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Ad Hoc Defenses of the Indefensible


As if to illustrate the point made recently by Jon Chait, Doug Mataconis hauls some of the hoariest defenses of the electoral college out of the mothballs:

Without it, Presidential candidates would concentrate their resources even more in the areas where the votes are, ignoring the vast middle of the country. That’s exactly what the Founders were trying to prevent when they set the current system up; the Presidency was supposed to be an office that represents the entire country, not just it’s population centers. Eliminating the Electoral College would leave small states at the mercy of large ones even more than they are now.

Some of the problems here:

  • Small states are already mostly largely ignored during presidential elections.  How much money do presidential campaigns spend trying to win Wyoming and North Dakota and Vermont?   In a more democratic electoral system, 10,000 votes would be 10,000 votes and might be worth persuing in states with cheap media markets, but under the status quo candidates have little incentive to pay attention to small states and none at all to pay attention to the (majority of) small states where the winner is not in doubt.    The states that benefit from the electoral college are not small states but the few relatively large states where the outcome of presidential elections is in some question.
  • The phrasing suggests that the electoral college merely helps to level the playing field, that the “vast middle” gets less attention that the big coastal states but it’s not as lopsided.    But in fact the “vast middle” gets a disproportionately high amount of attention, while the big coastal states are essentially irrelevant to presidential campaigns.
  • So, to get to the key point, what’s glaringly absent here is a case for why states like California, New York, and Texas should be almost completely ignored in presidential campaigns in favor of Ohio and Florida.   The latter two would surely get attention under a more rational and democratic popular vote — what’s the argument for their disproportionately high impact?   The ressentiment about “the great middle” isn’t an argument.
  • Moreover, the idea that electing the president by popular votes will leave small states defenseless ignores one rather important feature of the American political system — the United States Senate.   Far from being left defenseless, small states already have a grossly disproportionate ability to shape public policy.   There’s no good case to be made for preserving an anachronistic means of electing presidents to make the small state bias even greater.

As Chait says, as the weakness of the arguments makes clear almost nobody would defend the electoral college if designing a system from scratch.   Nor is there a good Burkean argument about how the alternatives are untried — not only every other country the democratically elects an executive but every state in the union uses the popular vote and it works perfectly well.    (And note as well that gubernatorial and Senate candidates in large urban states do not focus exclusively on large cities, although if the claims of electoral college defenders were true they would.)     It’s just that the status quo tends to generate defenders, even those elements that can’t be seriously defended.

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