why the electoral college

over the weekend, i had a conversation with a woman who had started an organization that works to eliminate super delegates from the presidential primary process and eliminate the electoral college for electing a president.

maybe it should go without saying, but this woman had been a sanders supporter in the presidential primary….

with respect to super delegates, i have no strong feelings either way. i knew long before sanders ran for president that the dnc is a corrupt organization that is just another lapdog for wall street and corporations, so it was hard for me to feel outrage at how the dnc treated sanders and his supporters. that’s how they do business.

and though i don’t have strong feelings about the electoral college either, i’ve had numerous conversations over the years, mostly with my mother, about it. i was reminded how a lot of people feel about it and so i thought i’d try to lay out both sides here; why it’s useful, why it’s bad.

first, a little history.

the electoral college is an institution established by article ii, section 1 of the constitution:

Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislation thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United State, shall be appointed an Elector.

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons vote for, and the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the Whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the Greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President.

that second, italicized portion was amended by the 12th amendment, which was then subsequently amended by the 20th amendment….

the framers, fearing “an interested and overbearing majority” and seeking to strike a balance between direct and representative democracy, initially believed it should be the congress that elects the president. however, it was argued that doing so could result in “intrigue” and weaken the independent nature of the presidency. with these concerns in mind, the structure of the electoral college was approved.

so, what’s so bad about the electoral college? well, as the woman i spoke to over the weekend says, it’s an affront to democracy. or, as my mom, a rare democrat in kansas puts it, “my vote doesn’t count.”

i get their point, but consider the potential result if we were to do away with the electoral college. its possible the entire middle of the country may very well be ignored entirely. more than half of all the u.s. population lives in either the ease or west-coast states. and while statistically this could bode well for democrats, one could argue that those living in the midwest, my mother included, would be disenfranchised. the electoral college lends greater weight to votes cast in less-populous states, like kansas. or hawaii.

opponents of the electoral college like to point to the 2000 presidential election, in which bush won the required number of electoral votes, but Gore actually won the popular vote. don’t think any sane, reasonably intelligent person would argue that was a travesty. still that result, which has only happened a few times in more than 200 years, is less a result of the electoral college directly, and more a consequence of the winner-take-all approaches of so many states.

despite all this, the electoral college in the modern era is largely a formality and, with just a few exceptions, follows the outcome of the popular election.

the electoral college, enshrined in the constitution, cannot be eliminated without the passage and ratification of an amendment to the constitution. this would be no small undertaking. the last time a proposed amendment to the constitution was made (and ratified) was nearly 50 years ago.

to me, the question is less, “should we get rid of the electoral college” and more, “will the nature of our government and democracy fundamentally change for better with its elimination?” my instinct is no. electoral college or no, the deep structural problems that exist in american politics and government won’t be improved by removing the “in name only” representative election of the president and vice-president.

you want to fix politics in this country? you want to make the system more fair and responsive to ordinary people? endeavor to fix deeply rooted gerrymandered districts. work to seriously improve our education system, not to mention how news is gathered and shared (i.e., fix sensationalist and gossip-driven news). or arguably at the root of it all, work to get money out of politics by amending the constitution to nullify the citizens united supreme court ruling; the same herculean effort would be required, but the positive impact would be immeasurably greater.

3 Comments, RSS

  1. otto October 6, 2016 @ 8:08 am

    Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

    In the 2012 presidential election, 1.3 million votes decided the winner in the ten states with the closest margins of victory.

    One analyst is predicting two million voters in seven counties are going to determine who wins the presidency in 2016.

    With the end of the primaries, without the National Popular Vote bill in effect, the political relevance of three-quarters of all Americans is now finished for the presidential election.

    In the 2016 general election campaign
    As of Sept 23, half (77 of 153) of the pre
    sidential and vice-presidential campaign events between the nominating conventions and the first debate were in just 4 states (Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio).

    88% of the events (135 of the 153) were in the 11 states identified as closely divided “battleground” states by Politico and The Hill. 29 states have been totally ignored.

    In the 2012 general election campaign

    38 states (including 24 of the 27 smallest states) had no campaign events, and minuscule or no spending for TV ads.

    More than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states..

    Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).

    Issues of importance to non-battleground states are of so little interest to presidential candidates that they don’t even bother to poll them individually.

    Charlie Cook reported in 2004:
    “Senior Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out yesterday that the Bush campaign hadn’t taken a national poll in almost two years; instead, it has been polling [the then] 18 battleground states.”

    Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledging the reality that [then] more than 2/3rds of Americans were ignored in the 2008 presidential campaign, said in the Washington Post on June 21, 2009:
    “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state.”

    Over 87% of both Romney and Obama campaign offices were in just the then 12 swing states. The few campaign offices in the 38 remaining states were for fund-raising, volunteer phone calls, and arranging travel to battleground states.

    Since World War II, a shift of a few thousand votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 15 presidential elections

    Policies important to the citizens of non-battleground states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    “Battleground” states receive 7% more presidentially controlled grants than “spectator” states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.

    Compare the response to hurricane Katrina (in Louisiana, a “safe” state) to the federal response to hurricanes in Florida (a “swing” state) under Presidents of both parties. President Obama took more interest in the BP oil spill, once it reached Florida’s shores, after it had first reached Louisiana. Some pandering policy examples include ethanol subsidies, steel tariffs, and Medicare Part D. Policies not given priority, include those most important to non-battleground states – like water issues in the west.

    The interests of battleground states shape innumerable government policies, including, for example, steel quotas imposed by the free-trade president, George W. Bush, from the free-trade party.

    Parochial local considerations of battleground states preoccupy presidential candidates as well as sitting Presidents (contemplating their own reelection or the ascension of their preferred successor).

    Even travel by sitting Presidents and Cabinet members in non-election years is skewed to battleground states

  2. otto October 6, 2016 @ 8:10 am

    By 2020, the National Popular Vote bill could guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, Democratic, Republican and purple states with 261 electoral votes, including one house in Arizona (11), Arkansas (6), Maine (4), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), and Oklahoma (7), and both houses in Colorado (9).
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    NationalPopularVote

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