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 Although we love to dismiss many of their ideas as outdated and irrelevant in modern society, the Founders understood that direct elections bring with them tremendous peril for functioning government.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.