Electoral College Versus Popular Vote Redux

There’s been a rather interesting colloquoy this week between former WaMo online editor Ryan Cooper, now a correspondent for The Week, and current WaMo online editor Martin Longman, on the hoary but ever-entertaining subject of replacing the Electoral College with a popular vote system for electing presidents. Ryan succinctly made the case that the current system under-represents many voters in larger states, and more importantly, constrains presidential campaigns to a relative handful of battleground states where too much attention can be as harmful as too little. He also notes that it’s entirely feasible to fix the system via interstate compact, which is the strategy being pursued by the National Popular Vote initiative, wherein states vow to cast electoral votes for the national popular vote winner once a critical mass of states have agreed to do so.

Martin responds by suggesting that making each popular vote of equal value would actually provide an incentive to sloppy or downright corrupt election administration everywhere, and could produce a catastrophe in an extremely close race. He also argues that there’s already a “reward” for winning the popular vote since it gives the “winner” (e.g. Al Gore in 2000) the moral legitimacy to challenge a close state result affecting the electoral college count–or to resist a challenge, for that matter (George W. Bush in 2004).

But Longman’s more fundamental argument is that the current system encourages presidential candidates to put together coalitions of states that cross regional boundaries instead of atomistically adding up individual votes from the most efficient markets for television ads.

While I ultimately agree with Ryan, I found Martin’s argument interesting, not to mention unusual among progressives, who usually just think “2000” and support anything that might have reversed that calamitous result. It is entirely true that the rest of our constitutional system–viz., the United States Senate and the role of the states in drawing House districts–is oriented towards viewing the states as intermediary institutions reflecting but still distorting the sum total of individual voters’ wills. It is also true that this orientation has been and continues to be a deeply reactionary feature of American political life that should perhaps be reversed where possible–i.e., by an interstate compact.

Something neither Ryan nor Martin mentions is that the current system when combined with a rapid trend towards straight-ticket voting means that the party with a broader geographical base is over time going to have an immense advantage downballot. That is what we already see happening, exacerbated by the Republican midterm turnout edge. For example, in 2014 key Senate races were held in “red” states in the South (Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia) where Democrats had never invested in presidential-year voter registration or GOTV activities aimed at minority voters. It showed in the returns.

But more fundamentally, a national popular vote system helps truly “nationalize” presidential elections because quite literally a vote’s a vote. While some say the parties (especially Democrats with their urban constituencies) would just run up the score in their “base” areas, that is not necessarily going to be the most efficient way to assemble a popular majority given the variable cost of paid ads and other spending and the increasing use of social media that don’t depend on physical proximity.

More importantly, we could finally see the end of presidential campaigns wildly distorting their messages to persuade a handful of voters in a handful of battleground states. Remember the endless references to “clean coal” by both presidential candidates in the 2012 debates? That was the direct result of “coal country” swing voters in four battleground states, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado, whose clout was vastly magnified by the Electoral College.

In the end we’ll still see most popular vote winners also win the electoral college. But the EV system is one relic from the eighteenth century we need not continue. And I say that as someone whose job is made vastly easier and more entertaining by the battle for “purple states” every four years.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.