Why Is The Electoral College Still There?

Chad were never the issue.

Chatterbox never took much interest in the Great Chad Debates that followed the whisker-close presidential election of 2000. Now that apathy has been vindicated by the results of a yearlong study by a media consortium (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and various other members of the cabal) in conjunction with the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. That study found that, under most plausible scenarios, a Florida recount would still probably have found George W. Bush to be the winner, albeit by a teensy margin. Chad buffs may continue to find issues to obsess about (for example, an “overvote” recount that Gore never sought could have made him the winner), but good-government arguments about the legitimacy of this versus that variety of chad semi-perforation are bound to lose most of their interest once the partisan reasons for waging them have withered away. By midday today a plane crash had pushed the Florida recount story to the periphery of news consciousness.

Does that mean George W. Bush is the rightful winner of the 2000 election? No. To be sure, Dubya’s occupation of the Oval Office is consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and Chatterbox certainly recognizes Bush as his president (a courtesy Dick Armey famously failed to extend to Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton). Bush is certainly welcome to stay in the White House through 2004. As a matter of democratic principle, though, Chatterbox thinks the president of the United States ought to be whoever wins a plurality of the popular vote. In this instance, that would be Al Gore.

For Chatterbox, the bitterest disappointment of the year following the Bush-Gore Long Count is the absence of serious discussion about abolishing the Electoral College. After 1976, the mere (and unrealized) possibility that Gerald Ford might have won re-election based solely on an Electoral College majority spooked the country into a serious national discussion about getting rid of the Electoral College. Even Ford’s running mate, Bob Dole, was ready to give it the heave-ho, possibly because he was ashamed of a tentative effort by the Ford campaign to shop for “faithless” electors who would agree not to support their candidate. (See “Faithless Elector Watch: Was Cheney Naughty in ‘76?“) In 2000, by contrast, George W. Bush really did win the presidency based solely on an Electoral College majority. The collective will of the voters was ignored. Yet this time, not even Democrats, who would have won had there been no Electoral College, showed much interest in abolishing it. Journalists and political scientists have tended to give the issue ridiculously short shrift as well.

What possible arguments could there be for denying the presidency to the guy who gets the most votes? Since almost no debate has occurred, Chatterbox must imagine these arguments before answering them. Here are a few.

If you nationalize the presidential vote, you might create a Florida-type dispute where there would be a hue and cry for a national recount.

Chatterbox finds this pretty unlikely, because when you vastly enlarge the pool of votes you’re counting in the first place, the likelihood of a near-tie (on a numeric basis) is greatly diminished. Slate’s “Do the Math” columnist, Jordan Ellenberg, informs Chatterbox that percentagewise you’d be more likely to get near-ties, thanks to the Law of Large Numbers. But the larger numerical differences would make these near-ties seem a lot less dramatic.

In Chatterbox’s view, the sheer impracticality of conducting a nationwide recount would actually avert more difficulty than it caused, since one would need to have a very good reason—probably evidence of large-scale fraud—to recount every last ballot. Overall, there would probably be less reason to doubt the integrity of the vote count. For one thing, the sort of small-scale fraud that bedevils local elections today would have significantly less impact within a much larger pool of voters. Also, Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, points out that states with sloppy vote-counting procedures would likely come under a great deal more pressure from other states to clean up their act. Right now, Florida is on the hot seat for the obvious reason that its system’s shortcomings (especially Palm Beach’s butterfly ballot) may have changed the national election’s outcome. But other states with even shakier ballot-counting procedures (but which did not affect the outcome) are under much less pressure to change.

If there were no Electoral College, presidential candidates would spend all their time in big states.

If your object is to get presidential candidates to come into contact with as many voters as possible, don’t you want them to spend a lot of time in the states where they’ll find the most people? During the last election, Al Gore spent very little time in Texas, and George W. Bush spent very little time in New York, even though these are two very big states. The reason was that Gore knew he’d lose in Texas, and Bush knew he’d lose in New York. Had the winner been determined by popular vote, Republicans in New York and Democrats in Texas would have been courted much more enthusiastically.

On the related question of whether abolishing the Electoral College would make the votes of people in small states count less, that’s true. But it’s rarely noted that, because most states award electors on a winner-take-all basis, the advantage the Electoral College gives voters in large states is even greater. (See ”Faithless Elector Watch: Gimme ‘Equal Protection.’ “) It’s voters in middle-sized states that tend to get screwed by the Electoral College.

If you abolish the Electoral College, the political fringe will gain more influence.

The idea here is that it’s hard for a third-party candidate to win any individual state. By contrast, a third-party candidate with a significant minority of the vote nationwide could conceivably set himself up as a power broker. In practice, though, it’s usually hard for a candidate who departs a race to exert much influence on the people who intended to vote for him. It would be easier for a third-party candidate who won a few states under the Electoral College system to play kingmaker by throwing his electors to one rival candidate or another. The novelist James Michener, a Humphrey elector in 1968, spent a lot of time that year worrying that George Wallace would do just that. (See ”James A. Michener, Near-Faithless Elector.”)

Under our federal system, “one man, one vote” isn’t everything. If you want to abolish the Electoral College, you have to also want to abolish the U.S. Senate, because states with large populations get just as many senators as states with tiny ones.

In a perfect world, we would abolish the Senate for this very reason. Thomas Geoghegan makes a powerful argument along these lines in his book The Secret Lives of Citizens. If someone wants to pass around a petition, Chatterbox will sign it. Meanwhile, we can start by getting rid of the filibuster. (See “Abolish the Senate!“)