End the Electoral College!

Probably the first post I ever wrote that got actual attention was this one, figuring out just how badly you could lose the popular vote and still win the presidency. (I made a couple minor mistakes, so for the sake of correctness the actual answer is that up to 78.05% of the population can vote for the losing candidate.)

Jonathan Bernstein has a strange soft spot for the electoral college, though, and over at Ten Miles Square he makes the case:

The strongest case for it, I think, is that historically the biases it introduces tend to be somewhat different than the biases involved in the rest of the system, and so using the EC method for presidential elections has tended to bring some balance. In particular, the malapportionment of the Senate, and the traditional malapportionment of House (and state legislative) districts until about 1960, meant that urban areas were shortchanged in Congress — while the big, urban states traditionally did very well in the electoral college. As it happens, however, that’s been much less the case recently. Remember, New York used to be a major swing state; California also was very contested once it became large, and even Texas had a run as a competitive state with big cities for a while. For whatever reason, all of that has slipped some over the last twenty or thirty years, which in my view makes the electoral college less worthwhile.

Still, all else equal, a presidential candidate would rather pander to a large state with lots of winner-take-all electoral votes than a small one, which should tend, over time, to balance out the small-state advantage in the Senate. So in terms of a positive case, I’d probably emphasize that.

If Jonathan is concerned that other parts of our creaking governmental assemblage unfairly empower rotten boroughs like Wyoming against urban areas, where most of the people live (and I heartily agree) the electoral college seems like a unnecessarily convoluted and failure-prone way to do it. As he admits, the EC systematically only empowers states that are ideologically well-balanced, so if it empowers large states, it’s mostly by accident. The Senate is undemocratic by design, so a one person, one vote system would always lean against it by empowering where the people are (i.e., medium and large cities), and we wouldn’t have to bother with all the EC mess.

CGP Grey lays out the full case below:

I’d note in particular two things: 1) during the last two months of the 2008 election, just four states got more than half of the time and money from the candidates, at the expense of the rest of the country, and thirty-two states got no visits at all! And 2) the electoral college has failed for more than 5 percent of presidential elections! That’s preposterous. A great nation shouldn’t pick its leader by some goofy hairbrained scheme that breaks down one time in twenty.

Fortunately, some folks have dreamed up a way to destroy the electoral college without having to amend the constitution. The National Popular Vote organization is an interstate compact agreeing that whenever enough states have passed it to add up to 270 electoral votes, they pledge to give their votes to the winner of the popular vote, thereby rendering the electoral college irrelevant. They are halfway to that goal, and nearly got New York to agree not long ago.

The electoral college’s days are numbered, and its end can’t come soon enough.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.