations with federal systems, yet none see fit to do things this way.

So what do I ask of our elected officials? If they want my vote, they will put election reform at the top of their agendas. Abolishing the Electoral College is the most important reform, but also the toughest since it requires a constitutional amendment. However, even if we do such necessary things as updating voting machines nationwide, standardizing the ballot, strengthening protections for voting rights, and making registration easier, the problem of an undemocratic structure to our presidential elections will remain, with the ever-present possibility of the popular will, expressed in an undeniable way at the ballot box, being overthrown.

UPDATE: It's been a year since the election, and a study by several large media companies of the Florida voting discovered that most ways of counting undervotes would have left Bush the winner, but including overvotes where the intent could be determined made Gore the winner. The latter fact was not widely reported. A good article on this is Not That It was Reported, but Gore Won.

UPDATE: A year and a half before the 2004 election, here's a petition to stop a bunch of new abuses. Privatized electronic voting already is making the honesty of our elections highly suspect.

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