The Electoral College

From the NYTimes, opining about the electoral college as defective, even if in some important ways it now favors Democrats:

The Electoral College remains a deeply defective political mechanism no matter whom it benefits, and it needs to be abolished.

We say that in full knowledge that the college may be tilting toward the kinds of candidates we tend to support and provided a far more decisive margin for Mr. Obama earlier this month than his showing in the popular vote. The idea that a voting method might convey benefits to one side or another, in fact, is one of the strongest arguments against it.

There should be no structural bias in the presidential election system, even if population swings might oscillate over a long period of decades. If Democrats win a string of elections, it should be because their policies and their candidates appeal to a majority of the country’s voters, not because supporters are clustered in enough states to get to 270 electoral votes. Republicans should broaden their base beyond a shrinking proportion of white voters not simply to win back Colorado, but because a more centrist outlook would be good for the country….

But 76 years later, the system continues to calcify American politics. As Adam Liptak of The Times recently wrote, this year’s candidates campaigned in only 10 states after the conventions, ignoring the Democratic states on the West Coast and Northeast and the Republican ones in the South and the Plains. The number of battleground states is shrinking, and turnout in the other states is lower. The undemocratic prospect of a president who loses the popular vote is always present (it’s happened three times), as is the potential horror show of a tie vote that is decided in Congress.

The last serious consideration of a constitutional amendment to abolish the college, in 1970, was filibustered by senators from small states who feared losing their disproportionate clout. The same thing would probably happen today, even thoughRepublicans (who tend to dominate those states) are increasingly skeptical of the college.

The best method of moving toward direct democracy remains the National Popular Vote plan, under which states agree to grant their electoral votes to the ticket that gets the most popular votes around the country. Legislators in eight states and the District of Columbia (representing 132 electoral votes) have agreed to do so; the plan would go into effect when states totaling 270 electoral votes sign up.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • MatthewS

    “The number of battleground states is shrinking, and turnout in the other states is lower.”

    “The best method of moving toward direct democracy remains the National Popular Vote plan…”

    Interesting food for thought. But they do not show how the National Popular Vote plan would result in more representative candidating or voting, or how it might go wrong in its own right.

  • Joe Canner

    I would have thought that the Electoral College benefits Republicans, because more of the low population states vote Republican and these states have electoral votes out of proportion to their population.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    Why is it self-evident that the President should be elected by popular vote (as proposed by this article) and not by the states (as conceived by the framers of the Constitution)?

    I am not only in favor of the electoral college; I am in favor of repealing the 17th Amendment.

  • EricW

    Let’s also get rid of the bicameral congress and go unicameral, like Nebraska. Same logic, ISTM.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I wonder how we would deal with issues of close elections when we have to recount the darn thing?

  • Paul

    “this year’s candidates campaigned in only 10 states after the conventions, ignoring the Democratic states on the West Coast and Northeast and the Republican ones in the South and the Plains.”

    But if the electoral college was abolished, wouldn’t candidates ignore the smaller populated areas of the country in favor of only large cities? Isn’t someone always being ignored, regardless of the system?

  • http://focusonglory.wordpress.com/ Jason Dollar

    It seems the electoral college was created out of a need for such a thing. It further seems the need is no longer viable, especially with technology at its current level. There is no reason why an internet-based voting system couldn’t be set up (imagine the money saved from not having to set up polling places, etc). The president could then be elected based soley on popular vote. Of course, there would be fraud. We got a little bit of that now, don’t we? In fact, I think fraud would be easier to control if voting were internet-based.

  • nathan

    These arguments rise out of a basic ignorance about the wisdom of the electoral college (as well as originally having Senators decided by state legislatures). Despite all the demagoguing every election cycle about “checking” government, we forget that the whole system is designed with checks and balances for EVERYONE…even “we the people”.

    The Electoral College acts as a check on the passions of the people. Furthermore, The House, with it’s two year terms, was meant to be an outlet for those passions and was envisioned to experience high and regular turnover in who filled those seats. The Senate would then act as counterbalance.

    The Framers didn’t have a higher confidence in the average voter over and against “government”. They weren’t proto-libertarians with Austrian economic commitments by any stretch, no matter what lying and revisionism you hear to the contrary. They didn’t believe taxation was “theft” or that “government” was inherently problematic.

    They were the very definition of “elitists” (even the anti-slavery ones), and they understood the dangers of what Asimov famously lamented about letting “democracy mean that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

    Anytime I hear any whining about the EC from Right or Left, all I hear is a fundamental ignorance about the Constitutional system really gives us.

    We’re a Republic. NOT a democracy. Thank God.

  • EricW

    “In fact, I think fraud would be easier to control if voting were internet-based.”

    Sure. Of course, that depends on who controls the Internet.

    I can see it now: For four to eight years we’ll be at war with Eurasia, and then for the next four to eight years we’ll be at war with Eastasia. Wash, rinse, repeat.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    Jason Dollar, the electoral college was created so that the states elect the President. Please recall that the Constitution created a federal union out of thirteen autonomous states, and as such, the Constitution was conceived by the framers to balance the interests of the various states, and the interests of the states against the federal government, as well as to balance the branches of the federal government.

  • Jonathan

    First of all, I would think any state could do this anytime they wanted. I suspect they don’t because of the blow to state sovereignty if a state government cedes its electoral votes to the national result.

    I would be in support of a proportional allotment such as this: Two of a state’s electoral votes go the way of the state’s popular vote (to represent the Senate seats). The remainder are divided proportionally according the the districts popular vote.

    I don’t have the district data for my home state of Georgia, but if the votes for president were concurrent with the parties that were elected to the US House, Romney would have gotten an automatic 2 electors for winning the state, 9 electors for winning nine districts, and Obama would have received 5 electors for winning five districts. This might raise the number of “battleground states,” and it could have the effect of enhancing the “every vote counts” mantra that both parties depend on. How many Obama supporters stayed home because all of Georgia’s 16 electoral votes were a shoe-in for Romney?

