Saturday, November 12, 2016

In Defence of the Electoral College

2016 County Map
Trump / Hillary

In the light of the recent election results some have advocated the abolishment of the Electoral College in favor of electing candidates based solely on the popular vote.  Here is one such effort from the Daily Kos...actionsprout.io/39C3FE/initial.  It is interesting to note that the Daily Kos and others had no problem with the results of the last two Presidential election cycles.

Trump seems to have taken 30 out of 50 states winning 306 Electoral votes to Clinton's 232 (Trump's win in Michigan was made official on 11/12/16.).  Clinton seems to have won New Hampshire by a razor thin margin while Trump took Michigan and Arizona in close contests.  Even without AZ and MI Trump won 279 electoral votes to win the election.

Some have falsely claimed that Hillary actually won a majority of the popular votes.  She did not.  Final results are not yet in but she seems to be on track to have won about 47.8% of votes cast slightly ahead of Trump's 47.3.

This is the fifth time in US history that one candidate won the Electoral college while another won the popular vote.   The winning candidate had fewer popular votes than their opponent in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and, apparently, in 2016.

Before you sign the petition to "save American democracy" by abolishing the Electoral College you may want to consider the following...

1) The USA has never been a pure democracy.  Our system of government is a Federal Republic.  It is the states (and DC) that are empowered to select a President every four years.  For many years US Senators were selected by state legislatures.  The 17th Amendment to the Constitution only changed this in 1913.  This means that instead of winning one big election candidates are forced to compete in 51 smaller contests.

2) The Electoral College is an old fashioned system.  It may be a bit creaky but it has proven to work for hundreds of years.  A popular vote system would be new and unproven.  The Electoral college is a bit like champagne.  A popular vote system would be more like Red Bull.

3)  Because the Electoral College has many component parts (the states) it is also much harder to create a fraudulent result.  This should be critical to anyone who cares about preserving fair elections.

4)  But the Electoral College system is difficult for foreigners to understand?  Chalk up another advantage for the Electoral College!
American Samoa..Life is Unfair!
5) Are some Americans disenfranchised by the current system?  Yes, a few are.

JFK famously said, "Life is unfair". He was right about that.  Is it unfair that residents of American Samoa do not have a voice in quadrennial presidential general elections?  Yes, get over it.  Is it unfair that residents of American Samoa do not have dig out their driveways from six feet of snow every January.  Yes, Life is unfair.  Get over it.

6) Do some Americans votes count more than others?  Yes the ratio of electoral votes per voter is higher in a small state with 3 electoral votes like Montana than it is in a big state like California.  Again, life is unfair.  Get over it. 

6) But isn't the US popular vote a better reflection of the popular will of the American people?  No, not really.  Due to the nature of the US system voter participation is suppressed in non-battleground states.  Republican leaning voters in the blue states of New York or California are more likely to not vote assuming that their vote is irrelevant.  Likewise, Democratic leaning voters in red state Wyoming are less likely to show up at the polls as well.  These distortions imply that the total popular vote cannot really be taken as a reliable guide to the political will of the American people.

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2 comments:

Bill Funk (USMC) said...

You are right Chris. Switch to the popular vote and the the politicians would only vote in the highly populated states. Then the likes of California would elect who they want and the rest of the country would be at their mercy. The forefathers knew that. And, they did not intend to have a democracy. In fact, if some had their way, only landowners would have been able to vote. The masses scared the hell out of Hamilton because he witnessed their mob rule mentality after the war. He is probably turning over in his grave today.

Bruce Beachman said...

To your points:
(1) Let's not get caught up in the word salad of labeling our system of government - it is well known how it works. With the electoral college, candidates effectively compete in about 6-8 battleground states (as you admit in point 6.2/7), due to the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes instituted by the vast majority of states. So candidates are not *really* competing in 51 elections. In a national popular vote (e.g. dump the EC), candidates would need to protect and extend their reach to voters throughout the nation, as there is always the risk of the opponent chipping away at their "safe" voter bases. Also - candidate platforms and policy positions would need broader voter appeal, instead of the "city slicker" vs "country bumpkin" nonsense we have now.

(2) Not sure what you're saying here. Powdered wigs and blood-letting is a bit old fashioned as well. There is nothing "new and unproven" about a popular vote. State government officials and federal representatives are elected in this manner throughout our nation. This is not a foreign or awkward concept to anyone. However, mention the EC to the average American, and you'll get a blank stare.

(3) As you mention, there are 51 separate elections with the EC. In the case of the popular vote, there are *millions* of separate component parts to determine the Presidency. As is currently the case, votes are consolidated and counted. The difference is: they *all* count, and are weighted the same (a good thing).

(4) Well, up until the 2016 election, I might have agreed with you. However, when such a nasty bozo becomes our President, I am sure that other national governments start wondering about the legitimacy of our democratic system, especially when said Nasty Bozo did not win with a plurality of votes.

(6) (or 5, you pick) - in this election, the normalized personal voting power of a person living in Wyoming was 3.5 times that of an individual living in Florida. With the mobility of people and ideas in our modern society, there is zero justification for these inequities. However, it is not surprising that the same Founders who instituted the EC also prevented women from voting, and men could only vote if they owned land. We are a nation of people, not acreage.

(6.2) You're arguing against yourself. Voter apathy occurs *because* the winner-take-all electoral system discourages minority-candidate voters. The moment we institute a national popular vote, voter participation will *improve*, including renewed energy for third-party candidates. Our system should promote voter participation, not suppress it.

Cheers.