Why the Electoral College Should be Abolished

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Why the Electoral College Should be Abolished

Opinion By ElectionMethods.org published 2004

The US Electoral College is an historical anachronism that was established back when the federal government did not trust its citizens to vote directly for their Senators or their President. Now we vote directly for our Senators, but we still elect our President through an antiquated, indirect process that distorts and complicates Presidential politics and violates basic democratic principles. The Electoral College was concocted at a time when women and African-Americans were not allowed to vote, of course, and it had the effect of preventing individual states from gaining more power by letting them vote. No legitimate reason exists to maintain the Electoral College, but several compelling reasons exist to abolish it, the most important of which is that it that stands in the way of effective electoral reform at the presidential level.

With a few minor exceptions, the Electoral College gives all of the electoral votes for each state to the plurality winner in that state, regardless of the margin of victory. This "winner take all" arrangement at the state level can elect a President who loses the popular vote, as happened in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 (possibly also 1960, since the popular vote in favor of Democratic electors in Alabama is usually counted all for Kennedy, but only about half of the Democratic electors were actually pledged to Kennedy). Common sense suggests that such a "split decision" is undesirable at best. The Electoral College goes against basic democratic principles by making the vote of one citizen worth more than the vote of another, depending on the population of the state in which they reside and how close the race happens to be in that state.

The Electoral College also distorts and complicates Presidential politics. When one particular candidate appears to have an insurmountable lead in some states, then none of the competitive candidates has much incentive nor can afford to campaign much in those states. Instead, they spend most of their time and money in a few tightly contested states, ignoring most of the other states (often including large states such as California, for example). Proponents of the Electoral College often claim that the "winner take all" arrangement gives a state more attention, but the exact opposite is true for states with one-sided races. If the Electoral College is abolished, all voters will be equally important, as they should be, and candidates will have a healthy incentive to campaign wherever they think they can persuade the most voters. More importantly, they will be less distracted by statewide polls and will be able to pay more attention to the issues.

The most important reason to dump the Electoral College, however, is that it stands in the way of effective electoral reform. Alternative election methods such as Approval voting, Condorcet voting, and even Instant Runoff Voting cannot be properly implemented at the Presidential level as long as the Electoral College is in place. They could be implemented at the state level, but they would be ineffective in combination with the Electoral College because the latter is a majoritarian system. Hence, minor parties would still have the same huge, artificial disadvantage they currently have. In other words, our current two-party duopoly is unlikely to get effective competition at the Presidential level as long as the Electoral College is in place, and if it does get effective competition, political instability can result due to vote splitting.

A common argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it forces the candidates to pay more attention to sparsely populated states they would otherwise ignore. But that is true only because the Electoral College perversely gives more weight to votes from those states. A simple analysis shows that seven states get more than twice the electoral vote per citizen as California, for example, and a resident of Wyoming is apparently considered well over three times more important than a resident of California. Voters in Wyoming probably don't mind this inequity, but how long would voters in California stand for it if they were aware of it? Less populated states already get more representation per citizen in the US Senate, of course, but that is due to the structure of the federal government, not a contorted voting scheme that weights some votes more than others.

Furthermore, if the Electoral College is needed to give rural states fair representation, then the same argument should apply at the state level. California, for example, is a huge state with a couple of very heavily populated regions and vast, sparsely populated rural areas. According to this argument, candidates for Governor and US Senator must be ignoring the rural areas because their election is by popular vote. If the argument is valid, then California and every other state should have their own statewide electoral college that divides the electoral votes by county. Nobody is seriously proposing such an abomination because the argument behind it is baseless, as is the corresponding argument behind the Electoral College.

Another argument in favor of the Electoral College casts the issue in terms of federalism and state sovereignty. But voting is one of our most important individual rights, just like freedom of speech and the other individual rights spelled out in the Bill of Rights. State sovereignty hardly gives states the right to commandeer those individual rights in service of a plurality. The effect of the Electoral College is to discard dissenting votes and to arbitrarily force the entire population of each state to go along with the plurality winner in the state. Dissenting votes must yield in the final national result, of course, but they need not and should not be thrown out at an intermediate stage of the counting, as the Electoral College does. We vote for President as citizens of the United States, not merely as citizens of a particular state.

Another absurd argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it isolates the effects of illegal voting (or unfair vote counting) to the state in which it occurs. The "winner take all" arrangement at the state level can indeed isolate the effects of voting fraud within a state, but only if the fraud does not change the winner of the state. If the magnitude of the fraud is large enough to tip the election one way or the other, than the "winner take all" arrangement of the Electoral College actually magnifies the effect of voting fraud tremendously. In close races, fraud is much more likely to occur, and it is also much more likely to tip the election. If it does, the fraudulent voters effectively overrule all the legitimate voters of the entire state. The notion that the Electoral College somehow minimizes the effect of voting fraud is simply wrong. In fact, the Electoral College can actually magnify the effect of voting fraud.

A related argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it isolates vote recounts to one or a few states rather than the entire nation. Imagine the 2000 Florida recount fiasco on a national level, say the supporters of the Electoral College. But this argument is specious too. If all the votes can be counted once, they can certainly be counted twice. The Florida recount fiasco was the result of antiquated voting equipment and a State Supreme Court that tried to change the rules after the election. The automatically mandated machine recount agreed with the original count (that Bush won). But that's all beside the point anyway. Of course recounts can be simplified by recounting only in certain states, but that begs the question of why only the votes in those states should determine who wins. After all, if convenience is the primary issue, we could really simplify the recount by simply selecting one ballot at random--or tossing a coin!

To avoid any possible misunderstanding or confusion, we emphasize that we are absolutely not advocating any retroactive overruling of the Electoral College. It is prescribed by the Constitution, and it can be eliminated only with a Constitutional Amendment. Until it is officially abolished, the candidate who wins the electoral vote should become President--regardless of who wins the popular vote. Changing the rules during or after the game is always unfair, and it could be a prescription for disaster when the Presidency of the United States is at stake. George W. Bush was the legitimate winner in 2000. However, his political adversaries are absolutely free to remind us that he lost the popular vote. (The margin was slim enough that voting fraud could have made the difference, but that's another matter.)

In summary, the Electoral College is an historical anachronism that distorts and complicates Presidential politics and violates basic democratic principles. The arguments in favor of it are baseless, and it stands in the way of effective electoral reform. Until the Electoral College is eliminated, our current two-party duopoly is unlikely to get the effective competition it needs so badly at the Presidential level. The Electoral College can and should be abolished by a Constitutional Amendment. Unfortunately, that won't be easy because 38 states will have to agree, and some smaller states may want to preserve their disproportionate share of power. We can only hope they are willing to put democracy and the national interest ahead of their own narrow self interest.

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