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More on the Transparent Indefensibility of the Electoral College


To expand on my recent observations a bit, I obviously agree with everything Steven Taylor says here. I would add that I completely reject the idea that the burden of proof rests on opponents of the electoral college. It’s not as if abandoning the electoral college would entail entering some terrifying void.  Direct popular voting is a system that works perfectly well in many different contexts.   When it comes to departures from majority rule in voting the burden of proof should rest squarely on the opponents.  None of the many other functioning liberal democratic systems in the uses this system at any level, and that includes all 50 states. Nobody would consider using it. The key assumptions that it was based on — an opposition to political parties and a distrust of the excessive democracy inherent allowing the electorate to directly choose its representatives — were anti-democratic anachronisms in 1804, let alone 2011. All of this might be OK if the system was reliable, but not only did it fail in 2000, it was 120,000 votes in Ohio from an even worse failure in 2004.   The fact that the system has been able to roughly resemble a democratic election in most cases is no reason to be complacent. I can understand why Macatonis would want to shift the burden of proof — a Burkeanism-for-dummies “this is the way we’ve always done it” is essentially the only thing the electoral college has going for it — but I don’t agree that it’s appropriate, and even if it was there’s no burden of proof high enough to save the it.

Here’s another way of illustrating the point. Looking over a few of the textbooks I was sent to examine after APSA, I was leafing through Wilson and DiIullio’s American Government. I don’t know if the “this is the only textbook willing to tell it like it is — that everything is just fine” vibe pervades the whole book, but the feeble attempt to defend the electoral college in an end-of-chapter Q&A is almost as definitive a self-refutation as “Barack Obama could have gotten the public option if he had promised to campaign for Blanche Lincoln”:

Should we abolish the electoral college?

There are big risks in doing that. If no president were to win a majority of the popular vote (which happens quite often), there would either have to be a runoff election of the House would make the final decision. With[out?] an electoral college, small parties would play a bigger role and the United States could politically come to look like France or Italy. And without the college, a presidential campaign might be waged in just a few big states with the candidates ignore most places.

A few points:

  • It is true that without an electoral college we would need either a runoff election/instant runoff, or in a second-best option we could just award the plurality winner the way we do in every other federal election.   Your point being?   What’s the “risk?”  Why wouldn’t this work given that it works everywhere else?   A proper system would presumably cut the House out of the equation altogether, which would be a good thing too.
  • The stuff about small parties is just a non-sequitur.   Leaving aside the fact that it’s far from obvious that a multi-party system is worse than a two-party system (and that goes double in a system without confidence votes),  abolishing the electoral college wouldn’t significantly change our party system.   Multi-party systems are a product of proportional representation, not direct elections.  We don’t have the electoral college in congressional or state legislative elections, but small parties aren’t represented because people vote strategically.  There might be more votes for small parties if we used a runoff because people could vote sincere preferences, but since the winning candidate would need majority support that would hardly threaten the stability of the system, and would eliminate the potentially perverse consequences of third-party voting that came to fruition in 2000.
  • Taylor has already dealt with the last point.   Small states are largely ignored under the current system, and addition many large states are also ignored.  Factions of voters that are small in percentage terms but large in absolute terms — New York Republicans, Texas Democrats — are disenfranchised under the electoral college but would be relevant under a democratic system.  I have no idea what value there’s supposed to be in limiting presidential campaigning to a few arbitrary battleground states.   Moreover, if there’s anything the American system doesn’t need, it’s more overrepresentation of small states.   North Dakotans could console themselves about being ignored without an electoral college just like they’re ignored with an electoral college with the fact that they are remarkably overrepresented in the Senate and also overrepresented in the House.

So you can see why electoral college defenders want to reverse the burden of proof — a fair fight would be called after about 10 seconds. The electoral college is a particularly egregious example of status quo bias; there’s no real defense on the merits to be made.

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  • c u n d gulag

    But, but, but…



    Original intent!

    American Exceptionalism!

    Remember, like Jesus, the FF are always right!
    Ok, skip “The Articles of Conferderacy,” that 3/5ths bullshit, and then slavery, and black people not being allowed to vote, and state legislatures selecting Senators, and women not being allowed to vote.

    Outside of THAT, they were PERFECT!!!

    Never mind the Electoral College, I, myself, would prefer that we look to change from what we currently have, to a parliamentary system.

    But, that’s “Socialism.”

