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In defense of the Electoral College

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted September 6, 2004

Abolish the Electoral College. (Heading, New York Times editorial, Sunday, 8/29/04)

Once again there are calls from every quarter calling for the overhaul of the Electoral College system in favor of a nationwide popular vote. Briefly, the Constitution mandates that each state appoint a number of electors equal to the number of Senators and Representatives in that state. This college of electors meets in December and votes for President. These electors pledge to vote for one or another party's candidates, and except for Maine and Nebraska where a proportional method is used, the winner of the popular vote in each state receives all of the Electoral College votes. The arguments against this system can be compelling. As Steve Chapman in the Washington Times wrote, "There is something wrong with a system that lets the second place vote-getter claim victory."

In Business Week, on June 14, there were two articles (no byline) criticizing the Electoral College. One pointed out that if you are a Democrat in Texas, you may as well sit home on Election Day. The state is overwhelmingly Republican, and with the winner take all allocation, your vote is pretty much meaningless. The same would be true of a Republican living in Massachusetts. In a popular vote scenario, your vote would count as part of the whole no matter where you lived.

On August 11, in Timothy Noah's Slate "Chatterbox," he pointed out that small states have a disproportionate advantage because each state gets a number of electors that equals the total number of House seats plus two (Senate). And very large states have an advantage because of the winner-take-all allocation of electors. All of these distortions and criticisms would be fixed by a nationwide popular vote.

While these arguments can be persuasive, there are a lot of good arguments for keeping the system. In the August 21, L.A. Daily News, Robert Hardaway pointed out that, "In 1956 a Republican proposal to abolish the Electoral College was defeated after a vigorous defense by Sen. John F. Kennedy. He declared that ‘direct election would break down the federal system under which most states entered the union which provides a system of checks and balances that ensure that no area or group shall obtain too much power.' Kennedy observed that under the Electoral College, no candidate can be elected president who does not have substantial support in every region of the country."

Paul Greenberg, in another Washington Times column noted that, "At least the Electoral College confines fights over contested votes to decisive states…[S]uppose the presidential election hinged on disputed vote totals across the country…[For] those who thought the 2000 election was a confused mess…you ain't seen nothin' yet."

There's an argument for keeping the system I would like to submit that builds on Kennedy's argument: our tradition of seeing our political entities as geographical, rather than as majorities of total populations. We do not allow Representatives of one state to represent part of another state. On the Federal level, states are kept whole even if it doesn't comply with "one person, one vote" (as long as states are kept whole, with their different population mixes, a Representative of one state will inevitably represent more or less people than a Representative of another). Up until the Warren Court forced "one person, one vote" on the states in the 1960s, the states followed the example of the Federal government and didn't allow counties to be broken up. Since counties have different populations, geography was more important than proportional representation. If state constitutions reflect the will of the people, then the people would rather their political entity be the geographical county seat, not the "people" of the whole state. And at the Federal level, the Electoral College keeps geography as the primary entity. It's still state against state.

Just as the 17th Amendment was enacted in 1913 so that the "people" instead of the un-egalitarian state legislatures would choose Senators, and just as the primary system has come to dominate the political scene so that the "people" instead of the un-egalitarian political parties would choose nominees, I believe it's just a matter of time until the Constitution is changed so that the "people" instead of the un-egalitarian state Electors will choose our President. But be warned: The kind of government we live under will be radically changed. The two-party system will disappear. The winner-take-all system makes it extremely difficult for third parties to ever be successful, but with votes tallied up nation-wide, there will be big incentives for radical minority parties to emerge, preventing any candidate from capturing a majority of the votes. The result will be run-offs, and deals brokered between various parties, European style. Demands from radical minor parties will be met to create majorities.

To quote Greenberg again: "A straight popular vote for president is one of those bright, shiny ideas that, as good as they look in the abstract, have never been tested in reality. But it's an election year, and once again we're being told to drop this old antiquated system…in favor of the French model. How many Republics have the French had by now? Five? One loses count. We Americans are still on our first, in large part because we do not discard our institutions lightly." I hope my prediction of change is wrong and that we think long and hard before we discard this vital part of our Constitution.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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