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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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