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On the Electoral College

December 31, 2019

On occasion, I do use this blog to comment on social and political issues.  It usually occurs when I notice friends, colleagues and students asking my opinion on an issue.  I will share my thoughts below–albeit with more detail than I provide in conversation. I also have maps!

For years. one of the least controversial aspects of United States government one could teach was the Electoral College.  There appeared to be near universal agreement that the College was a terrible idea–a vestige from another time, useful to reinforce anti-democratic aspects of the original US Constitution, but of no real value in modern day America.  The only reasons it still existed was a) it seemed to always affirm the popular vote and b) few voters understood it well enough to find it objectionable.  

At times, it was hard to teach it with a straight face, and the questions from my students were as predictable as they were reasonable.  Why don’t we vote for the President directly? There really are 21 states where electors can vote for whomever they choose? How many times has that happened? (179).  What other countries run their elections like this? (Zero)

I also used to challenge my students:  try to explain the electoral college to one of the exchange students. Good luck!   I would also point out that when Presidents talk about “spreading democracy throughout the globe,” they never talk about exporting the Electoral College.  No one ever makes the argument that new or struggling democracies like Bhutan, Honduras or Somalia would be better off adding it to their electoral processes.  Back in the nineties, I used to confidently predict that the next time the electoral vote usurped the popular vote, people would become angry and the political will to amend the constitution would finally emerge.  Ah, to be that naive again.

Given that we have now had two of the previous five presidential elections decided by electors in conflict with the popular vote, a troubling new trend has emerged in political discourse:  people have begun to defend the existence of the Electoral College. I have a suspicion that those making the arguments are doing so largely because they are happy with the result the College has bestowed in those elections.  Indeed, the most recent beneficiary of the college’s existence had a different perspective back in 2012:

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.

11:45 PM · Nov 6, 2012·Twitter Web Client

I suspect he has since changed his mind.  Either that, he considers himself a disaster for democracy.  If so, that is something on which we both agree.

There appear to be three  common electoral college defenses.  I’m going to deal with them all, and show why these defenses of the college don’t stand up to logical scrutiny.  

  • You can’t have the coastal states deciding the election.  The argument is that the liberal coastal states have an advantage because of their larger populations, so liberals have an inordinate say in the election of the president.  This is unfair to the red state conservatives, which dominate most of the states in between. The Electoral College therefore acts as a check on the power of the blue state liberals. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the ideological tilt of the country’s geography is static.  Demographics change. Growing up in California, it was always a red state–Reagan’s Playground. It was big news in 1992 when Bill Clinton turned it blue.  Look at the electoral maps of 1976, 1984, 1996, and 2008. Notice a number of changes in the voting patterns:

 

Image result for 1976 electoral map

Image result for 1984 electoral map

Image result for 1996 electoral map

Image result for 2008 electoral map

The liberals in coastal states arguably have a population advantage now, but they haven’t always. And there is no guarantee they shall in the future. Furthermore, this argument assumes that the College exists to check the power of the majority.  It doesn’t–it overrides the majority. By definition, such a process is undemocratic, regardless of anyone’s hand wringing about California leftists. Or Texas conservatives, for that matter. 

  •  It’s unfair to the smaller states–the bigger states have most of the voters, so they decide the elections.  Yes, it’s true that the place with most of the voters would decide the presidential elections if the decision was made by a popular vote.  However, that’s going to be true in virtually every election. Congressional races are mostly decided by the large population centers in the districts.  Governors and US Senate races are mostly decided by voters in the state’s largest cities. The simple fact is in electoral democracy, the majority is supposed to decide.  Every other election in the United States is decided by that principle–except for the President, arguably the most important elected official. Furthermore, if you logically extend this argument, then Governors and US Senators should use a version of the Electoral College to keep those urban population centers from overruling the less populous countryside.  Oddly enough, no one is suggesting such a plan (much simpler to just make it harder for those urban dwellers to vote…).
  • The Electoral College keeps elections from becoming even more expensive.  I find this to be the strongest objection, because there is no doubt elections have become far too costly.  If the Electoral College is abolished, there will be no more focus on swing states–every state will be in play, because every voter becomes more important.  Certainly, the efficacy of every voter being important would likely improve voter turnout. And yes, campaigns would become more arduous, because they would require candidates to travel to all fifty states, other then the odd ten that can now decide a presidential election.  So, instead of the states with the largest total populations being the most important (i.e., where the majority of voters reside), ten states that don’t have the largest populations (but are filled with the largest number of undecided voters) are the ones that get to decide the election.  This hardly seems consistent with the principles of democracy. Furthermore, the real problem here is the cost of the elections. Recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United have opened the floodgates to multi-billion dollar elections.  Even if we grant the Electoral College can partially alleviate this problem, the issue of money overwhelming elections is excessively damaging to democratic principles.  It is simply not acceptable for a democracy to use one anti-democratic idea (the Electoral College) to redeem another antidemocratic idea (the overwhelming influence of money in elections.)  However, if there is a chance the Electoral College could be abolished before overturning Citizens United, that’s still not a good enough reason to keep the College. More democracy is always preferable to less. 

Thus, our initial intuitions about the Electoral College are still correct–and will be until the constitution is amended and it is done away with once and for all. 

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