The Indefensible Electoral College

Why even the best-laid defenses of the system are wrong.

| Fri Oct. 8, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

What have Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bob Dole, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO all, in their time, agreed on? Answer: Abolishing the electoral college! They're not alone; according to a Gallup poll in 2000, taken shortly after Al Gore -- thanks to the quirks of the electoral college -- won the popular vote but lost the presidency, over 60 percent of voters would prefer a direct election to the kind we have now. This year voters can expect another close election in which the popular vote winner could again lose the presidency. And yet, the electoral college still has its defenders. What gives?

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As George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M university, reminds us in his new book, Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, "The choice of the chief executive must be the people's, and it should rest with none other than them." Fans of the electoral college usually admit that the current system doesn't quite satisfy this principle. Instead, Edwards notes, they change the subject and tick off all the "advantages" of the electoral college. But even the best-laid defenses of the old system fall apart under close scrutiny. The electoral college has to go.

What's wrong with the electoral college

Under the electoral college system, voters vote not for the president, but for a slate of electors, who in turn elect the president. If you lived in Texas, for instance, and wanted to vote for Kerry, you'd vote for a slate of 34 Democratic electors pledged to Kerry. On the off-chance that those electors won the statewide election, they would go to Congress and Kerry would get 34 electoral votes. Who are the electors? They can be anyone not holding public office. Who picks the electors in the first place? It depends on the state. Sometimes state conventions, sometimes the state party's central committee, sometimes the presidential candidates themselves. Can voters control whom their electors vote for? Not always. Do voters sometimes get confused about the electors and vote for the wrong candidate? Sometimes.

The single best argument against the electoral college is what we might call the disaster factor. The American people should consider themselves lucky that the 2000 fiasco was the biggest election crisis in a century; the system allows for much worse. Consider that state legislatures are technically responsible for picking electors, and that those electors could always defy the will of the people. Back in 1960, segregationists in the Louisiana legislature nearly succeeded in replacing the Democratic electors with new electors who would oppose John F. Kennedy. (So that a popular vote for Kennedy would not have actually gone to Kennedy.) In the same vein, "faithless" electors have occasionally refused to vote for their party's candidate and cast a deciding vote for whomever they please. This year, one Republican elector in West Virginia has already pledged not to vote for Bush; imagine if more did the same. Oh, and what if a state sends two slates of electors to Congress? It happened in Hawaii in 1960. Luckily, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was presiding over the Senate, validated only his opponent's electors, but he made sure to do so "without establishing a precedent." What if it happened again?

Perhaps most worrying is the prospect of a tie in the electoral vote. In that case, the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where state delegations vote on the president. (The Senate would choose the vice-president.) Because each state casts only one vote, the single representative from Wyoming, representing 500,000 voters, would have as much say as the 55 representatives from California, who represent 35 million voters. Given that many voters vote one party for president and another for Congress, the House's selection can hardly be expected to reflect the will of the people. And if an electoral tie seems unlikely, consider this: In 1968, a shift of just 41,971 votes would have deadlocked the election; In 1976, a tie would have occurred if a mere 5,559 voters in Ohio and 3,687 voters in Hawaii had voted the other way. The election is only a few swing voters away from catastrophe.

At the most basic level, the electoral college is unfair to voters. Because of the winner-take-all system in each state, candidates don't spend time in states they know they have no chance of winning, focusing only on the tight races in the "swing" states. During the 2000 campaign, seventeen states didn't see the candidates at all, including Rhode Island and South Carolina, and voters in 25 of the largest media markets didn't get to see a single campaign ad. If anyone has a good argument for putting the fate of the presidency in the hands of a few swing voters in Ohio, they have yet to make it.

The best-laid defenses ...

So much for the charges against the electoral college. The arguments in favor of the electoral college are a bit more intricate. Here's a quick list of the favorite defenses -- and the counterarguments that undo them.

The founding fathers wanted it that way!

Advocates of the electoral college often appeal to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers -- after all, they set up the system, presumably they had something just and wise in mind, right? Wrong. History shows that the framers whipped up the electoral college system in a hurry, with little discussion and less debate. Whatever wisdom the Founding Fathers had, they sure didn't use it to design presidential elections. At the time, most of the framers were weary after a summer's worth of bickering, and figured that George Washington would be president no matter what, so it wasn't a pressing issue.

Most of the original arguments in favor of an electoral college system are no longer valid. The electoral college was partially a concession to slaveholders in the South, who wanted electoral clout without letting their slaves actually vote. (Under the electoral college, slaves counted towards a state's electoral vote total.) The framers also thought that ordinary people wouldn't have enough information to elect a president, which is not necessarily a concern today.

It protects state interests!

States don't really have coherent "interests," so it's hard to figure out exactly what this means. (Is there something, for instance, that all New Yorkers want purely by virtue of being New Yorkers?) Under the current system, presidents rarely campaign on local issues anyways -- when George Edwards analyzed campaign speeches from 1996 and 2000, he found only a handful that even mentioned local issues. And that's as it should be. We have plenty of Congressmen and Senators who cater to local concerns. The president should take a broader view of the national interest, not beholden to any one state or locale.

