In Defense Of The Electoral College

The New York Times’ editorial board has come out in favor of a proposal to do away with the electoral college. Here’s their basic argument:

“The Electoral College is an antidemocratic relic. Everyone who remembers 2000 knows that it can lead to the election of the candidate who loses the popular vote as president. But the Electoral College’s other serious flaws are perhaps even more debilitating for a democracy. It focuses presidential elections on just a handful of battleground states, and pushes the rest of the nation’s voters to the sidelines.

There is an innovative new proposal for states to take the lead in undoing the Electoral College. Legislatures across the country should get behind it.

..The answer to all of these problems is direct election of the president. Past attempts to abolish the Electoral College by amending the Constitution have run into difficulty. But National Popular Vote, which includes several former members of Congress, is offering an ingenious solution that would not require a constitutional amendment. It proposes that states commit to casting their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote. These promises would become binding only when states representing a majority of the Electoral College signed on. Then any candidate who won the popular vote would be sure to win the White House.”

To begin with, although the Times and the people at the National Popular Vote obviously don’t agree, it seems highly likely that their plan would be judged unconstitutional because it would subvert Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution which does not provide for picking the President via the popular vote.

Setting that aside, choosing the President by popular vote instead of the electoral college wouldn’t solve anything; it would just create a different set of issues.

For example, imagine the exact same situation we had in Florida in 2000, except with the popular vote deciding the winner — instead of the electoral college. The Gore voters are probably thinking, “That would have been fantastic because it means Gore would have won!” Perhaps…or perhaps not. Because with a vote as close as it was, it’s entirely possible we’d have seen legal challenges, perhaps even in all 50 states as both candidates tried to pad their vote totals. Does spreading the Florida debacle nationwide sound like a great idea? Is that something we’d like to see happen in the future?

Then there are other problems that would pop up. For example, let’s say that on election day, there was a heavy rain across much of California. Would it affect the results of the presidential election? Under the current system, that’s highly doubtful. But, if the popular vote were the deciding factor, it could result in a net loss of hundreds of thousands of votes that would have otherwise gone to the Democratic candidate. If the popular vote were how we decided the presidency, we could legitimately see cases where who becomes President could have a lot to do with which states get a lot of rain on election day.

Also, the New York Times’ complaint that the candidates spend all their time in “battleground states” seems like a classic, “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” argument. While what they’re saying is true, if the election were decided by the popular vote, many of the smaller battleground states that have gotten a lot of attention previously would be ignored while bigger states that lean one way or another, like ** ahem ** New York, would suddenly start getting loads of attention. Why would the candidates waste time in little battleground states like New Hampshire or New Mexico when there are so many more votes to be had, for both sides, in Texas or California?

Last but not least, is any change really necessary given how seldom we’ve seen a President win the popular vote, but lose the electoral vote? The last time that happened before 2000 was back in 1888 and it’s entirely possible that the next time it’ll occur will be another century hence. Given that and the fact that changing over to a popular vote system would just lead to a different, and perhaps worse, set of problems, it’s better to just leave the system be — rather than pursue a harebrained, likely unconstitutional, scheme that would surely lead to massive controversy and confusion.

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