Monday, January 21, 2013

An Argument For Keeping the Electoral College

What to do about the Electoral College

A recent Gallup poll asked if their respondents would "vote for or against a law that would do away with the Electoral College and base the election of the president on the total vote cast throughout the nation". 63% of respondents said that they would vote for getting rid of the Electoral College, with only 29% saying we should keep the institution. Thirteen years ago, after the controversial Bush v Gore election, a similar poll was used and Gallup found that 75% of democrats wanted to get rid of it, while only 56% of republican did, and this is where we see the real change in this most recent poll. Democrats still lead with 66% saying they want to scrap it, but Republicans aren't too far behind with 61%.

Gallup addressed past polling on this issue in their article, saying that even in 1968 80% supported getting rid of it, and 67% in 1980. The sentiment of the electoral college today is the same as it has been in the past 40+ years, and yet we're not likely to see an end to this time honored tradition of the anytime soon. Personally, I'm part of the 29% who think the electoral college needs to be kept, and that our founding fathers knew what they were talking about all those years ago.

What is the Electoral College?

The electoral college was invented as a compromise for the smaller states who would just get crushed in a popular vote. It is explained in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution 
"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector." (Clause 2)
Clause 3 then enumerates that a) each state would employ the district system of allocating electors and b) each presidential elector would exercise independent judgment when voting. What this is saying is pretty straight forward. A state gets an Elector for each congressman and senator that they have (meaning every state gets at least three from the senate plus one, no matter-what), and that Elector then votes how they see fit. This can allow room for the Elector to vote against what his district votes. This is called being a "faithless elector". In history there has been 157 cases of faithless electors, but so far these faithless electors have yet to change the outcome of an election. The ideas is that electors are simply important people whose wisdom would ideally make a better choice than a larger group of people, the founders didn't want mob rule or for one or two scheming men to turn the national election by poisoning the well of the easily swayed electorate. 

The biggest reason we have the Electoral College in this country is because the founders believed that each state was just a little country, and the federal government was there to unify them and provide the country as a whole with defense. The president isn't suppose to be a figure head of the people, but the head of the federal government. The people were to elect congressmen, congressmen were to elect senators (later changed, 1912), and the states were to elect the president. Combine this with the power given to each body of power and you see why the U.S.A is considered the greatest democracy in the world.

What is the problem with strict popular elections?

Most people don't see a problem switching to electing the president by popular vote. This is because they clearly see a problem with several 'swing' states getting all the attention and deciding elections. A lot of modern frustrations with the electoral college are based off the fact that states haven't really changed how they vote as a whole in recent elections. For example, in the middle of the 1900s there were elections where most of the country was red or blue, but recently an average voter could predict correctly how 90% of the electoral map would turn out. This trend could shift in 2016, since it is rumored that Texas could become a swing state, but that is all speculation for right now.
Population density map. Wurma, Understanding USA, 2000.

The problem with popularly elected presidential elections is as simple as this: if you take ever single eligible voter in Texas, California, New York, and Florida you get more than 50% of the turnout in the 2012 election. The exact numbers give you 50.9%, because these states have over 66.3 million eligible voters. Obviously this is with the best case for turnout, but with strong ground campaigns and a candidate that promises everything to those four very large states it isn't completely out of the question. Maybe not just those four, but maybe a select ten states and you've won the popular vote, and without a doubt Rhode Island, Vermont, and Ohio would never be heard of again during the election cycle.

A widely circulated video that discusses troubles with the Electoral College argues that it disenfranchises voters and no longer gives 1 person-1 vote, but instead those in small states have votes that are worth more than those in larger states. He goes on to show that you can win the presidency with only 21.91% of the popular vote. This is a very solid argument, and on its surface I have to agree that it seems quite unfair in a democracy. In this video the creator argues against the side I take on this issue, but he lies with statistics and looks at over-all population and not voting population, and he only looks at large cities but not states as a whole. This brings me to the most important part, the real meaning of the electoral College.

Meaning of the Electoral College

This is something that I touched upon earlier in the article, but it isn't something that can easily be explained by one or two sentences. The meaning of the Electoral College is rooted strongly in the idea of federalism and separation of powers. Reddit user t4lisker explains this better than I can, and this comment is one of the reasons I feel like we should keep the Electoral College.
We don't have an Electoral College so that the smaller states have a voice. We have it because the constituency of the office of the President is the states assembled in Congress, not each of us as individuals. It isn't supposed to be a position that represents each of us individually. It represents the executive branch of the federal government. The federal government is supposed to oversee the national affairs of the states that are in the union, which are things like national defense and interstate commerce and relations with foreign nations.
Originally, the Electoral College was supposed to be an ad hoc group of people appointed by the states to determine who would be the best person to run the business of the federal government. The president isn't supposed to worry about us individually - that's supposed to be the job of the state governments. But since Lincoln, the presidency and the federal government has acted more as a unified nation rather than the collection of sovereign states that it was before 1865.
(Remember that at the time the Constitution was written the states were sovereign and independent from each other, and that over the 80 years between 1787 and 1861 there was a lot of conflict over whether the federal government was over the states or a servant of the states. Since 1865, the states have been subordinate to the federal government.)
I like the Electoral College and frankly I wish that it was disconnected from the popular vote. I think it's dangerous to have a president who is more than an executive and who so many people have passionate feelings about. It's easy for a cult of personality to develop around a candidate, which is something that the founding fathers wanted to avoid. They wanted a professional who would manage the business of the federal government, not a figurehead.
Why are the numbers of electors the same as the number of Senators and Representatives that the state gets? Every state has the same number of senators because the Senate is supposed to represent the state governments, not the people of the state. Every state has the same vote in the Senate. (Senators were not supposed to be popularly elected originally - something that most people who want to go back to the "original intent" of the Constitution don't know.) The larger states have more of a voice in the House where representation is proportional. The Electoral College allows for the states to have the same proportion of representation as they do in Congress. And, remember, the president is supposed to execute the laws passed by Congress - he's an employee of the federal government, not a dictator (in the original Roman sense).
The Electoral college has nothing to do with logistics. It has to do with constituency - the president's constitutional powers are only supposed to apply to the business of the federal government, not directly to each of us. The federal government is made up of the sovereign states assembled in Congress. Each state was supposed to manage it's own internal affairs.

Clearly we aren't operating under that system any more and haven't been for 150 years. If we decide collectively to liberalize the election of the president, so be it. But it would fundamentally change how we interpret the underlying structure of the federal government as it was envisioned when the Constitution was ratified.

Is there a compromise to these two sides of the argument? I believe there is, we need to keep the Electoral College but get rid of the winner take all in all of the states. Not only is it unfair that states like California have a large portion of their districts vote red only to have all of the Electoral College votes go to the democratic candidate every time. If large states weren't in the bag for one side or the other then candidates would have to try and get their message across, visit more states, and see more people every time there is an election.

Photo: AP

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