The Electoral College is a good thing

The Electoral College is a good thing

The Electoral College. It’s that institution that comes up for debate every 4 years, during presidential elections. Some people hate it, but I like it. It safeguards our voting rights, and gives minorities (blacks, farmers, Rhode Islanders, whatever) a significant enough voice that they can’t be easily overlooked. And yes, even in instances when the popular vote goes another way.

I link to a paper below that explains the history of the EC, and why it works so well. It ultimately comes out in favor of it, but it does give a balanced view of it (unlike the example episode of a podcast by a former NPR journalist; bias on parade, there).

Mentioned links:

Decode DC podcast: Episode 113: Is the Electoral College broken?

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE, by William C. Kimberling, Deputy Director FEC Office of Election Administration (PDF)

Election 2000 Notebook

Faithless Lawmakers: Why the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact should die.

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Show transcript

I listen to a podcast called “Decode DC”. By “listen” I mean just listen to episodes whose titles get my attention. Otherwise, it’s a former NPR journalist who lets her bias really shine now by supposedly explaining government to her listeners. Often, interviewees are only from the Left side of the political aisle. Guess that’s why she’s not a journalist anymore.

I’m way behind on my podcast listening, so I was recently listening to an episode from last November about the Electoral College. A link to the episode is in the show notes. Sure enough, coming from a lingering anger over the outcome of the 2000 election, this show interviewed one guy who doesn’t like the Electoral College and wants to replace it with a popular vote. His reasons for this were understandable enough, but there was absolutely no attempt at balance. I’ve written about this before on blogs, so I thought I’d dedicate a podcast episode to the other side of the coin.

I actually blogged about this issue as far back as the 2000 election, before I had started an actual blog; I had a single web page where I added my thoughts as that election unfolded. Now that’s a blast from the past, and a link to that is also in the show notes. Back then, I found a document on the web site of the Federal Elections Commission called “A Brief History of the Electoral College”. It hasn’t been updated to note the popular vs. electoral vote situation in the 2000 election itself, but it is a fascinating and educational look into the issues surrounding the creation of the Electoral College. Read that first before making up your mind.

The paper identifies two main requirements that the Electoral College imposes on candidates for the presidency:

  • The victor must obtain a sufficient popular vote to enable him to govern, even if it’s not an absolute majority, and
  • The popular vote must be sufficiently distributed across the country to enable him to govern.

What this means is that the winner has balanced regional support, even if that balance is tipped in favor of distribution over absolute numbers (as it was in 1888 and again in 2000).

The paper presents a number of pros and cons of the Electoral College and is a fairly balanced look at it, although it does come out in favor of it ultimately. I’d like to highlight just one of its points for it and add one of my own.

With regard to minorities, the Electoral College enhances the voice of minorities so that they cannot be so easily dismissed by candidates. Small minorities in a State can (and have) been able to be the difference between winning all of a State’s electoral votes or none. Without this clout, blacks, Hispanics, farmers, Iowans, or whatever other group you can come up with can have a larger voice in the matter, and this speaks to one of the ideals of America.

If, instead, the President was selected solely on the basis of popular vote, a candidate could simply ignore minorities whose votes wouldn’t matter in the big picture. The candidate could just appeal to the wants & needs of those in highly concentrated population areas. This would not be in the best interest of a country that wants the President to be the President for everyone. With the Electoral College, appealing to 50% + 1 of a state results in the same number of electoral votes as appealing to 100% of it. The candidate must then appeal to other voters in other states to win. Thus the Electoral College forces the issue of minority views into the national debate, which is good for all of us.

Regarding voter fraud, under the current system, a candidate gets the same number of electoral votes for a state, as I said, whether he takes 50%+1 of the popular vote for that state or 100% of it. Thus any attempts to rig an election in a state are pointless after a majority is reached. Therefore, in order to have an impact nationally, the fraud must be widespread, in multiple states, rather than allowing it to work with only a few “friendly” areas involved. This makes voter fraud less of a viable tactic, and diminishes its impact when used. True, sometimes a single state becomes the deciding factor, but that’s only know after the fact.

Again, the paper linked in the show notes has quite a bit more, but these two issues are the ones that are on the top of my list. The paper ends this way:

The fact that the Electoral College was originally designed to solve one set of problems but today serves to solve an entirely different set of problems is a tribute to the genius of the Founding Fathers and to the durability of the American federal system.

I’d have to agree.

A movement that got started after the 2000 election is the National Popular Vote Interstate Coalition. What they’re trying to do is get enough states, accounting for at least the 270 electoral votes needed to win, to agree to direct their electors to vote for whoever wins the national popular vote, regardless of how the vote in their particular state went.

But there are problems with this, not even related to the question of popular vote vs electoral vote.  While the measure would be indeed constitutional, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal contends it would be unenforceable. A link to his article is in the show notes. The thought is, if the state legislature could pass a law to be a part of the NPVIC, they could just as easily pass a law to bail out of it. So the question today would be, for instance, if you are a Republican, would you trust Massachusetts lawmakers to keep their word, and to defy the will of the voters who elected them, if by doing so they would make Donald Trump president?

The NPVIC is essentially a gentleman’s agreement, in spite of what its supporter would like to think, or what they claim would be the constraints. State legislators make state law. They can be influence by outsiders, but in the final analysis, they have to answer to their voters.

Filed under: Elections