Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general

Why the Electoral College Matters


Belushi: An Electoral College Attendee?

One of those arcane topics that makes its way into political conversation is the Electoral College. Despite the fact that it should be treated as a pretty technical subject, it is usually given the same bumper-sticker treatment that serves as political discussion these days. Popular sentiment boils down to, the will of the people is ignored by the Electoral College and it should be reformed or replaced to more directly represent the popular vote.

Hey, great idea, right? Who could possibly be against the will of the people and the popular vote? And besides, isn’t the Electoral College some arcane leftover from the 18th century? Wasn’t it devised by a bunch of fuddy-duddies who were after maintaining power for the privileged few? Like most bumper sticker ideas, these are all exploded rather easily once you actually examine things.

First of all, the founders created the Electoral College expressly to prevent the type of insane power brokering that happens when somebody is incapable of winning the popular vote. Having experienced the shortcomings of parliamentary elections first-hand as British subjects, they were determined that Presidential elections should have a clear winner. Further, they were determined that each state would have a fair say in determining the winner. As odd as it may seem to people without a solid grounding in American history, our nation has always had regional differences in culture, along with the attendant political differences that arise from them. Although we love to dismiss many of their ideas as outdated and irrelevant in modern society, the Founders understood that direct elections bring with them tremendous peril for functioning government.

Were they right in their assumptions and fears? That anyone of voting age could think otherwise demonstrates either the inability to comprehend civics – or do some basic math. Currently, there is a proposal going around calling for each state to amend their constitutions to allow for direct apportionment of their Electors. The Republican Party is similarly apportioning their votes in the 2012 primary process. The result, based on the fact no candidate can seem to muster more than 40% of the vote and the front runners routinely poll in the mid-20’s, is likely to be a brokered convention. For those of you wondering what one of those looks like, I refer you to the 1968 Democratic Convention. Most people only know it for the chaos in the streets of Chicago – forgetting the chaos inside the convention itself. Before finally settling on Eugene McCarthy as the party’s candidate, the convention floor was raucous while party leaders haggled behind closed doors for days.

But could such an outcome be the result of states directly apportioning Electors? Consider three elections in our recent history:

2000: This is the election most cite in wanting to do away with the Electoral College. Neither major party candidate achieved 50% of the popular vote, but thanks to the Constitution George W. Bush garnered 279 electoral votes, 9 more than needed for victory, despite trailing Al Gore 48.4% to 47.9% in the popular vote. But had the electors been decided by the direct apportionment method, the electoral votes would have tallied as Bush 259, Gore 258, Ralph Nader 17, Pat Buchanan 4. Nader would have been a kingmaker in that scenario, as he could have pledged his votes to either major party candidate. The result would be what we witness in countries with otherwise weak minor parties – a leader forced to try and hold a coalition together, held at whim by the minor party’s demands.

1996: Bill Clinton swept to re-election with 379 electoral votes (despite only garnering 49.2% of the popular vote), but direct apportionment would have yielded a much different outcome. The tally would have been Clinton 263, Bob Dole 222, Ross Perot 53. Perot’s nascent Reform Party would have had the power to change history, but that possibility is dwarfed by the results from…

1992: This is the granddaddy of all examples as to why the Electoral College works. Perot garnered nearly 20 million votes nationwide, finishing second in Utah and Vermont (and falling short of winning Utah by less than 12,000 votes). It was the most successful third party candidacy in history, with Perot capturing 18.9% of the total popular vote. Yet, he won no electoral votes since he didn’t carry a single state. Bill Clinton won the electoral vote, 379-159 over George H.W. Bush, despite only capturing 43% of the popular vote. Under direct apportionment, the result would have been grim, indeed. Clinton would have managed only 229 electoral votes, Bush 201 – and Perot 108. Try to imagine the type of havoc Perot could – and would – have created had electors been directly apportioned. Constitutional crisis only begins to describe it.

That’s three elections within the past 20 years that would have been turned upside down, without a clear winner or any semblance of legitimacy for the eventual President. Except that the Electoral College was there to sort through the debris and declare a new President. So, before signing on to do away with the Electoral College or make dramatic changes to its structure, remember that those aging fuddy-duddies who wrote the Constitution knew a thing or two. As usual, we would be well advised to stop and think about the how and why they created the structures of our government before casting them aside.

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2 responses

  1. oldgulph

    Currently, there is NOT a proposal going around calling for each state to amend their constitutions to allow for direct apportionment of their Electors.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the MOST popular votes in all 50 states (and DC), without needing to amend any state’s or the U.S. Constitution.

    The National Popular Vote bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded by states in the Electoral College, instead of the current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all system (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states). It assures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the MOST votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

    Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the 270+ ELECTORAL COLLEGE votes from the enacting states. That majority of ELECTORAL COLLEGE votes guarantees the candidate with the MOST popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

    National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate.

    With National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere would be counted equally for, and directly assist, the candidate for whom it was cast.

    Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in the current handful of swing states. The political reality would be that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the country.

    In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives already agree that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter under the current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states. At most, 12 states will determine the election. Candidates will not care about at least 76% of the voters– voters in 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and in 16 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. 2012 campaigning would be even more obscenely exclusive than 2008 and 2004. In 2008, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. More than 85 million voters have been just spectators to the general election.

    Now, policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states – that include 9 of the original 13 states – are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing, too.

    Since World War II, a shift of only a few thousand votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections. 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore’s lead of 537,179 popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 Million votes.

    The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    States have the responsibility and power to make their voters relevant in every presidential election. The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. It does not abolish the Electoral College. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action, without state or federal constitutional amendments.

    With National Popular Vote, citizens would continue to elect the President by a majority of Electoral College votes, to represent us and conduct the business of government

    December 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    • I appreciate you POV; however, what you describe is direct apportionment. Your final argument is exactly the scenario that the Founders feared most: the national popular vote overriding the will of the states. I think it’s important to remember that the United States is not a popular democracy, or even a parliamentary democracy. We are one of the few constitutional republics on this planet. That form of government has served us well for 220 years. Before we go about changing it, consider what those changes would create in a nation as vast and populous as ours, replete with the geographical, regional and demographic distinctions that make us who we are.

      December 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm

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