    • Lee

      That the Constitution is treated as sacred writ and that the Founders as prophets and holy men is one of the biggest problems in American politics, it makes any attempt at necessary reform a near impossibility. Things have to get really disastorous or there must be near universal consensu to amend the Constitution. Sometimes this is a good thing, other times its a crisis waiting to happen. Its also frustrating to debate with somebody who treats the Constitution as a holy book because you end up going around in circles.

      Another issue with this is that the sacredness of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers is relatively recent development. I was born in 1980 and can’t remember conservatives invoking the Constitution as sacred writ until at least the late 1990s. The Constitution and Founders might have been respected before than but there wasn’t a cult around them.

      • Glenn

        Yes, the respect for the achievement of the drafters — and I do think they (mostly) did an amazing job, all things considered — has somehow morphed into thinking that everything they did was necessarily right. They even didn’t believe that.

      • c u n d gulag

        I was born in 1958, and the FF’s, while appreciated, were seen as human and fallable, and, that the Constitution was a work in progress.

        Now, I’m not saying that the feelings of sacred writ and holy men weren’t around back then. I just didn’t see it, or wasn’t exposed to it. I grew up in NY City and after we moved, went to HS in a town about 60 miles north of it, so things may well have been very different in ‘The Heartland.’

        Maybe this occured when Reagan brought the Moral Majority into the Conservative wing of the Republican Party.
        Those absolutists might have brought the aura of Biblical infallibility to the Constitution, and were the ones who started to morph the FF’s into Abraham and Moses and Jesus.

        But there’s no argument that it’s out there now.
        Look at this bullshit about the Constitution, and the ‘Originalists’ who want to treat it as if it was a finished product – not mentioning, or forgetting, that the very reason these supposedly infallible FF’s put in ways and means of amending it, was because they may have realized that, not only were they not infallible, but that times DO change, and the document would need to be amended to reflect those changes.

        But, you sometimes can’t even explain this to someone as unquestionably smart as Scalia – so, how are you supposed to explain it to a knuckledragging ‘moran’ with a mispelled “NIGER!” sign at an astroturfed Teabagger Rally?

        You have a better chance of explaining Quantum Mechanics to a tri-cornered hat.

        • Lee

          This is both to Glenn and c u n d gulag. The founders did do a relatively good job at a really hard task. There were needed to build a republican government that wasn’t overtly oligarchic like the Italian city-state ones or that was prone to the dysfunctions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They did a pretty decent job. That doesn’t mean that they were perfect. They didn’t design a system with political parties in mind even though parties emerged shortly the Constitution was ratified among other flaws.

          I think c u n d gulag is right to trace the rising belief in Constitutional infalibility with the rise of the Christian Right. They approach the Constitution with the same certainly that they approach the Bible. Originalism is nothing more than a literalist/fundamentalist reading of the Constitution.

          • mds

            They approach the Constitution with the same certainly that they approach the Bible.

            And with the same highly convenient selectivity, since “no religious test,” “well-regulated militia,” “Post Offices,” Article III, the Supremacy Clause, and most of the amendments are mysteriously missing from their copies.

            • Holden Pattern

              Selective and context-free reading (along with “proof-texting” — a fundie term for quote-mining) are a prominent feature of all elements of movement conservatism, from your lowly individual Fundie Teatard to your Extractive-Industry Funded Beardstroker.

          • burritoboy

            “The founders did do a relatively good job at a really hard task. There were needed to build a republican government that wasn’t overtly oligarchic like the Italian city-state ones or that was prone to the dysfunctions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They did a pretty decent job.”

            I disagree.

            First, their republican government was oligarchic anyway – if they didn’t make it obvious (which I think they did), it only makes them superior propagandists, not superior democrats.

            Second, they bought Montesquieu’s inaccurate re-imagining of the English Parliament hook, line and sinker.

        • Captain Splendid

          I gotta side with the Originalists on this one. If the Founders really wanted an adaptable Constitution, they wouldn’t have made it so damn hard to amend.

          • It was probably easier to imagine amending it when legislators had constituencies that weren’t so diverse and, uh, democratic.

            50 states? Whose stupid idea was that?

            • Captain Splendid

              Maybe, but requiring anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of your legislature to make fundamental changes is not only stifling, it actually stretches the definition of ‘democracy’ to where it’s near meaningless.

          • Conversely, if they had intended it and interpretations of it to be fundamentally set in stone, they wouldn’t have used so much overtly subjective language.

