The Popular Vote is a Bad Idea

Ryan Cooper makes a good argument against the Electoral College, but I’m not convinced. Do you want to know what the best argument is against a national popular vote?

It’s this guy:

floridahangingchad

Imagine that guy in every county in every state in the country trying to figure out who voted for whom so that we can decide the winner of the national popular election.

Can I just say, “No thanks”?

Can you imagine the nightmare that would create?

No, it’s much better to have our presidential election decided the way it is, although I can certainly envision more ideal systems.

For example, Wyoming simply doesn’t deserve three votes. That’s a massive rounding error. We ought to be able to use decimal points in allocating Electoral Votes so that each state is properly weighted.

Some of Cooper’s complaints sound pretty bad but don’t look so problematic when put in an historic context. How much time did Republicans spend campaigning in the Deep South between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the congressional debate over civil rights legislation that predated the 1964 election? It’s hardly unusual for one party to blow off half or more of the country when seeking Electoral College votes.

Another complaint is that Democrats in Texas and Republicans in California have little incentive to vote. That’s hyperbole, if you ask me. To illustrate my point, let’s go back to the 2000 Florida recount again for a moment.

When the debate was going on about who won in 2000 and how we should count the votes in Florida, one of the most important factors in that was that everyone agreed that Al Gore had won the popular vote. It gave him legitimacy. It gave him the room he needed to take the whole thing to court. Four years later in an election that was just as fishy, John Kerry had lost the popular vote and didn’t have the same perceived legitimate claim to the presidency as Al Gore had enjoyed. Kerry quickly conceded even though the Ohio vote had some serious anomalies that had not yet been explained.

So, at the time of the 2000 Florida recount, what was more important? Was a single vote for Al Gore in modestly contested Pennsylvania more important than a vote for Al Gore in never-gonna-win Texas?

I’d argue that they were pretty close to equally important. Neither vote was going to decide the election of its state or the nation by itself, but both contributed to creating the legitimacy of Al Gore’s position. And, since we’re talking about a perception here, a vote that added to Al Gore’s percentage was more significant for that reason than any single vote was for determining the outcome, since no states were decided by a single vote.

When you vote, thinking your vote alone will decide the election is a lot like thinking that you’re going to win the lottery. Yes, it is theoretically possible, but an election close enough to be decided by one vote will actually be decided by lawyers and Antonin Scalia, not by your decision to show up at the polls. We don’t vote because our vote decides the election, and if that’s why you’re voting, you’re doing it wrong.

To decide an election, you need to organize many votes and organize them in the correct places. That means getting to work, but it also means making choices. In our present system, it makes sense to commit resources in Nashua, New Hampshire but in a popular vote contest it would only make sense to commit resources in high population density areas where as many voters as possible could be influenced. No one campaigns in Los Angeles in the Electoral College system. No one would campaign in Dubuque in a popular vote system. Is one better than the other? Not in principle, which is my point. If you create a system, any system, it will change where people campaign but it won’t change that they will ignore areas that aren’t critical to their success. If you want the candidates spending most of their time and all their ad money in Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and New York City, then the popular vote system will do that for you, but it won’t be an obvious improvement. Do you really think the candidates will suddenly discover that Tennessee is a state under either system?

The last complaint that Cooper has is that it is possible at all to win the presidency while losing the overall vote. I have no problem with that scenario, however. It would only be a problem under popular vote rules, but the candidates aren’t playing by popular vote rules. The way I see it, this is like complaining that you lost a baseball game despite getting the most base hits. You can make that argument, but the team with more runs will point out that they weren’t even trying to get more base hits, and they would have tried if they had known that those were the rules.

If there’s a problem with a presidential candidate winning while getting fewer national votes, it’s a problem with how we’ve educated people to understand the way this country is put together. We call this place the “United States” for the simple reason that they were not, in fact, united at all. They were divided by sect, by climate, by culture, by slavery, and by what they wanted out of a federal union.

We remain divided. Perhaps today we are divided less by state than by regions within states, but go down to Houston and try to have a political conversation if you want to get a sense of the size of chasm that remains between us. The Electoral College isn’t perfect, but it acknowledges that a presidential election isn’t just about raw numbers. It’s about putting together majority coalitions that are regional and that cross regions.

So, the popular vote is bad for two reasons. First, and most importantly, if we have another tie, we’d never be able to resolve it. Second, your vote isn’t as important as the ability of our disparate states to express their political will, knowing that sometimes they will be overruled as the price of membership in this Union.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.