In defense of the Electoral College system … and some responses

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.

I guess it’s obvious that I have a pretty bad attitude about the Electoral College system. So I thought I’d better carve out an installment to discuss what defenders of the system tend to believe.

It would change campaign tactics

The biggest argument is that if we had a system in which the popular-vote winner became president, it would change the way people campaign for president. Specifically, the two parties would spend more energy and money trying to gin up support and turnout in places where they have a lot of support.

Instead of ignoring the three most populous states as they do now because they are never deemed to swing states, Democrats would devote resources to maximizing their votes in California (No. 1 in population) and New York (No. 3) and Republicans would do the same in Texas (No. 2). By the same token, within states, the campaigns would focus on metro areas where more votes are at stake and deemphasize rural areas.

Obviously, true, although easy to overstate. California has a population of 38 million, many millions of whom are not yellow dog Democrats. The Republicans would be fools not to try to maximize their vote there.

But to the degree that it’s true, what’s so bad about it and why should it be preferable to provide an incentive for the campaigns to focus on the odd happenstances that turn New Hampshire into a swing state and Vermont not?

This sometimes bleeds into an argument that the president needs to be elected by the whole country, not just a few big metro areas. But the Electoral College system makes it just as easy – even easier – for a candidate to win by carrying one region big and losing another. 

Prospect of a nightmarish recount

Having gone through the “dimpled-chad” nightmare of the Florida 2000 recount, I have more sympathy for this argument than any other on the list. If the nationwide popular vote resulted in a near-tie between the two tickets, both parties would have an incentive to seek recounts wherever they thought such a recount might gain them a few votes, including in states that weren’t even close.

Reinforcing the Democratic Republican duopoly

Those who believe that having only two meaningful political parties is a positive, stabilizing feature of U.S. politics also sometimes argue that the Electoral College system reinforces the duopoly, since it is so hard for any additional party to compete for the presidency. Under normal scenarios, the most a third-party presidential candidate can realistically hope to do is carry a few states, deny the major party tickets an Electoral College majority and force the election into the House of Representatives, where a third party would seem to have little chance, since there are so few members of Congress from third parties.

Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're inOn the other hand, as I mentioned in a previous installment, the Electoral College system gives small parties an outsized possibility of determining the outcome of a presidential election by siphoning off a couple of percentages from one of the major party tickets in a couple of close states. But why is this a good thing?

The World Series silliness

If you get into enough discussions of this question, you’ll eventually start to hear some sports analogies. The World Series is not won by the team that scores the most runs over seven games, but the first team to win four games, even if the other team has scored more total runs.. A tennis match is not won by the player who gets the most points, but… OK you get it.

True again, although I can’t imagine how this constitutes an argument on the merits of the Electoral College system. But I guess it means that football and basketball games should be decided by which team carries the most quarters instead of gets the most points.

A more charitable view of the World Series silliness is to suggest that the Electoral College system reinforces the basic structure of the national government as a federation of state governments by making states (and not each individual voter) the basic building block of the presidential election system.

The appearance of a strong mandate

Historically, and leaving aside a few problematic cases, the Electoral College tends to create the impression of a bigger mandate for the president-elect than does the popular vote. In 2008, just to use the most recent example, Barack Obama won a solid victory with 53 percent of the vote, but that translated into 68 percent of the electoral vote. I have heard it argued that this somehow makes the winner seem more legitimate or to have a stronger mandate as he enters office. The effect is even more exaggerated in three- or four-way races, which turn out to more common than you might think. Both of Bill Clinton’s elections included a relatively strong showing by independent candidate Ross Perot, which in both cases prevented Clinton from even reching a majority of the popular vote. But both elections were Electoral College routs. In 1992, Clinton’s 43 percent of the popular vote yield 69 percent of the electoral vote. In 1996, Clinton’s 49 percent of the popular voted, translated into a 379-159 electoral vote margin over Bob Dole.

To call this distortion of the actual size of the margin an argument in favor of the Electoral College strikes me as a minor act of desperation by people who just can’t bring themselves to face how weird this system is. The popular vote margin is, of course, very widely reported, even more than the electoral vote margin. It doesn’t fool anyone, and if it did, why would fooling anyone be a point in favor of the system. 

Framer worship

This one suggests that whatever the Framers came up with is sacred. Seems odd especially in this case, where the system has never operated the way the Framers anticipated or intended.

Elephants taking Wisconsin

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

One of the problems with a series like this, which suggests that many of the 21st century problems of American democracy have roots in the Constitution, is that some people view the Constitution as a sacred text that cannot be questioned.