            Or even more simplistically, if there was actually some singular “intent of the founders,” the famous Madison-Hamilton disagreements wouldn’t even spring up. That alone is enough to completely discredit Originalism.

          • dave

            Umm, Bill of Rights? The first dam’ thing they did was amend it!

    • rea

      Remember, the electoral college as set up by the Founders failed as early as the 1800 election, and had to be (imperfectly) repaired by the 12th Amendment. So all this Founder-worship seems a tad misplaced, in this context.

    • DrDick

      But, that’s “Socialism.”

      You say that like it’s a bad thing.

      • c u n d gulag

        No, I was being sarcastic – hence the quotation marks.

  • Steve H

    If they got rid of the Electoral College, candidates might actually have an incentive to buy TV ads in Salt Lake City.

    No, thanks.

  • Discussions about abolition of the Electoral college are inevitably complicated by several things. First, and probably most importantly, the constitutional amendment process has so many veto points that reform is almost certainly doomed. The last time abolition was seriously part of anyone’s agenda was, I believe, when Birch Bayh was chair of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution. The bill never made it to a full Judiciary Committee vote, thwarted by Orin Hatch and Alabama’s Jim Allen. The hearings make interesting reading, though, and illustrate the second hurdle: Everybody has an alternate plan that they think will work better.

    There are more proposals to “fix” the system than you can shake a fair-sized stick at, and you can bet on it, George Will and his ilk will take up the flag for some sort of modest tinkering every time. This fragments the support for reform.

    Finally, there is the “Whose Ox” problem. When Bayh was holding hearings the example of the dangers presented by the Electoral College was the Carter-Ford election. As I recall, the shift of a fairly small number of voters in Ohio would have lead to an Electoral College majority for Ford, who nevertheless would have had a minority of the popular vote. The problem with this was that there were quite a few people (in the Senate at least) who would have been fine with that outcome (although they wouldn’t have come right out and said it, of course). Other examples– Tilden-Hayes, was the big one– lacked immediacy. There are plenty of people who buy into the notion that the Electoral College somehow protects their Ox– small population states, ethnic minorities who believe that they are swing voters (they seldom actually are)– you name it.

    The Bush-Gore election heightened awareness, but it also demonstrated that discussion and debate have become so polarized that the Whose Ox problem seems insurmountable.

    • mark f

      First, and probably most importantly, the constitutional amendment process has so many veto points that reform is almost certainly doomed.

      Doesn’t the NPV movement get around that?

      The Bush-Gore election heightened awareness, but it also demonstrated that discussion and debate have become so polarized that the Whose Ox problem seems insurmountable.

      Agree completely. Today there’s an NRO thread that seems to think NPV is an underhanded Leninist scheme.

      • toto

        The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

        The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College. It assures that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election, as in virtually every other election in the country.

        Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states wins the presidency.

        National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate. With National Popular Vote, elections wouldn’t be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in the current handful of swing states. The political reality would be that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the country.

        The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

        States have the responsibility and power to make their voters relevant in every presidential election. 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. It does not abolish the Electoral College, which would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population. 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, without federal constitutional amendments.

        In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support is strong among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group surveyed 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 smaller 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 get elected.

        The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR, CT, DE, DC, ME, MI, NV, NM, NY, NC, and OR, and both houses in CA, CO, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, RI, VT, and WA. The bill has been enacted by DC (3), HI (4), IL (19), NJ (14), MD (11), MA (10), CA (55), VT (3), and WA (13). These 9 jurisdictions possess 132 electoral votes — 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


    • Scott Lemieux

      As I’ve said before, one way in which the Electoral College got lucky is that while it performed badly by abstract democratic standards in 1860 — any decent system would have given the election to Douglas — the election of a minority candidate in that case happened to be extremely lucky. Had demographics meant that the electoral college handed the 1860 election to someone even worse than Douglas, it would have been a lot easier to get rid of it.

      • Malaclypse

        I’d guess that, had the election of 1860 gone to someone worse than Douglas, there would, indeed, be pretty much no chance whatsoever that the Electoral College would exist, as there would be next to no chance that a nation governed by the Constitution would still be around.

        • Davis X. Machina

          IIRC Douglas was dead by the middle of ’61. Who was his running mate? What do we know about Herschel V. Johnson besides the fact that Herschel Walker was named after him?

