Opinion

Abolish the Electoral College

The system is a vestige of an era long past

A new poll from Gallup confirms once again the widespread support for amending the Constitution to provide for presidential election by popular vote. For those unacquainted with the issue, in the United States, the president is not elected by direct popular vote. Rather, the framers of the Constitution saw fit to create a college of electors, appointed and regulated by their respective state legislatures, to choose the president by majority vote. While the procedure for the selection of electors has been modified in the intervening 200 years — for example, electors are now nominated by state political parties and elected on Election Day — the gist is largely the same. Currently, 48 states and Washington D.C. allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis; only Maine and Nebraska delegate part of their votes on a district-by-district basis.

Gallup has been tracking the level of support for an amendment to establish direct presidential election since 1967, when they found that 58 percent would approve and only 22 percent would disapprove. Approval peaked in 1969 at 80 percent and has since leveled off to 62 percent according to their polling this year. In 1970, a popular resolution to amend the Constitution passed the House but died after a successful filibuster by small-state and Southern Senators.

The original logic behind the college is that the President is not elected to govern a people, but a federation of states, each with their own right to an equal place at the table. According to its modern proponents, it has a number of other benefits. For instance, it prevents candidates who are regionally popular in densely-populated areas but unknown elsewhere from winning. Other touted advantages include its ability to negate factors like bad weather that affect voter turnout within a state. It also skirts the issue of candidates ignoring minority groups, since these groups often mean the difference between winning a majority of the statewide popular vote, and thus all of the electoral votes, and receiving no electoral votes at all. And in the end, the college has had a pretty decent record of ensuring that the winner of the popular vote has won the general election.

However, many of these concerns are no longer valid, if they ever were. Ease of communication and travel make it an economical use of time to reach out to all corners of the country. Members of several minority groups can testify to the fact that they have been, and continue to be, categorically ignored or even used with an electoral college system. And I don’t think I have to remind people how even though it has failed to move the popular winner into the White House “only” four times, indirect election can still have disastrous consequences when it does fail. Ultimately, none of these factors matter if we as a country wish to adhere to the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Ironically, while small states are often considered to have the greatest interest in preserving the status quo, under the Electoral College system, citizens of larger states may have the greatest voting power, or probability of casting the deciding vote.

Some say the index used to reach this conclusion, the Penrose-Banzhaf Power Index (BPI), may not be the most realistic way of modeling an election; the BPI assigns each voter a probability of one-half of voting for either candidate. Regardless, a 2002 study by Gelman, Katz and Tuerlinckx at the Institute for Mathematical Statistics reveals that, while the relation between state population and voting power is not nearly as simple as the BPI-model suggests, one thing is clear: dividing voters into “coalitions,” e.g. states, causes voting power to vary drastically. The only way to ensure that each vote has the same power is a direct election. Conveniently, this system also maximizes the average voting power.

For many people, this is a no-brainer: we cannot simultaneously keep the Electoral College and claim to have democracy. Unfortunately, widespread belief in the near-infallibility of the Founding Fathers is at least partly responsible for preventing progress. What people who hold on to this notion must realize is that the Framers had flaws: stunning hypocrisy and a belief in their superiority as rich, white men, for example. While not infinitely so, many of them were indeed wise. Hence, foreseeing that social mores and technology would change, they granted their future countrymen the opportunity to amend the Constitution as needed. Let’s take them up on that offer and move toward real democracy.

4 Comments
1
mvymvy over 6 years ago

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC), without needing to amend the Constitution.

Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored.

When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO 68, FL 78, IA 75, MI 73, MO 70, NH 69, NV 72, NM 76, NC 74, OH 70, PA 78, VA 74, and WI 71; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK 70, DC 76, DE 75, ID 77, ME 77, MT 72, NE 74, NH 69, NV 72, NM 76, OK 81, RI 74, SD 71, UT 70, VT 75, WV 81, and WY 69; in Southern and Border states: AR 80,, KY- 80, MS 77, MO 70, NC 74, OK 81, SC 71, TN 83, VA 74, and WV 81; and in other states polled: CA 70, CT 74, MA 73, MN 75, NY 79, OR 76, and WA 77. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49 of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

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2
mvymvy over 6 years ago

btw . . .

In "The Seven States that Will Decide the 2012 Election," in The Harbus yesterday, Jeremy Haber seems content with the current system.

"That reduces the competitive territory to the 85 electoral votes of just seven states New Hampshire (4), Nevada (6), Iowa (6), Colorado (9), Virginia (13), Ohio (18), and Florida (29)."

"For better or worse, this is the system we have and its rules dictate the field of battle for the general election campaign."

"The campaign that conveys its vision best in the critical seven states wins. Let the games begin."

btw . . .

Massachusetts has enacted the National Popular Vote bill.

3
mvymvy over 6 years ago

With the Electoral College, and federalism, the Founding Fathers meant to empower the states to pursue their own interest within the confines of the Constitution. The National Popular Vote is an exercise of that power.

The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution.

The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists who vote as rubberstamps for presidential candidates.

The National Popular Vote bill preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College.

The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, in 2012 will not reach out to about 76 of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been just spectators to the presidential elections. That's more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans.

Policies important to the citizens of flyover states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to battleground states when it comes to governing.

States have the responsibility and power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond.

Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

The normal process of effecting change in the method of electing the President as specified in the U.S. Constitution, is action by the state legislatures.

4
mvymvy over 6 years ago

Under the current state-by-state winner-take-all electoral votes laws:

A candidate has won the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide in 4 of the nation's 56 (1 in 14 7) presidential elections. The failure rate is 1 in 7 among non-landslide presidential elections (i.e., elections where the margin is less than 10). The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

Presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don't matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70, DC -76, DE --75, ID -77, ME - 77, MT- 72, NE - 74, NH--69, NE - 72, NM - 76, RI - 74, SD- 71, UT- 70, VT - 75, WV- 81, and WY- 69.

In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and enacted by three jurisdictions.

Of the 22 medium-lowest population states (those with 3,4,5, or 6 electoral votes), only 3 have been battleground states in recent elections-- NH, NM, and NV. These three states contain only 14 (8) of the 22 medium-lowest population states' total 166 electoral votes.

It could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in the 11 most populous states, containing 56 of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency -- that is, a mere 26 of the nation's votes.