The Overrated Electoral College

I see that the periodic flap about the possibility of a president winning with a small percentage of the vote got a little play yesterday.

Sorry, but I think this is a lot of fuss over nothing. I mean, first of all, there’s no point designing a system to prevent absolutely implausible outcomes; I mean, all the dice in Vegas could come up 7 for a 24 hour period and the casinos would all be broken, but no one is going to tell Caesar’s to change the rules of craps in order to prevent that possibility.

Moreover…I’m just not all that worried about the very real possibility that the “wrong” winner could result, as it did in 2000 when Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush but lost the electoral vote. I don’t know…as long as there’s no partisan bias in the EC (there isn’t; after all, John Kerry came close to being a far more “wrong” winner in 2004), you’re going to have rules, and the rules will determine the winner, and as long as the rules are stable and not massively perverse than I’ll find more serious process and policy things to be upset about.

I’m more sympathetic to complaints about the “normal” effects of the EC system, which drives the candidates to focus on states that are closer and bigger to the expense of states with large partisan majorities, but in my view the effects are modest and not altogether bad (for one thing, excess attention to large states presumably balances off the Senate advantage for small states). I’m far more concerned about the possibility that elected officials ignore the preferences of poor people than that they may be a bit too much attention to Florida and Ohio at the expense of Wyoming, Utah, and Rhode Island.

At any rate: if I had one EC reform that I could pass, it would be to get rid of the real scary portion of the scheme: the electors. I do worry about the possibility that an unfaithful elector could mess with presidential elections; I also worry about partisan legislatures attempting to intervene as Florida’s Republicans considered doing in 2000…there’s in principle little to prevent a rogue legislature from attempting that with even less pretext, and that really would be a stolen election and an illegitimate presidency.

But a president who wins despite finishing a handful of votes behind the other candidate? Really not a big deal. A minority president? The Tories get way more influence over policy for winning 36% of the vote than any US president would ever have (Thatcher’s peak vote? 44%).

Perhaps reform is a good idea, perhaps a bad one, but either way it just doesn’t matter very much at all.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.