          • rea

            Well, he became a Confederate politician, representing Georgia in the Confederate senate. That does not suggest that a Johnson Adminstration 1861-1865 would have been a good thing for the country

      • Brian S

        any decent system would have given the election to Douglas

        How do you make this out? By vote count Douglas was second to Lincoln by over 485,000 votes (1.865m to 1.38m) a gap that wouldn’t have narrowed enough in a runoff unless all the Dixiecrats (which, because of secession probably wouldn’t have voted in a run-off anyway) and a good portion of Bell’s Constituional Union party voted for Douglas. Given the fact that the Dixiecrats had rigged the system for years and almost immediately revolted over the election, I’d say, given a popular contest like France’s, Lincoln would have pretty comfortably won the election re-run against Douglas.

    • burritoboy

      “Finally, there is the “Whose Ox” problem.”

      The US will shortly become ruled by a Caesar. His ox is not going to get gored (he appreciates it when you hand him easy victories by creating nonsensical regimes). Where will Wyoming and Montana be then? Easy answer: they likely won’t exist after that point, since the Caesar doesn’t need yet another provincial governor to manage handfuls of sheep, shrubs and demented elderly fools wandering around a wasteland.

      It’s too bad we need a Caesar in order to rid us of rotten boroughs, though.

  • Brett Turner

    the potentially preserve consequences of third-party voting

    Severe consequences?

    • UberMitch

      No no, when you vote for a third party you receive jam.

      • Glenn

        I don’t give a fig for the consequences!

        • Davis X. Machina

          It’s enough to make you quince.

    • Bill Murray

      I think that’s perverse

      • Steve H

        I do, too. But what was he trying to say?

  • Wannabe Speechwriter

    I would like to note the Father of the Constitution-James Madison-wanted the President to be elected by Congress (he also wanted both chambers to be proportional). If this had happened, our government would resemble a Parliamentary system more than our current system-which I don’t have a problem with because I feel Parliamentary systems are superior to ours.

    • Something naïve me used to admire about the American political political system was the freedom to stray from the party line without the government falling. Now of course everything’s gone bananas and I don’t know what to think.

    • Lee

      Not necessarily so, the President of South Africa is elected by the legislature and from the little I know about South African politics, their system functions closer to our system than a parliamentary system. You only get a parliamentary system when the executive is explicitly linked to the legislature by being responsible to it. Otherwise you get a Presidential system even if the legislature elects the President.

      • Wannabe Speechwriter

        From the little I know as well about South African politics as well it seems closer to post-war Japan with one party (the ANC) dominating the country.

        I remember I had a conversation with a Brit I once had trying to explain our system to him. In the UK, you vote for one guy who represents a particular political party to set the agenda of government. In the US, you vote for one person to be given a set of responsibilities, another person to be given another set of responsibilities, and a third person to be to be given a third set of responsibilities. Also, people who live in a certain regions are given a disproportionate over one of those people (the Senate and the Presidency). In the South African system, you vote for a party (they do proportional representation) to pick a President. That seems close to the Westminster system than ours.

      • TT

        Pardon me if I misinterpreted your wording, but to me the difference with a parliamentary system is that the executive is much more than just “explicitly linked to the legislature by being responsible to it”. He, along with all heads of the executive departments, is an actual member of the legislature, as are all heads of the executive departments. They formulate, pass, and execute legislation all by themselves. Sort of like if the President was a member of the Senate or House as were all members of the Cabinet.

        • Wannabe Speechwriter

          First, let me apologize for the last post-horrible grammar and wording. No excuses. I had a lot to write down and didn’t proofread it. I firmly believe it doesn’t matter how good your argument is-if you can’t word it properly, you might as well not make one.

          I guess my post was about this-the division between the legislative and executive branches is artificial. In some democracies, members of the executive are also part of the legislative. In other, they’re separate. To me, that’s not a big difference.

          My point was mainly on elections. In most democracies, you vote for one office or one party. The idea behind this is you are giving your preference on how you want to see the state run. Now, each voting system has its flaws and in some cases they can produce funky results (ask a Lib Dem in the UK about the first-past-the-post system). However, there is a direct line in the election. If you feel a person or a party is doing a good job, you vote for them again. If they’re doing terrible, you vote for someone else.

          In the US, we have 2 flaws. One, we delegate power to three separate popularly elected branches. Each of them is given a different set of responsibilities. This makes it both harder to push through an agenda and leaves no incentives for compromise. The second flaw is for two of these branches-the Senate and the Presidency-we give certain people in certain states disproportionate power in selecting who leads these offices. It’s hard to say this leads to a fair political system.

