The Case for the Electoral College

Had the protest and contest of the Florida presidential election results not lasted so long and engendered so much bitterness, we would have had more time to focus on the real uniqueness of this election. Vice-President Al Gore won the popular vote, while Governor George Bush won the vote in the Electoral College and hence the presidency. If we were not obsessing over the dangling chad or the dimpled ballot, national attention might have lingered over the wisdom of the Electoral College.

It is ironic that before the election, Gore partisans were open to the possibility of an Electoral College win and a loss in the popular vote. They anticipated that an extraordinarily large margin in Texas for Bush, might overwhelm narrower victories by Gore in electoral vote-rich states like California and New York. The outcome, of course, was reversed. Bush won in the Electoral College.

There is an easy emotional appeal to the argument that the winner of the popular vote should be the next president. It conforms to our general notions of and sympathies with democracy. While the Founders appreciated the ethical imperative that the government should be based on the ascent of the governed, they also realized that the tyranny of the majority could be just as destructive as the tyranny of the few. That is precisely why they fashioned a limited government constrained by internal checks and balances and specific Constitutional limitations.

For example, the state representation in the House of Representatives is proportional to the population. The Senate, where each state is entitled to two representatives, balances the arrangement of the House. In engineering terms, the Senators with six-year terms sequenced so that a third of the seats are contested every two years, act as a low-pass filter keeping the Representatives, with two-year terms, from responding too rapidly and with insufficient deliberation to the passing whims of the populace. In an important sense, the argument for the Electoral College is the same argument for having a Senate and a House rather than a simple unicameral legislature.

In the Electoral College, each state is represented by the number of representatives plus two, the number of Senators. Although populace states are entitled to more electors, rural and low population states are represented in higher proportion than their relative population. This arrangement has several important advantages.

The primary advantage is that the Electoral College insures that a president must have broad support over many regions of the country as opposed to popularity in a relatively few heavily-populated states. If presidents appeared to be solely regional candidates, it would tend to undermine the cohesiveness of the country. Given the current Electoral College, no person could become president without both the support of a substantial portion of the population and broad support over different regions of the country.

The Bush-Gore presidential election was incredibly close. Whoever would have ultimately been the victor, would have had popular appeal over a broad number of states. If the election had been based only on the popular vote, both would have engaged in a different campaign strategy. Bush would have concentrated his efforts in Texas and some populace midwestern states where he might have accumulated even larger majorities. Likewise, Gore would have focused in the Northeast trying to generate enough votes to offset Bush’s advantages elsewhere. Bush would have had to tack further to the right of the political spectrum, while Gore would have fled to the left. Both candidates would have had less incentive to appeal to the middle.

The Electoral College arrangement forced both candidates to contest states where both had a chance for victory. This forced Bush and Gore to hone their messages for more moderate and mainstream voters. In the end, both the candidates and the country would have been more polarized with a direct popular vote. Less polarization may displease strong-minded advocates, however reducing polarization enhances political stability.

Second, the Electoral College insures that the voices of important minorities will be heard. The voice of a minority might be drowned out in a national popular election. Minorities, both ethnic and economic, would likely be very important in some states. The effort to win the electors from these states compels candidates to address the concerns of minorities.

Third, the Electoral College, particularly with the winner-take-all in each state feature, strengthens broad consensus-building parties while diminishing the extreme voices of small radical parties. Essentially small parties do not participate at all in the Electoral College unless they can win a majority in a single state. The winner-take-all aspect of the Electoral College keeps small parties from becoming king-makers in close elections, swinging their votes in the Electoral College in exchange for political concessions. If small political parties could acquire electoral votes in proportion to their popular vote, temporary coalitions of parties could pick a president who could not generate a large plurality of the vote alone. The effect of small parties pulling the larger parties towards the extremes causes political instability in parliamentary democracies around the world.

Some have argued that we could still have an Electoral College, but that electors should be elected on a district-by-district basis with two electors chosen state-wide in each state. We are told that such an arrangement would make it less possible for a person who won fewer votes to win the electoral vote.

Ironically this would likely not have been the case in this last election. Given the closeness of the popular vote, it is likely that Bush and Gore would have won roughly equal numbers of district-by-district electors. However, Bush won a large number of relatively less populace states. With additional statewide electoral votes, I suspect that such a scheme would have given Bush a larger margin in the Electoral College. Gore’s Electoral College total could have been additionally reduced if Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had managed to win the electors from a few districts. It is hard to draw these conclusions strongly since under a different scheme for picking electors, both candidates would have employed different campaign strategies.

Finally, the Electoral College isolates potential problem elections to either a few states or a single state. If the popular vote winner won the presidency, in a close election like the last one, voting irregularities in every state, indeed in every precinct grow in importance. Dangling chads in Illinois, the illegally extended voting hours in Saint Louis, the suspiciously high voter turnouts in some precincts would have all been the subject of the same intensive scrutiny lavished on Florida. Imagine not only the US Supreme Court and the Florida courts issuing sometimes-conflicting opinions, but large numbers of different states’ courts burying the country in a blizzard of rulings.

The United States is the longest currently operating Constitutional republic in the world. Structural changes to a system that demonstrated such resilience and robustness should be undertaken with great care and deliberation. The results of the last presidential election confirm the wisdom of the Electoral College arrangement. Perhaps the only salutary substantive change would be to eliminate the actual electors and replace them with an automatic count. The actions of a handful of “faithless” electors in the last election would have added instability to an already stressful situation.

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