    Again, any state could do this any time.

  • jon

    @ericW, implementing a secure, online vote would be much more reliable than current processes. Just because electronic voting hasn’t been done well doesn’t mean it can’t be. With an electronic process, we could privately ensure one’s vote counts, have paper backups, make an unhackable secure connection (constantly updating to move with technology), and make voting an easier process. Not to mention the fact that many countries have already implemented such a system.

    Here are some great podcasts about the possibilities of voting technology.

    http://5by5.tv/hypercritical/93
    http://5by5.tv/hypercritical/94

    Bitcoin is another example of how to implement a very secure system with mulitple checks to prevent fraud.

  • Jag

    Anytime a president is elected after losing the majority vote, the majority of the people must accept being led by a president whom they did not vote for as a consequence of protecting the rights of states.

    Well, I don’t care to grant my state the power to toss away my vote just because it’s a small southern state that needs protecting from the passions of liberal voters like me. Why even bother to vote? I am fed up with the concept of state’s rights, which seem to be more focused on limiting my individual rights than anything. The federal government is who I look to to defend my life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

  • AHH

    One factor in this conversation should be the “state” identity was very important when the Constitution was written, but is practically irrelevant in these days of increased mobility. I have lived in 4 different states as an adult, none of which was the state I was born in. If you ask me what state I am “from”, I might reply with the one where I lived from ages 8-21, or the one I have lived in for the past 18 years, but I have no great attachment to either. In contrast to 200 years ago, most people nowadays think of themselves as Americans first, and Virginians or whatever second, if at all.

  • EricW

    Since we’re on the subject, 50 states is a bit ridiculous. There should be some consolidation of states based on a formula taking into account population and/or geographic size. Some major cities should be states unto themselves, whereas some Midwestern or Plains states should probably be combined.

    This could be fun, like a game of RISK. :)

  • EricW

    11 Jonathan wrote:

    “I would be in support of a proportional allotment such as this: Two of a state’s electoral votes go the way of the state’s popular vote (to represent the Senate seats). The remainder are divided proportionally according the the districts popular vote.”

    Maine and Nebraska use the “congressional district method”, selecting one elector within each congressional district by popular vote and selecting the remaining two electors by a statewide popular vote – per the Wikipedia entry on “Electoral College (United States)”

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    AHH, I think you are right about the erosion of state identity but wrong about the reason why–people were surprisingly mobile in the 18th and 19th centuries and while it is true that then (as now!) many people lived in the same place all their lives, many people also moved from state ot state for a variety of reasons.

    The political significance of individual states really first began to break after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th-15th Amendments and has never recovered–the proliferation of Congressional tax and spend power now virtually assures that state political power is nonexistent. On a cultural level, the 20th-century rise of mass media–television in particular–has contributed significantly to a general decline in regional (state and otherwise) cultural distinctiveness and a move towards more of a national cultural identity.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    EricW, are you familiar with the Nine Nations of North America?

  • Phil Miller

    All this hand-wringing over something that’s a relatively rare occurrence seems a bit odd. There’s been 57 presidential elections since the Constitution was ratified, and only four times has the candidate who did not win the popular vote win via the Electoral College. It just gets old.

    I think there would be quite a bit of bureaucracy involved in having the presidential vote be a pure popular vote. For one thing, in close elections, we could have the potential of having to recount votes all over the country, not just in isolated counties or states. Then you get into how things like absentee and provisional ballots are handled. It could become something of a logistical nightmare.

  • Joe Canner

    AHH #12: Very good point. Loyalty to one’s state over one’s country and the idea of the US as a collection of states has been declining ever since the Civil War. Increased mobility has only served to increase the pace. Of course, there are still people in certain parts of the country for whom this is not true and would put up a fuss if laws were changed that took votes or other rights away from the states.

    Paul #6: You are right, but I don’t think candidates would concentrate on large cities, as they are (for now) reliably “blue”. I think you would see candidates focus on small cities and suburban areas, where there are mixtures of red and blue. There are many such areas around the country and candidates would have to travel to more than just 10 swing states. All that said, I don’t think we have any business changing the system just to change the way candidates campaign. There may be other good reasons to change, but that is not one of them.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Nathan #8

    “We’re a Republic. NOT a democracy. Thank God.”

    Amen! ;-)

  • http://www.mindfuljustice.com Jim

    I won’t comment (much) about the politcal philosophies expressed here. Has being a Republic served us all that well? I would argue we’re more like an Empire. We could still maintain a representative style government without the Electoral College – they have nothing to do with electing the Senate or Congress.

    I think if the Electoral College were abolished, it would force people to run in all 50 states. It looks now like the only way either party goes to states like New York or California is to fund raise. I’m not really sure of the numbers, but a direct democracy might get people to participate in the “sure” states.

  • AHH

    The Maine/Nebraska approach, giving one electoral vote to each congressional district, has the weakness that many states have grossly gerrymandered their congressional districts, so that maybe 80-90% of the districts in the country are heavily “red” or “blue”. [Also leading to grotesque results like Republicans winning 13 of 18 seats in Pennsylvania despite Democratic candidates getting more total votes, but that's another discussion.] So much of the country would still have no effective vote in the Presidential election.

    Kullervo @17, I accept your good observation that the relative increase in federal power and the homogenization due to mass media are at least as important, and probably more so, than the mobility factor I mentioned for the decline of the degree to which people consider themselves citizens of particular states.

  • Darren

    Nathan #8
    Michael #21

    “We’re a Republic. NOT a democracy. Thank God.”

    Amen!


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