More Justification Of The Electoral College

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JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 30, 2010

More Justification Of The Electoral College

A couple days ago I opined that defenses of the electoral college seem to be driven by two factors: A partisan Republican desire not to retroactively delegitimize George W. Bush's 2000 election, and a general attachment to the status quo. The latter, specifically, takes the form of defending the electoral college by imagining negative scenarios that could result from a popular vote system, rather than attempting to actually weigh the pros and cons of competing systems.

The very next day after I wrote that, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin offered a perfect specimen of the form -- so perfect readers may almost suspect that I pseudonymously wrote Tobin's item in order to make my analysis look good. (If I were to attempt a trick like that, I'd pick a different first name.) Tobin makes two arguments for the electoral college. The first is that the desire to change the system is motivated by Democratic partisans embittered over the 2000 election:

It’s a little late to help Al Gore, but the loyal Democrats of Massachusetts are still trying to reverse the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. ...

While the Electoral College has always had its critics, grousing over the arcane system devised by the Founders was never loud enough to reach the point where an alternative might be seriously considered — at least not until the hanging chads of Florida in 2000. The razor-thin outcome of that state’s voting embittered Democrats, many of whom cling to the fiction that the 2000 election was “stolen.”

Riiiight. It's Democrats, not Republicans, whose views about the electoral college are motivated by the partisan lens of 2000. That must by why the House overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment in 1970 to abolish the electoral college, with the backing of Richard Nixon and bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress only to fall short in a filibuster. They were bitter about the 2000 election in advance. It can't be because people intuitively believe the candidate who gets the most votes should win.

Tobin argues, "we should remember that the real reason this “reform” is being championed by some legislators is the fact that the Democrats were the losers in 2000." It's a classic exercise in projection.

Tobin's second argument is the hoary but flimsy claim that electing a president by popular vote would cause the neglect of most parts of the country:

Critics of the current system point out that the realities of Electoral College mathematics push presidential candidates to concentrate their energies on states whose votes are up for grabs while they ignore those that are safely in the pockets of either party. But its abolition will more or less render all small states and non-urban areas no-go zones for the candidates. An election in which only the national popular vote counts might limit the campaigns to the two coasts and a few big cities in between them, with most of the country being truly relegated to the status of “flyover” territory.

Under the current system, presidential candidates lavish attention on about a quarter of the country and ignore the rest. Tobin argues that this is better than having a national vote, which would ignore everything but the coasts and a few big cities. But why would this be true? Sure, under a popular vote system, candidates would start devoting attention to the dreaded large cities in blue states that currently get ignored. (New York City, Los Angeles, etc.) They would also probably spend time in large cities in large red states (like Houston, Atlanta and Nashville) that currently get ignored.

Tobin suggests they would skip small states. Why? Sure, candidates would visit a lot of large cities. But which sounds like a better campaign strategy -- spending all your time campaigning on the coasts and a few big cities, or splitting your time between there and other locales where a more rare visit will pack a larger punch? We don't have to guess about this. We have a popular vote arrangement for governor in every state in the union. Statewide candidates in, say, New York do not spend all their time campaigning in New York City. They tour upstate so extensively they're practically on a first name basis with every cow. Do countries that lack an electoral college -- i.e. everybody else -- complain that candidates spend all their time in a few big cities? I have never heard such a complaint produced.

Remember that the electoral college was created for reasons that no longer apply at all -- interposing independent electors between the voters and the election result, and giving political weight to slave states -- that no longer apply at all. Justifications like Tobin's are not an actual attempt to think through the benefits and liabilities of the electoral college versus an alternative. Even if you decided the most important quality of an electoral system was to force candidates to spend time in small states -- and this is not a common goal of electoral systems -- the electoral college is not what you'd come up with. (It forces candidates to visit Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania over and over again.) And so the justifications are almost invariably an exercise in reasoning backwards, beginning with the premise that the electoral college is superior, then trying to devise some way in which that is true.

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posted in: jonathan chait, atlanta, houston, los angeles, nashville, new york city, al gore, george w. bush, jonathan tobin, richard nixon, congress, florida, massachusetts

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