I said in an earlier installment that I have great respect for the Framers’ contribution, although I also said there were dark chapters that anyone contemplating the various constitutional compromises should acknowledge and, of course, the most famous of these was the Constitution’s treatment of slavery. The original document protected slavery in many respects and even rewarded that detestable institution with special privileges. Although it had never occurred to me before the research for this series, that included special benefits for slave states under the Electoral College system.

It’s pretty simple. As you probably know, in creating the House of Representatives, the original Constitution counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning seats in the U.S. House. This gave the slave states extra representation in the House. That’s bad enough. But since the formula for allocating electoral votes is based on the number of House members a state has (plus two more representing the senators), it also meant that slave states were overrepresented in the Electoral College.

In this essay, the constitutional scholars Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram David Amar suggest that both at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 and when Congress adopted the 12th Amendment in 1803 that deference to the slave states played a key role in dooming direct national election of the president. They write:

“At the Philadelphia convention, the visionary Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed direct national election of the President. But in a key speech on July 19, the savvy Virginian James Madison suggested that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South: “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”

In other words, in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves (more than half a million in all) of course could not vote. But the electoral college — a prototype of which Madison proposed in this same speech — instead let each southern state count its slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount, in computing the southern states’ share of the overall electoral college.”

Yikes. Based on the “bonus” electoral votes it received for its slave population, Madison’s Virginia had the great weight in the early Electoral Colleges and that may have been among the reasons that Virginians held the presidency for eight of the first nine presidential terms. When Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams of Massachusetts for the president in 1800, the bonus votes of the slave states tipped the balance.

Perhaps the greater salience of the “Framer worship” argument is to remind us that the Framers not only gave us the Electoral College, but made a Constitution that is harder than any other constitution in the world to amend.

There is, however, a work-around that would – without amending the Constitution — guarantee the election to whichever ticket got the most popular votes. I’ll summarize that idea in the next installment.

MinnPost members, please join Eric Black Tuesday, Oct. 30, at noon for the debut of our new series “MinnPost Chats,” an exclusive online discussion featuring a different MinnPost journalist each month. If you have questions or would like more details, please contact Ashleigh Swenson, membership and events coordinator. Not a member yet? Click here to learn all about MinnPost membership.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2012 - 08:53 am.

    Nice

    Over the years I’ve read a great deal about electoral college and the constitution. While I can’t say I’ve seen anything here I didn’t already know, I must say this has been the most concise and enjoyable discussion I’ve ever seen. I would chuck everything else I have and simply recommend this series to anyone wanting learn about the subject. Excellent.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/23/2012 - 09:29 am.

    Very nice

    I’d still like to see some commentary on whether or not a national popular vote would have been practical under the communication and transportation capabilities of the 18th century.
    The United States were not the Athenian agora, where all citizens could gather and voice their vote.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2012 - 09:53 am.

    Constitution as scritpure

    I’ve made the observation that radical conservatives tend to treat all important documents as scripture, and they do this with the constitution. However the this treatment of he constitution as scripture is the most perplexing of all such treatments for a variety of reasons.

    I’ll just comment on one such reason here. Whenever you treat any document as if it’s scripture, you deify the author. Authors of scriptures must necessarily take on the certain characteristics of infallibility and omniscience. This approach to the constitution is completely incoherent because there were so many authors, and final document was the product so much compromise and debate. If all of the authors were infallible, there would have been no disagreement and no need for compromise. This means scriptural interpretations don’t deify ALL of the authors, only those that conservatives select (apparently Jefferson has lost favor for instance in Texas). We see this problem with the Tenthers and Tea Party- only religious people will scripturalize something like the constitution, and the problem with scripture is there can only be ONE true interpretation, hence the divisiveness this interpretation breeds.

    This historical fact renders the entire “originalist” legal doctrine an exercise in absurdity. Scalia’s entire theory of Jurisprudence is nothing more than historical fantasy based on the absurd assumption that he can know the framers “intent”. The obvious question is: “Which framer?” Does Scalia imagine a straw poll of some kind or a consensus? Does he imagine if he can figure out what Hamilton would think about stem cell research if he were to think about stem cell research that would constitute a consensus amongst the constitutional convention?

    One other interesting thing about the “originalist” approach to the constitution is the claim that it is NOT a living document. This is kind of peculiar to Christianity. Christianity more than almost any other religion is organized around death and dead things. Eternity doesn’t begin for Christians until you die. The Christian savior demonstrated his holiness by dying for everyone’s sins. The whole point of Christian theology is organized around securing your souls disposition AFTER you die. It’s strange, contradictory, and typical, that Christians like Scalia would declare the constitution as scripture to a dead document, their whole world view is organized the dead.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/23/2012 - 10:09 am.

