27 March 2009

The Case For The Electoral College

The Denver Post's blog "Politics West" makes one of the strongest points in favor of the electoral college, which is that it dramatically reduces the likelihood of a Presidential election that can only be resolved with a national recount. There can still be very close elections that aren't resolved quickly, as was the case in the 2000 election. But, even then, only one or two states will hang in the balance, narrowing the scope of the dispute. Also, vote counting disputes in close elections only really matter if they occur in states which will tip the electoral college balance.

Prior to Bush v. Gore, it wasn't obvious that the federal courts had a role to play in vote counting disputes at all, and there is still basically no way for voting counting disputes in multiple states to become legally intertwined with each other.

The bonus it gives to smaller states (which have more senate seats and electoral votes per capita) is rarely outcome determinative, and doesn't influence campaigning much because in the electoral college, the pertinent factor for a campaign is not which states have the highest electoral votes to voter ratios. Instead, what matters to a campaign are the states where voters are most evenly divided. States that strongly favor one candidate or another are usually treated like lost causes.

Historically, the electoral college was also important because the percentage of the population that was allowed to vote varied a great deal from state to state. This made popular vote totals less than apples to apples comparisons between states. If one state limited the vote to property owners (a common requirement at the time of the founding and something that is still not clearly unconstitutional, even though no state uses this requirement), and another didn't, it had a big impact on the popular vote. Now, much of the difference in voter turnout comes from the relatively importance of a state's electoral votes in the national election, and there is an emerging consenus that almost every citizen who is at least eighteen years old should be allowed to vote.

We know from experience that now and then the electoral college does not give us the same winner of an election as the popular vote does in a close election. There is a good case to be made that its justice is too rough. But, the electoral college almost always reaches the same result as the popular vote (but by an exaggerated margin) in races that don't have a close popular vote, even though it theoretically doesn't have to work that way in practice.

An electoral college that awarded one electoral vote in each Congressional District would provide even better insulation against an uncertain electoral result in a close election, while at the same time more closely matching the popular vote.

The electoral college is, by design, closer to the popular vote than having Congress resolve a close election under the proceedures that apply when no one candidate receives a majority of the electoral college vote (where states Congressional delegates vote on a state by state basis). And, the electoral college also provides a decent way to resolve Presidential succession in the currently unprecedented case in which a President-Elect dies or is otherwise unable to serve after being nominated by that person's political party's National Convention and before the electoral college votes in December.

Indeed, one good alternative to the current constitutional rule for Presidential succcession if there were vacancies in both the Presidency and Vice Presidency would be to have the electors who voted for the winner (it is not a secret ballot) serve as the vacancy committee in that situation, thereby reducing the likelihood of a transfer of power to a member of Congress or cabinet member who had very different political views than the President or Vice President who was elected by voters.

As a footnote, another really interesting recent mathematical result pertinent to politics is that one procedural way to eliminante the partisan biases of gerrymandering in a two party system is to let one party draw districts for half of the population, while the other draws districts for the other half of the population, regardless of the political makeup of the respective jurisdictions. This suggests that the founders hit upon a fundamentally good approach when they entrusted Congressional district drawing to the states rather than to Congress, which tends to split partisan control of the process. At the state level, it suggests that one solution to gerrymandering would be to give one party the right to draw district lines for a state house, while the other draws district lines for a state senate, and to alternate each census.

The electoral college's virtue in assigning electoral votes at the at large state level for the most part, over assigning electoral votes to Congressional Districts, is that it largely eliminates from the election system any opportunity to gerrymander in the Presidential election by those currently in power at any level. It also prevents the single member district system of electing members to Congress from acquiring constitutional status, leaving open the door to approaches to electing members of Congress such as proportional representation that would make politically possible a more than two party system.

On the other hand, the electoral college gives undue important to third party candidates with no real chance of winning.


Anonymous said...

The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

Under the current system, there are 51 separate vote pools in every presidential election. Thus, our nation's 55 presidential elections have really been 2,084 separate elections. This is the reason why there have been five seriously disputed counts in the nation's 55 presidential elections. The 51 separate pools regularly create artificial crises in elections in which the vote is not at all close on a nationwide basis, but close in particular states.

A recount is not an unimaginable horror or logistical impossibility. A recount is a recognized contingency that is occasionally required (about once in 332 elections). All states routinely make arrangements for a recount in advance of every election. The personnel and resources necessary to conduct a recount are indigenous to each state. A state's ability to conduct a recount inside its own borders is unrelated to whether or not a recount may be occurring in another state.

If anyone is genuinely concerned about the possibility of recounts, then a single national pool of votes is the way to drastically reduce the likelihood of recounts and eliminate the artificial crises produced by the current system.

The U.S. Constitution, existing federal statutes, and independent state statutes guarantee "finality"in presidential elections long before the inauguration day in January. These constitutional provisions, statutes, and precedents apply equally to a presidential election conducted under the National Popular Vote legislation and an election conducted under the current system.

The U.S. Constitution (Article II, section 1, clause 4) provides:
"The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States."[Spelling as per original]

The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.

Under both the current system and the National Popular Vote approach, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a "final determination"prior to the common nationwide date for the meeting of the Electoral College. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the states are expected to make their "final determination"six days before the Electoral College meets (the so-called "safe harbor"date established by section 5 of title 3 of the United States Code).

In addition, in almost all states, state statutes already impose independent (typically earlier) deadlines for finalizing the count for the presidential election. The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that state election officials and the state judiciary must conduct counts and recounts in presidential elections within the confines of existing state election laws.

It may be argued that the schedule established by the U.S. Constitution may sometimes rush the count (and possibly even create injustice). However, there can be no argument that this schedule exists in the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and state statutes; that this schedule guarantees "finality"prior to the meeting of the Electoral College in mid-December. This existing constitutional schedule would govern the National Popular Vote compact in exactly the same way that it governs elections under the current system.

Anonymous said...

The current system does not reliably reflect the nationwide popular vote. The statewide winner-take-all rules makes it possible for a candidate to win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, of course, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.

Nationwide popular election of the President is the only system that makes all states competitive, guarantees that the candidate with the most popular votes nationwide wins the Presidency, and makes every vote equal.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 25 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes -- 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

Anonymous said...

Dividing a state's electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of our antiquated Electoral College system of electing the President. What the country needs is a national popular vote to make every person's vote equally important to presidential campaigns.

If the district approach were used nationally, it would less be less fair and accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country's congressional districts.

The district approach would not cause presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates' attention to issues of concern to the state. Under the winner-take-all rule (whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In North Carolina, for example, there are only 2 districts the 13th with a 5% spread and the 2nd with an 8% spread) where the presidential race is competitive. In California, the presidential race is competitive in only 3 of the state's 53 districts. Nationwide, there are only 55 "battleground" districts that are competitive in presidential elections. Under the present deplorable state-level winner-take-all system, two-thirds of the states (including North Carolina and California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, seven-eighths of the nation's congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.