It's consistent with federalism!

All history students recall that the Great Compromise of 1787 created the House, which gives power to big populous states, and the Senate, which favors small states. The compromise was just that, a compromise meant to keep delegates happy and the Constitution Convention in motion. Nevertheless, the idea that small states need protection has somehow become legitimated over the years, and is used to support the electoral college -- which gives small states disproportionate power in electing a president. But what, pray tell, do small states need protection from? It's not as if big states are all ganging up on Wyoming. The fiercest rivalries have always been between regions, like the South and North in the 1800s, or between big states, like California and Texas today. Furthermore, most small states are ignored in presidential campaigns, so it's not clear that the current system is protecting anything.

It protects minorities!

Some college buffs have argued that, since ethnic minorities are concentrated in politically competitive states, the electoral college forces candidates to pay more attention to minorities. This sounds great, but it's wholly untrue. Most African-Americans, for instance, are concentrated in the South, which has rarely been a "swing" region. Hispanic voters, meanwhile, largely reside in California, Texas, and New York, all uncompetitive states. It's true that Cubans in Florida have benefited wonderfully from the electoral college, but they represent an extremely narrow interest group. All other minority voters have less incentive to vote. It's no surprise that the electoral college has often enabled presidential candidates to ignore minorities in various states -- in the 19th century, for instance, voting rights were poorly enforced in non-competitive states.

It makes presidential races more cohesive!

In an August column for Newsweek, George Will argued that the electoral college somehow makes presidential elections more cohesive. Again, fine in principle, untrue in practice. Will first suggests that the system forces candidates to win a broad swathe of states, rather than just focusing on the most populous regions. But even if that happened, how is that worse than candidates focusing on a few random swing states? Or take Will's claim that the electoral college system prevents "factions" from "uniting their votes across state lines." What? Factions already exist -- white male voters vote Republican, African-Americans vote Democrat; evangelicals vote Republican, atheists vote Democrat. If our polarized country is a concern, it has little to do with the electoral college.

It gives legitimacy to the winner!

Finally, Will argues that the electoral college strengthens or legitimizes the winner. For example, Woodrow Wilson won only 41.8 percent of the popular vote, but his 81.9 percent electoral vote victory "produced a strong presidency." This suggests that voters are fools and that the electoral vote total somehow obscures the popular vote total. (If a candidate gets 45 percent of the popular vote, voters aren't going to think he got more than that just because he got 81 percent of the electoral vote total. And even if they do, do we really want a system whose aim is to mislead voters about election results?) Furthermore, there's no real correlation between a strong electoral vote showing and a strong presidency. George H.W. Bush received 426 electoral votes, while Harry Truman received only 303 in 1948 and George W. Bush a mere 271 in 2000. Yet the latter two were undeniably "stronger" presidents in their dealings with Congress. There's also no evidence that an electoral landslide creates a "mandate" for change. The landslides in 1984 and 1972 didn't give Reagan or Nixon a mandate for much of anything -- indeed, those two presidents got relatively little done in their second terms.

Direct elections would be a disaster

Even after all the pro-college arguments have come unraveled, college advocates often insist on digging in their heels and saying that a direct election would be even worse. They're still wrong. Here are the two main arguments leveled against direct elections:

1. The recounts would kill us!

It's true, a nationwide recount would be more nightmarish than, say, tallying up all the hanging chads in Florida. At the same time, we'd be less likely to see recounts in a direct election, since the odds that the popular election would be within a slim enough margin of error is smaller than the odds that a "swing" state like Florida would need a recount. Under a direct election, since it usually takes many more votes to sway a race (as opposed to a mere 500 in Florida), there is less incentive for voter fraud, and less reason for candidates to think a recount will change the election. But set aside these arguments for a second and ask: why do so many people fear the recount? If it's such a bad idea to make sure that every vote is accurately tallied, then why do we even have elections in the first place?

2. Third parties would run amok!

The ultimate argument against the electoral college is that it would encourage the rise of third parties. It might. But remember, third parties already play a role in our current system, and have helped swing the election at least four times in the last century -- in 1912, 1968, 1992 and 2000. Meanwhile, almost every other office in the country is filled by direct election, and third parties play an extremely small role in those races. There are just too many social and legal obstacles blocking the rise of third parties. Because the Democratic and Republican parties tend to be sprawling coalitions rather than tightly-knit homogenous groups, voters have every incentive to work "within the system". Likewise, in a direct election, the two parties would be more likely to rally their partisans and promote voter turnout, which would in turn strengthen the two-party system. And if all else fails, most states have laws limiting third party ballot access anyways. Abolishing the electoral college won't change that.

It's official: The electoral college is unfair, outdated, and irrational. The best arguments in favor of it are mostly assertions without much basis in reality. And the arguments against direct elections are spurious at best. It's hard to say this, but Bob Dole was right: Abolish the electoral college!

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