    Small States Rights

    The Electoral College does tend to empower smaller States with a higher degree of political power. The Electoral College is weighed so that the large states do not run over the smaller states.

    It is the same reason why every State has two Senators.

    I wish we would have kept the original design of the constitution. This would mean that Senators would be appointed by their State Legislatures. (I think this would have saved MN from Al Franken)

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/23/2012 - 10:43 am.

      Empowerment

      I’m not certain that it’s important to have smaller states vote get more weight than their populace deserve. The representation of the president is not the same as the representation of the senators. The president/vice presidential team is only 2 people with a different set of authorities than your national representatives in Congress. It doesn’t make sense that small states get more weight than the populace of that state deserve because the result is a single team of 2 people that can’t possibly represent each and every state in the same manner. And in any case, because most states favor the winner take all approach, a good portion of We the People often get no voice at all when it comes to electing the president.

      Also, I just don’t understand why MN would need to be “saved” from Al Franken. And quite frankly, I think some of our legislators are a little too big for their britches–I’d hate to encourage them by making them responsible for national politics, too.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/23/2012 - 02:03 pm.

      And only

      rich white male landowners would vote or hold office.
      Since Senators would be chosen by state legislators, the election rules would be set by state constitutions; I’m not sure if all of them in effect at the time of the original constitution guaranteed the right to vote to non Christians. Minnesota of course did not exist, so the original constitution is irrelevant in this case.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2012 - 12:14 pm.

    Small states

    As long as we don’t change the mix of legislators small states are represented in congress, and their rights are protected by the courts. I see no reason to retain the electoral college.

  6. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 10/23/2012 - 07:55 pm.

    The Electoral College will prove its worth this year when we have such an intensely solid and extensive regional fringe in the Southern Red states that is quite different from the rest of the country. It will provide a balance against such regionally marginal concentrations and even the national attitude out, actually being more representative of the nation at large. A lopsided score says only one thing and that is not a landslide, but rather a widespread sampling, with most of the nation in general agreement. A popular election would give an area with a highly concentrated regional opinion outsized influence over other more moderate parts of the country.

  7. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 10/23/2012 - 10:23 pm.

    Running Up The Score

    I am not so sure that we would see an emphasis on each party only playing to their strengths in certain states.

    For instance, Texas is generally a “pass” for the Dems under the Electoral College System. But in a popular vote, can’t we see them engage in an effort to mobilize Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley to try and win more votes? Or going into Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia and pushing for more African-American votes there even though currently they don’t have a chance of winning those electoral votes?

    Or perhaps the Republicans would pay more attention to the more-Libertarian leaning votes to be found in western states like Washington and Oregon to counter-balance the urban centers in those states?

    The parties would radically change their strategies as to how they entice votes to the polls. Is that necessarily bad?

  8. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 10/24/2012 - 08:56 pm.

    The United States is a pluralistic country with a wide variety of national backgrounds and regional, ethnic and religious outlooks. The Electoral College provides a far better protection against regional or minority-based, limited agenda domination of the whole than a nationwide popular vote Presidency. That was a distinct problem in the early years of our nation and has re-emerged with a passion in recent times.

    Far better to address the problems with the primary/caucus way of nominating candidates. That is a far bigger mess, a very definite source of lack of voter input or choice.

    • Submitted by Steve Erickson on 10/09/2018 - 12:39 am.

      Writing in early October 2018, it looks to me like the system the framers thought would prevent seizure of power by a minority are instead hastening it. Consider:

      1) Trump was elected president via the electoral college system after losing the popular vote by 3 million;

      2) Kavanaugh was just confirmed to the Supreme Court by the un-representative Senate (by virtue of the disproportionate representation of less populous states combined with extreme partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression by the Republican Party). The Senators voting for him represented 44% of the US population, with those against at 56%.

      3) Justice Gorsuch was confirmed by 54 senators representing only about 45 percent of the population. Five circuit court judges, several other of President Trump’s nominations, last year’s tax cuts, and ten laws rolling back Obama-era regulations including one that erased an Internet privacy regulation had senators representing 43 percent of the population voting in favor.

      In short, we are facing a perfect storm caused by various constitutional deficiencies combined with modern technology (can you say pack and crack, not to mention climate change). I think its entirely possible that the US will become either an overtly authoritarian nation or fall apart in the process in large part because of the various fundamental flaws in the Constitution.

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