Electoral Reform- Part 8: The Electoral College

Perhaps one of the absolute worst proposals to come out of this talk of reform is to get rid of the electoral college and decide the President based on the popular vote. These are the same people who also whine about the two party system and the restrictions placed on third party ballot access. So, let’s assume we get rid of the electoral college and it is those once every once in a while times when a viable third party candidate runs. In these cases, the eventual winner, if we adopted the popular vote method, would win with less than 50% of the vote. Even in a race where the third party candidate was an essential non-factor nationally- Ralph Nader in 2000- Bush ended up with less than 50% as did Al Gore. In 1996 and 1992 with Ross Perot, Clinton won with less than 50% of the vote as did Nixon in 1968 with Wallace. This would be especially true in low turnout years. Do we want our President to have less than 50% of the backing of the voters?

And that is exactly what our Founders wished to avoid. For a position of this authority, which has only grown over the years, one would hope that the winner be a consensus winner. The electoral college also prevents presidential candidates from focusing exclusively on the high-population states.

Another proposal is that electoral votes be apportioned according to congressional districts. In this system, which would replace the winner-take-all system in effect in most states, the system in effect in Maine and Nebraska would be adopted. Then whoever won the popular vote statewide would be awarded the two extra electoral votes. Looking at this in a simulation, one problem encountered was essential or virtual ties in certain districts in particular years. For example, there were 4 ties in 2000, seven in 2004 and six in 2008 and by “tie” I mean that the difference in the vote was less than a 100 vote difference. Also, if this system was adopted, it is quite possible that it would be of greater benefit to the GOP than to the Democratic Party.

In 2000, George Bush won with 271 electoral votes, but under the Congressional district method, he would have won with 310 electoral votes and that is giving Gore the benefit of the doubt and winning the statewide vote in Florida, although not the congressional districts. Still, the margin of victory would have precluded a recount and resulting hissy fit by Al Bore. In 2004, Bush won with 286 electoral votes, but under the proposed method would have won with 319 electoral votes. Likewise, in the 2008 election, Obama won with 365 electoral votes- a landslide by any other name. But, if the district method was used, then he would have won with only 297 electoral votes. The reason is that when it comes to congressional districts, there are more Republican leaning ones when it comes to the Presidential vote. They may have a Democratic representative sitting in Congress- hence, who controls the House is not a good predictor- but when it comes to voting for President, more lean towards the GOP.

The President, as the executive, is designed to set the broad vision and policy outlines for the country. By moving towards a congressional district type apportionment of electoral votes, we are forcing the President to essentially micromanage 435 separate little kingdoms. Of course, they will simply discard those where they have no chance of winning. Would a Mitt Romney really campaign in a district represented by Nancy Pelosi and who gave Obama 85% of the vote? Likewise, would a Barack Obama campaign in certain districts in Texas? Although they would whittle down the list of potential targets, just looking at the figures from the past three elections (still analyzing 2012), Republicans would have to target about 30-35 districts every cycle while Democrats would have to target 50-60 districts per cycle. Is that what liberals or Democrats really want to do?

The reason is really quite simple- at heart, the country at the local congressional level is simply right-of-center. This is evident on several levels, including this analysis. But it is also true since Republicans hold more governorships and more state legislatures than Democrats. It is also why a moderate or conservative Democrat stands a greater chance of winning in a conservative district than a liberal Republican has in a liberal district.

Probably the worst idea is one that is catching on and that some have already signed onto. I am referring to the so-called interstate compact. While it is true that Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution gives states the power to choose electors as they see fit, this proposal seems to go a little over the line and is basically just a knee jerk reaction to a single modern day election and an end-around the Constitution.

This is how the system would work: states would sign onto the compact and it would go into effect when the requisite number states whose total of electoral votes reaches 270 have approved the measure. Thus far, the following states have approved it: California, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, DC, Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont and Hawaii. Collectively, they represent about 25% of all electoral votes and almost 50% of the electoral votes needed to trigger the compact. Several other states are considering it- Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island and North Carolina. With the exception of North Carolina, one can clearly see these are Democratic, blue states. Once in effect, whoever wins the national popular vote would receive all the electoral votes of the signatory states regardless of how that state’s popular vote turned out. For example, if Maryland voted for the Democratic candidate who lost the popular vote nationally, their electors would be directed by law to give their 10 electoral votes to the Republican. And it would not matter if the win margin in Maryland was 80-20% in favor of the Democrat.

If we add in those currently contemplating this system to those who have already approved it and applied it to past elections going back to 1988, this system would have changed the outcome in only 2000. That is because North Carolina- who voted in favor of Bush- would have had to give their 15 electoral votes to Gore since he won the national popular vote. In 2004, Bush still would have won, but by the skin of his teeth. Conversely, Bush’s victory in 1988 would have been a greater landslide since Rhode Island, New York, DC, and Washington would have had to switch their electoral votes to Bush- 53 votes in all.

