Electoral College Madness

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June 28, 2009 by D Stack

Electoral College Map (2000)

Electoral College Map (2000)

Question: How many electoral votes do you think George W. Bush would have been willing to give up in order to have won the popular vote?

I’d hazard a guess that the answer is zero.

Follow-up. How much effort do you suppose Al Gore’s campaign spent in securing the popular vote? I’d also guess the answer to this is none.

The 2000 Presidential Election caused a serious re-examination of the electoral college system of the United States. It seemed very wrong to many people that it was (and still is) possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election.

As a point of order, it should be emphasized that the 2000 election is an interesting data point, but it is entirely possible the election would have been run very differently had the candidates been competing for popular vote. It is unlikely that George W. Bush’s campaign dedicated many resources to New York, Massachusetts, or California. Similarly Al Gore’s campaign probably made no serious effort to contest Texas. In a winner-take-all strategy, it made no sense for either candidate to campaign in his opponent’s safe states. Had the two candidates been competing for popular vote their entire campaigning strategy would have been different. Presumably that would have yielded different popular vote tallies.

So even with that little nugget, why not switch to a pure popular vote system? There is an effort amongst the states to do just that. The idea is a group of states will pledge that they will place their electoral college votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. This alliance would only go into effect once enough states were in it to guarantee an electoral college majority. There is nothing unconstitutional about this idea, but I can anticipate problems. Though the state legislatures may approve such a measure, there is no way to make it binding. Also, the electors who actually place votes by the electoral college are appointed by the political parties, not by state legislatures. This makes fidelity even harder to guarantee. As hard as it is to imagine, it is possible that the 2000 election could have been even more chaotic should that system have been in place. Would republican electors really place their votes for a democratic candidate, knowing that were they to vote republican there would be a republican president?

The alternative is an amendment to the constitution. This would be difficult to accomplish. Consider:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

That means twelve states could block a passage of such an amendment. And a quick look at an electoral college map shows more than enough states with 3-5 electoral to make this likely.

But even if that were not to be the case, I don’t believe such a change would be for the better. States are more than just random administrative districts. Each state has its own set of laws. Here in Massachusetts I can buy alcohol from a liquor store seven days a week. Though the laws make it difficult for supermarkets to sell alcohol. If I drive south to Connecticut I can purchase beer from a supermarket. Except on Sundays, where no one can sell alcohol. If I break a law in Connecticut and flee back to Massachusetts, Connecticut would have to extradite me from Massachusetts. In nearly all cases such a request would be granted, but the states are not obligated to do so. This is most common in death penalty cases. (Note to the police of Connecticut – I’m a pretty law-abiding person…)

This balance between the powers of the several states and the citizens of the entire country has been a balancing act for our nation since its founding. Consider the fact membership in the House of Representatives is allotted by population, each district representing approximately the same number of people. However, membership in the Senate is purely by state – two per state. And the Constitution makes it very difficult to change that, even by amendment. The constitution’s section on amendments states no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

So how should one vote for the President of the United States? Does he represent the several states? Or the people? The way the founders set it up is that he represents both. And I think this is a wise compromise. California, being the most populous state, certainly has the most say in Presidential elections. But the least populated states still receive at least three electoral votes, guarantying their voice as well.

Now I’d be fine with some tweaking – for example I think dividing a states electoral votes proportionately or by district makes a lot of sense, with the overall winner of the state getting the two senate votes as a “bonus”. Indeed, both Maine and Nebraska divide their votes, and while in the 2008 election John McCain won Nebraska overall, Barack Obama did win one vote from the state.

In truth, there is no perfect way to vote for president, so long as our nation is made up of individual states of varying population. But I feel that any electoral system that ignores the fact that states have a role as well as individual citizens is against the intent of our constitution.


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