The case against the Electoral College

Well, it happened again.

For the second time in 5 elections, the electoral votes do not mirror the popular vote. I think that, for a national election, this is wrong – any one vote should not be worth more than another – but there are also other reasons to consider wiping out the Electoral College as an institution.

Historically, the Electoral College was originally designed to counterbalance an issue that the Founders saw with regards to the knowledge level of the average citizen; at the time, it was a lot harder to keep abreast of news on the other side of the country. Obviously, the average citizen would be a lot more focused on local issues, and more likely to vote for a local candidate. The Founders were, I think, right to fear this, as it would mean that Presidents would have a clear preference for the population center from which they were elected. The Electoral College was a good idea at its inception, and it was built to solve a real issue.

Now, of course, we find ourselves in an entirely different situation. The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, national newspapers, television, and, perhaps most notably, the Internet has led to a more informed electorate, in general. Anyone can now easily inform themselves on issues of national import, and indeed, at least in the last few elections, it seems that people are far more tuned into those than they are to local issues. Dr. Michael McDonald has compiled a list of voter turnout rates from 1789 to 2014, and it’s pretty clear to see the disparity between Presidential election years, when the electorate votes for a national leader, and midterm election years, when there are only local and state candidates and initiatives on the ballot. Part of this, of course, must be accorded to voter enthusiasm – but doesn’t that kind of tie into the idea that we have a more nationally informed electorate now, too? If you think about it, you’ve got voters rallying around national candidates in the Presidential election. Indeed, it seems that even the historical data bears this out somewhat: the gap between Presidential and midterm turnout has widened as time has passed (and more modes of information are available to the public).

Meanwhile, the Electoral College has morphed from a system designed to put a check on uninformed local-interest voting to a system that thwarts the idea of democracy itself. With electors essentially bound – if not by possibly-unenforceable state law, then at least by convention – to vote for their state’s candidate, we find ourselves in a really awkward position. If electors follow their state’s popular vote results, then the Electoral College should be replaced by a popular vote; if they vote against their state’s popular vote, then they participate in disenfranchising the voters in their state.

Further, the College was designed in an era without political parties. Indeed, the 12th Amendment rose out of an election where party politicking and backroom dealing led to an electoral deadlock. If we have to keep tweaking the system to make it work – and you can’t realistically compare the politics and the spread of information in 1804 to that of today – then perhaps we need to be considering new solutions.

My personal feeling is that, for a national election, all votes should be counted equally. One vote in New York, where I live, should be worth the same as one vote in Montana, where I used to. It’s not, and it’s wrong. Not just because New York has less than the average electoral votes per person nationwide and Montana has almost double, but also because I live in a state whose statewide election results are essentially preordained. (Montana’s an interesting state; while they’re a fairly reliable red state for Presidential elections, they also have a Democratic governor and a Democratic senator.) We have the Senate for state-level representation, and to act as a balance against high-population states; we have the House for district-level representation. A President can safely be elected by national popular vote without the consequences that the Founders saw, especially in this era of national knowledge.

It’s awfully timely, I know, that I’m writing this now, but this is not a new issue to me – it just took some impetus for me to actually get my thoughts down. I’ve been a supporter of the National Popular Vote project for years, and, more recently, have been really intrigued by ranked choice voting, which, while used in some municipal elections, hasn’t gotten much statewide traction until Maine passed a ballot initiative this year – we’ll see how it shakes out in practice there, which is very exciting. I think both of those programs would go a long way towards meaningful election reform in this country, and ranked choice voting might have the additional benefit of reducing the extreme partisanship fueling the federal legislative gridlock of the last few years. That’s probably a discussion for another post, though.

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