Of course, the compact is only in effect in the states that sign onto it and collectively have electoral votes totaling 270 or more. But, every ten years, the number of votes change. What if the 2010 trends continue in the future- a loss of population and electoral votes in blue states and a gain in red states? Are we to reconfigure the system to be used every ten years?

Proponents of the measure argue that Americans would like to dismantle the Electoral College system and resort to direct popular vote or this system. In fact, the 72% approval rating of this idea cuts across party lines and has held pretty steady. However, elimination of the Electoral College is nothing new ever since direct popular vote was used to decide electors. Previous to that, state legislatures appointed electors. One can argue that what sounds good in theory would be a disaster in practice. If 72% of the country thinks we should bomb the hell out of Iran, should we?

Proponents also argue that the current system creates a disproportionate focus on a only a handful of “swing states.” In 2004, for example, 75% of candidate appearances and commercials occurred in only five states. In fact, in 18 states, not a single advertisement was run for either presidential candidate nor did they make an appearance in that state. Hence, the proponents add that the concerns of the swing states take priority over the concerns of other states. But, this is not such a bad thing. If there existed a 50 state battleground, then spending would be in the stratosphere. Ironically, the same people seeking this reform also seek radical campaign finance reform. In effect, they are asking any candidate to do more campaigning with less money.

There is some empirical evidence that the current system has effects on voter turnout. That is, voters in swing states are more likely to vote than voters in non-swing states since voters in the latter category feel that the outcome in their state is a foregone conclusion. Actual statistical evidence shows this to be the case. However, we also saw high and increased voter turnout in 2008 in non-swing states like Idaho, the Dakotas, and even Utah. My guess is that if Hillary Clinton was the Democratic candidate, voter turnout would have also been as high. Additionally, turnout is determined by a variety of factors, not just those suggested by the proponents of this compact. They tend to ignore all the other factors. For example, in 2004 it looked as if Kerrey was gaining on Bush and would be a serious challenge as Election Day approached. However, turnout in Ohio was particularly high since gay marriage was on the ballot. That, more than the fact Ohio considered itself a swing state, is probably the primary motivator in higher turnout in 2004 in Ohio and the reason Bush won that state.

Additionally, since our founding as a Nation, on only four occasions has the loser of the popular vote won the electoral vote count- 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000. Hence, do we upset and complicate the apple cart because of four instances in our past? I smell a liberal here.

In effect, this proposal would cause candidates to focus on urban areas or states with a high population density. While they criticize the fact that the current system forces candidates to focus only on a handful of states, under their proposal candidates would focus only on urban areas. The reason is simple mathematics and probability. It is estimated that it takes a 3.1 advantage in any precinct to win a congressional district and, thus, the state. It is a lot easier to get a three vote advantage in an urban or highly populated area than it is in non-urban areas. Thus, the system would favor these areas. Do we want the voters of Detroit dictating to the rural farmer of Iowa? Do we want the voters of San Francisco dictating the presidency to the people of Nebraska? In effect, we would be trivializing the low population states.

Perhaps the biggest travesty of a system like this is that it would negate the votes and wishes of the people who actually voted in states who did not support the eventual national popular vote winner. For example, using the case of North Carolina in 2000, it would be negating their clear cut choice of Bush over Gore due not to their votes, but to the voter’s wishes in other states.

As stated earlier, just looking at the states that have signed onto this compact, they are mainly blue liberal states. That there should raise some red flags. The fact is that the decision in Bush v. Gore is in the craw of the liberal establishment and Democratic Party. They feel as if the election was “stolen” from them. Other than Citizen’s United, probably no other recent Supreme Court decision has upset liberals more than the 2001 decision in Bush v. Gore.

In that decision, everyone focuses on the practical resolution of the case which was decided 5-4. They forget the more important 6-3 aspect of the decision where the Court agreed that there was an Equal Protection violation to the disadvantage of George Bush. But, even the 5-4 part is justifiable. It was, after all, Florida law that specified certification of the votes by a particular day. Since a recount would have entailed a lengthy period of time past that date, to do otherwise would be to negate the Florida law and change the rules on the fly. Since that decision, Florida has changed their election laws to avoid a repeat of 2000. One such law is mandatory statewide recount if the margin of victory is below a threshold. But, the Court must decide cases on the state of Florida’s election laws at the time, not as they think they should be.

While many argue for the elimination of the Electoral College, a sober analysis of their reasoning is devoid of intelligence or logic. Often, it is based on some international comparison. Because leaders are chosen by popular vote in places like Australia, for example, should not be justification to do so here. The fact is that our system has worked incredibly well for over 200 years and we are the envy of the world when it comes to the orderly transition of power.