Justifying The Electoral College

by Jonathan Chait | July 27, 2010

Psychologists say that people genuinely do not form their opinions on issues by sorting through arguments and arriving at a conclusion. Instead, they arrive at a conclusion and then formulate reasons to justify their decision. You see this dynamic all the time, but it seems especially obvious when you examine the arguments of defenders of the electoral college. Rick Hertzberg takes apart a defense of the electoral college offered up at a Cato debate by Tara Ross:

Ms. Ross argues that N.P.V. would undermine the two-party system. She says that there would be “five, six, ten Presidential candidates in elections. There’s no reason for there not to be.” As a result, she says, we would end up with a President elected with fifteen per cent (“or it might be twenty per cent, or whatever”) of the popular vote.
In reality, there is a very good “reason for there not to be.” The domination of two large, coalition-like parties is a function of the fact that there can be only one winner of a Presidential election. If it were remotely true that popular-vote elections cause parties to proliferate, then you would expect to find examples of this phenomenon. Since all fifty states elect their governors this way, there ought to be at least a couple that have, or have ever had, this problem. If the problem is a function of size—the larger the electorate, the more likely parties are to proliferate—you would expect to find such proliferation in, say, at least one of the four largest states, each of which is more populous than the entire country was in 1840. You find no such thing. It doesn’t happen in California (pop. thirty-seven million), it doesn’t happen in Wyoming (pop. half a million), and it wouldn’t happen in the United States of America (pop. three hundred million).
So that argument is merely untrue. A second argument—that N.P.V. would empower regional candidates—goes further: it is the exact opposite of the truth. Do I really need to explain why awarding a hundred per cent of a state’s electors to the plurality winner in that state favors candidates whose appeal is regional as opposed to national? “The George Wallaces of the world, which right now have basically no impact on national elections, would have a much larger voice,” she argues. No impact? In 1968, Wallace, whose appeal was regional, got 13.5 per cent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes. In 1992, Ross Perot, whose appeal was national, got 18.9 per cent of the popular vote and zero electoral votes.

Whatever mental process Ross was employing, it's pretty clear she did not set out by defining the important goals of an electoral system and then, through careful side-by-side comparison, arrive at the conclusion that the electoral college best achieves these ends. Rather, what you see in the defenses of the electoral college is usually an attempt to imagine some awful circumstance that could occur as a result of a national popular vote. Evidence that the awful thing would be more likely to happen under a popular vote regime, let alone grappling with the overall pros and cons of alternative systems, is not part of the process.

I suspect that two factors are at work here. The first is an attachment to the status quo and a reverence for American political institutions of all stripes, which is certainly commendable up to a point (the point being a recognition of when the institution has failed.) The second is Republican partisanship -- since 2000, many Republicans associate criticism of the electoral college with the delegitimization of the Bush presidency. That is to say, if we admit that the electoral college is unfair, then we admit that Al Gore was the rightful winner in 2000. That's also an understandable sentiment but not a good basis for defending an ineffective electoral mechanism.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/76605/justifying-the-electoral-college