Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Electoral College

The Electoral College has been in the news recently.  I am going to write a post about public opinion on the Electoral College vs. popular vote, but I was diverted into writing about the arguments offered in favor of it.  An editorial in the National Review says "it prevents New York and California from imposing their will on the rest of the country."  Taken literally, that is ridiculous--those two states combined had about 16% of the popular vote in 2016.  But presumably the general idea is that the Electoral College makes it harder for a small number of large states to provide a victory.  That is true--the less populated states get a bonus because of Senate seats.  How much difference does that make?   In 2016, 52% of the popular vote came from 10 states:  California, Florida, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia (in descending order of number of votes).   In the Electoral College, those states combined had 256 electoral votes--in order to win, you would need to add New Jersey (14).  Even if you think the difference between ten and eleven states is important, the diversity of the ten biggest states is striking--there's no way a candidate could win all of them without winning a lot of others. 

The National Review also says that the Electoral College keeps candidates from "retreating to their preferred pockets and running up the score."  That assumes that it's easier to add to your lead when you already have a lead than when you are close or behind.  That may be true in some sports, but in getting votes  it seems that things would be more likely to go in the other direction--if you don't have much support in a place, you have little to lose and a lot to gain.  If it made any difference, election by popular vote would probably encourage parties to look outside their "preferred pockets"--e. g., the Republicans might try to compete in California rather than write it off. 

In a post about two years ago, I said the "American creed" has a canonical texts (the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence), which "means that there's a possibility of  'fundamentalist' movements that say we need to go back to those texts in order to find the answers to our problems."  An additional point, which had not occurred to me then, is that the Constitution wasn't a statement of political philosophy--it provided a set of institutions.  That means that "fundamentalism" tends to go back to the letter rather than the spirit.  The Electoral College is an example of this--the way that it has worked since the early 19th century is totally different from the way it was intended to work.  The original idea was that people would choose the members based on their reputations, and that the members would choose a president by exercising their judgment.  Although few people would want to choose a president in that fashion today, it still is worth thinking about.  But it's hard to defend the way it operates now--at least, I haven't seen any argument that even begins to make sense.

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