Thursday, October 11, 2012

A proposition in defense of the electoral college

There are two complaints you hear about it: one that is more defensible and one that is less defensible.

The more defensible complaint is that small states get a disproportional amount of votes so that it's not one man/one vote. This is a reasonable thing to complain about, in my mind. This is not a decision about the structure of an institution, after all. This is the actual election of an actual candidate. It's one thing to give a state two Senators no matter what the population is. It's another thing entirely to say that one person's vote counts more than another person's vote in the same election for the same Senator. And yet that's what goes on in the electoral college.

The less defensible complaint is that only a few states actually matter because of the winner take all system. This complaint boils down to a complaint that we don't have a popular vote for the president. The problem with a popular vote for a national office is that it would substantially threaten American federalism. Presidents would no longer need to be popular across a wide variety of states. They would cater more to interest groups not defined by states.

Who cares? - you might ask. Why should the president have to appeal to a wide variety of states if a lot of us don't live in those states? Because a lot of policy in a federation ought to be made at the state level, and if a president is going to pursue a particular program it ought to be one that a wide cross section of voters in competing jurisdictions (competing with the federal government in this case) approve of. The federal government has broad, vaguely defined, contestable powers. This creates a lot of overlap between what the federal government could do and what the states could do. If presidents are going to propose programs that might infringe on states you want people across a lot of states to be OK with that. You don't want a lot of people from a few states dictating the relative powers of all the other states.


Granted, you could flip this formula for making votes popular but still winner take all. You could also do it like the structure of the Congress and drop winner-take-all, but make the representation disproportional. This would work too. I guess I just like the idea of one-person-one vote. Explicitly telling someone from Wyoming their vote will count more than someone from New York seems a lot more problematic to me than telling everyone in Wyoming that they have to get together and agree on who they're going to pick and everyone in New York that they have to get together and agree on who they're going to pick. That second way of doing things seems like its valuing everyone equally, but structuring the election in a way that acknowledges that we are "not a nation, but a nation of nations".


  1. One important thing to keep in mind: some states chop up their electoral votes.

    That's fine.

    That's a state's prerogative. And if lots of states do that it strongly suggests the states want a federal government that is more responsive to the people writ large. Similarly, if people wanted they could abolish the Senate.

    I'm just saying that I think federalism is important and I think the Senate and the electoral college is critical to preserving that.

    But I think democracy is also important and if Nebraska wants to split its votes that's up to Nebraskans.

    If more states follow suit that's tough luck for me. Clearly a lot of people across a lot of states do not agree with federalism as I see it... and as a federalist, that has to mean something to me.

    But I can still explain why I like the electoral college how it is.

  2. With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with a mere 26% of the nation's votes!

    Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don't matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state, ensures that the candidates, after the conventions, in 2012 will not reach out to about 80% of the states and their voters. 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.

    80% of the states and people have been just spectators to the presidential elections. That's more than 85 million voters.

  3. With the Electoral College and federalism, the Founding Fathers meant to empower the states to pursue their own interests within the confines of the Constitution. The National Popular Vote is an exercise of that power, not an attack upon it.

    The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists who vote as rubberstamps for their party’s presidential candidate. That is not what the Founders intended.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    During the course of campaigns, candidates are educated and campaign about the local, regional, and state issues most important to the handful of battleground states they need to win. They take this knowledge and prioritization with them once they are elected. Candidates need to be educated and care about all of our states.

    Compare the response to hurricane Katrina (in Louisiana, a "safe" state) to the federal response to hurricanes in Florida (a "swing" state) under Presidents of both parties. President Obama took more interest in the BP oil spill, once it reached Florida's shores, after it had first reached Louisiana. Some pandering policy examples include ethanol subsidies, Steel Tariffs, and Medicare Part D. Policies not given priority, include those most important to non-battleground states - like comprehensive immigration reform, water issues in the west, and Pacific Rim trade issues,

    “Maybe it is just a coincidence that most of the battleground states decided by razor-thin margins in 2008 have been blessed with a No Child Left Behind exemption. “

    Six current heavily traveled Cabinet members, have made more than 85 trips this year to electoral battlegrounds such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to a POLITICO review of public speeches and news clippings. Those swing-state visits represent roughly half of all travel for those six Cabinet officials this year.

    The National Popular Vote bill preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College.

    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 votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

    States have the responsibility and power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond.

    Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

    Federalism concerns the allocation of power between state governments and the national government. The National Popular Vote bill concerns how votes are tallied, not how much power state governments possess relative to the national government. The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

  4. BTW . . .
    A survey of Nebraska voters showed 74% overall support for a national popular vote for President.

    support for a national popular vote was, by political affiliation, 79% among Democrats, 70% among Republicans, and 75% among Others.

    By congressional district, support for a national popular vote was 77% in the First congressional district, 68% in the Second district; and 77% in the Third District. The Second district voted for Obama in November 2008, and Obama received one electoral vote by virtue of carrying the Second district.

    By age, support for a national popular vote was 64% among 18-29 year olds, 72% among 30-45 year olds, 73% among 46-65 year olds, and 79% for those older than 65.

    By gender, support for a national popular vote was 82% among women and 66% among men.

    In a follow-up question presenting a three-way choice among various methods of awarding Nebraska’s electoral votes,

    60% favored a national popular vote;
    28% favored Nebraska’s current system of awarding its electoral votes by congressional district; and
    13% favored the statewide winner-take-all system (i.e., awarding all of Nebraska’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes statewide).


  5. I know of exactly one presidential election in which a strictly "sectional" candidate won the popular vote. That election was 1860,* and the electoral college did nothing to dethrone the winner.

    Is it plausible to think politics would have been any more geographically polarized in the absence of the electoral college? I doubt it.

    * – Well, 1864 might count. But since the South couldn't vote...

  6. Why isn't the existence of the Senate (which gives small states disproportionate influence by design) and the House (which ends up doing the same thing because there's a floor on how low a state's proportional representation can go) sufficient to address your federalism concerns?

    And why are your federalism concerns -- which are pretty amorphous -- more important than the one-man, one-vote issue?

    1. I think you're misunderstanding me - I want reforms for one-man-one-vote. The question is at which level those votes will get aggregated.

  7. Any level of aggregation -- other than on a nationwide level -- works counter to one-man, one-vote.

    1. Either I'm not understanding something or you're not understanding something or we are working off of different definitions because that makes no sense at all.

      Is any representative government counter to one-man, one-vote? That seems to be what you're arguing.

  8. Your original post didn't actually outline any specific reforms (even though your reply to my first comment stated that you "want reforms for one-man-one-vote"). Since you don't say what specific changes you support I've had to try and figure out what it is you are advocating and respond to that.

    I thought you were arguing for "aggregation" at smaller levels than the current state level and arguing that such reforms would get us closer to one-man-one-vote. My response to that is that while it could possibly mitigate the current problem of disproportional vote counting, it doesn't actually solve the problem. In other words, why do something that gets us closer to OMOV, when we can do the real thing (i.e., nationwide popular vote)?


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