  • Bill Murray

    North Dakotans could console themselves about being ignored without an electoral college just like they’re ignored with an electoral college with the fact that they are remarkably overrepresented in the Senate and also overrepresented in the House.

    Rhode Island and Iowa are likely the most over-represented state in the House — Rhode Island has the 2nd and 3rd smallest districts and Iowa has the 7th, 10th, 11th, 29th and 49th smallest districts. North Dakota is 80th. Montana (433rd smallest) is most screwed in the House, along with Utah (425th, 426th, and 434th smallest)

    • DocAmazing

      And hey, they still get to be overrepresented in the Senate. Isn’t anyone ever satisfied?

  • As Steve H. (jokingly) makes plain, the elimination of the EC is likely to see more attention to small-and-reliably partisan states than they receive now. While there aren’t that many votes for the taking, they have cheap media markets and someone will decide to make a play at some point, forcing the other side to move in as well.

    • wengler

      And the minority voters in those states, who get far more shit than most people commenting here, for believing in ‘soshilism’ will finally have their vote count.

      I really think there needs to be a separate system of voting for federal offices though. The standards need to be universal in requirements to be an eligible voter, methods used to vote, etc.

      The US is very much a pre-modern country when it comes to voting. Elimination of the Electoral College and the introduction of a nationwide federal voting system could go a long way to changing that.

      • DocAmazing

        Problem: if you set up a single federal standard for voting eligibility, what becomes of convicts and ex-convicts? In some areas, felons lose the franchise; in others, they regain it upon completion of their sentences; in still others, the loss is lifelong. That’s gonna need to be straightened out, and I’m not confident that it will change for the better.

        • wengler

          The standard will be a universal one either way.

  • pj

    Try single transferable (or choice) voting first before screwing with the electoral college. That would take a much education of the masses, though. And would probably piss off the wingnuts.

    • Brian S

      As an Irishman (who’s involved in the election process as a polling-clerk {had to swear non-party membership}) I cannot endorse the stv, with multi-seat constituencies, enough. It is both a great way to get your vote counted (because until the last seat is won your vote will always count) and also a great source of drama and excitement over the course of counting the ballots. And to be honest it doesn’t take much by way of education: “Write 1 in the box beside your favourite candidate, 2 beside your second favourite, and so on until you either run out of candidates (some people do vote for everybody) or you run out of candidates you’d be happy to see represent you.”

      It is also very good at representing the will of the people in the proportion of seats won per party, though the peculiarities of the Irish system do see quite a number of independent candidates getting in on single-issue tickets, though rarely enough to count.

      Where the Irish system falls is on funding, and who really owns the parties. Like with most western political systems it is who pays the piper which call the shots, and with no proper restrictions on party funding the payer always is the rich guys who want the playing fields rigged in their favour.

  • cleter

    If the 2000 election had been reversed, and Al Gore had lost the popular vote but became President due to sketchy circumstances surrounding his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Gore, the vote counting in Jeb’s state, and so forth, Republicans would have gotten rid of the Electoral College long ago.

    • wengler

      This simply states the obvious truth that Republicans are hyper-partisan bastards that care nothing about the consent of the governed.

      They haven’t gotten their 0 percent tax rate for the rich and corporations yet though. So Democrats can prevent that and Republicans can keep people from voting for Democrats.

  • Anonymous

    There was another obvious reason for keeping and maintaining the EC from the Founders’ time through at least the mid-Sixties was that a given state’s electoral college vote allocation reflects people (or three-fifth thereof before 1865) who were counted in the census but were de facto or de jure disenfranchised. The power of Southern states to influence Presidential elections would have been significantly decreased under a one-man-one-vote system.

    Defenders of the status quo are profoundly unlikely to add this the case for the defense, of course. But still.

  • In most cases (including discussions of the merits of the electoral college) the notion of who bears the burden of proof is a red herring. Things are as they are, and if you want to change them, you have to make the case for it. The ongoing quibbling over who has to make the case and who doesn’t is, in my view, largely beside the point.

    (Needless to say (I hope) I’m talking about policy arguments and not, e.g., criminal prosecutions.)

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  • I strongly support the National Popular Vote plan (nationalpopularvote.com), as detailed above. I also strongly support instant runoff voting (instantrunoff.com). They can be advanced separately and the arguments for them are separate — although part of an overall case for modernizing our electoral rules to respect every vote and every voice, as we detail at FairVote (fairvote.org).

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