Two Cheers for the Electoral College

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric

George Soros is funding an effort to undermine the Electoral College. The idea is to enter into a compact with other states in which each state agrees to require their electors to vote for the candidate who has won the national popular vote. The compact would not become effective until states comprising a majority of electoral votes have agreed.

The effort has resulted in the introduction of AB 751 in the Wisconsin legislature.

The proposal may well be unconstitutional under the Compact Clause. It is almost certainly motivated by partisan concerns. It isn’t simply that Democrats tend to be more geographically concentrated. That can actually help if Democratic voters are packed in the right states. Thus, while Bush lost the popular election and won the electoral vote in ’00, Kerry almost did the same thing in ’04.

Rather, the back story is population trends that will move electoral votes to Republican states. For the first time in who can remember, California will not pick up a seat and the Midwest and Northeast continue to lose population to the south and southwest.

Republicans should not be too sanguine. Large influxes of people into a state can change its political composition. When I was a kid, California was a fairly Republican state. But there is, nevertheless, reason to suspect that the electoral map is going to get tougher for Democrats. 

On the merits, the preferability of a national popular vote is not obvious. In yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rep. Kelda Helen Roys makes an argument that seems wrong.

Furthermore, every vote is not equal in presidential elections. Al Gore won five electoral votes by carrying New Mexico by 365 popular votes in 2000, whereas George W. Bush won five electoral votes by carrying Utah by 312,043 popular votes – an 855-to-1 disparity in the value of a vote between two similarly populated states.

It’s not obvious to me that the fact that one state is close and another is not alters the “value” of a vote. The Electoral College does result in some disproportion in the weighting of a vote but it’s not because some states are competitive and others are not. It’s because each state gets two Senators regardless of population (and to, a lesser extent, the fact that some very small population states get one representative.)

But the fact that one vote has a “better” (albeit still infinitesimal) chance of deciding an election does not mean that it “counts more.” Thus, in the example she cites, a vote in Utah had precisely the same Electoral weight as one in New Mexico.

A better complaint (and one that Rep. Roys also makes)is that the Electoral College forces candidates to give disproportionate attention to competitive states. To the extent that the policy preferences of these competitive states don’t match the aggregate policy preferences of the nation, one can argue that this effect constitutes a “distortion” of the campaign.

That is a weakness of the Electoral College. But it is also its strength.

The Electoral College forces candidates to pay attention to states that they otherwise might not. But there may be a certain genius to that. Forcing candidates into battleground states requires the candidates to engage each other before an electorate that is truly up for grabs and to do so by engaging – at least to some degree – in retail politics – much as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary do in the nomination process.

If you see a campaign as a dialogue in which candidates must engage the voters as opposed to a ratification of preexisting interests, there may be some value in this. A campaign resulting in a national popular vote would look very different than our current campaigns. It would be even more media intensive and, I suspect, more ideologically polarized.

Part of your attitude toward the electoral college will depend on how important you think state and geographic interests are. At the time of the founding, it mattered a great deal. While the electoral college does not guarantee broad geographical support, it tends to force candidates to take into account the interests and preferences of parts of the country that it might otherwise be rational to ignore. It can enhance the influence of minorities who, while they may be insignificant nationally, are important in a critical state.

If you don’t buy that, then there are other “reforms” that might interest you such as allocation of Senate seats by population. Perhaps you may even want to consider abandon of single member districts elected by the Westminster method of “first past the post” in favor of multi-member districts with proportional representations. To extend Rep. Roys’ reasoning, her district is heavily Democratic and not competitive. In fact, it was probably intentionally drawn to be that way.

Borrowing from her concept of the “value” of a vote, there is a sense in that her constituents have less impact on the composition of the assembly – and, therefore, which laws get passed and which do not – than a voter in a competitive district. If the national – or statewide – policy and will is what matters, then I ought to be far more interested in whether the Republicans or Democrats hold Congress or the State legislature than I am in the identity of “my” legislator.

To be sure there are differences between an election for President and one for a legislator who, by certain theories of representation, is supposed to represent the geographic interests of her constituents. My only point is that the matter is far more complicated than reification of the national popular vote and that we ought to be reluctant to take a position on whose ox we think will be gored.

Cross posted at Shark and Shepherd

5 thoughts on “Two Cheers for the Electoral College”

  1. My biggest complaint about the electoral system is the disproportionate voting strength given to the low-population New England and Western states. Vermont, with 620,000 people, gets 4 electoral votes, while Utah and Nevada, with populations four times larger than Vermont, only get 1 more electoral vote.

    The debate between whether the benefit of forcing candidates to go campaigning in smaller areas to win swing states outweighs the detriment of allowing candidates to skimp on “safe” states is a toss up to me.

  2. The Constitution gives every state the power to allocate its electoral votes for president, as well as to change state law on how those votes are awarded.

    The National Popular Vote bill is currently endorsed by over 1,707 state legislators (in 48 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska – 70%, DC – 76%, Delaware –75%, Maine — 77%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Rhode Island — 74%, and Vermont — 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, and Virginia — 74%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 74% , Massachusetts — 73%, Minnesota – 75%, New York — 79%, Washington — 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 29 state legislative chambers, in 19 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes — 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

  3. Under the current system, battleground states are the only states that matter in presidential elections. Campaigns are tailored to address the issues that matter to voters in these states.

    Safe red and blue states are considered a waste of time, money and energy to candidates. These “spectator” states receive no campaign attention, visits or ads. Their concerns are ignored.

    The influence of minority voters has decreased tremendously as the number of battleground states dwindles. For example, in 1976, 73% of blacks lived in battleground states. In 2004, that proportion fell to a mere 17%.

    The Asian American Action Fund, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, NAACP, National Latino Congreso, and National Black Caucus of State Legislators endorse a national popular vote for president.

  4. I am not buying the old small state/big state argument of the electoral college, which is a relic of 18th century politics. For as long as I have been an adult, supposedly national elections have been fought in 8 to 10 “Battleground” states. States not in play, both small states and large, red and blue leaning states, tend to get ignored.

    More importantly, minority interests (republicans in blue states, democrats in red states) are effectively disenfranchised because their votes don’t count in the current system.

    The harm to democratic values would be worth it if one could point out some way that our system produces superior policy, or political consensus by mediating between two extremes to synthesize some middle ground that approximates the national interest. Sadly, I don’t think, in recent years that our system has produced that, or much of anything policywise that we can point to.

    This initiative needn’t be partisan. The change can be pushed out far enough in the future that both parties have time to adjust.

  5. Tom K needs to recount the electoral votes of Vermont. The Green Mountain state has only 3 electoral votes, not 4.

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