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Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Electoral College

The idea is that the presidential election should be decided directly, by a purely popular vote. The Electoral College is called by its opponents "an antidemocratic relic." Well. First, the Framers of the Constitution seem to have been quite a bit wiser than the toadies and mediocrities who thrust themselves forward into public office nowadays. Not every signer of the Constitution was a Madison, but no one today is a Madison. So this is an inherent problem. Don’t tinker lightly with the Constitution – proceed with caution. Even its flaws had a purpose - the hateful compromise which counted a slave as three fifth of a person. Odious. But necessary. The EC is not such an odious compromise. It is part of the very wise checks and balances that make this form of government superior to every other. So that’s the first thing.

In its place, some propose that states simply bypass the intent of the Electoral College by committing to an interstate compact, whereby the winner of the national popular vote would automatically receive the electoral votes of each state, regardless of which candidate actually won the state. Thus, as few as eleven states could decide the presidency; in fact, eleven votes over half the population of eleven states could decide the issue - same as now. In any case, the large states tend to favor such a plan – but the purpose of the EC was to offset the power of the large states. So of course.

What does it matter, if large states have more power? – after all, they have more people. The Electoral College is one of the few remaining cornerstones of the federalist system, in which states had a powerful voice, and the federal government was much more limited. Why is such decentralization important? Well, whither might we flee, when corruption is intractable where we are? If there is only one authority, and it is corrupt, then corruption is universal. Um, Mexico comes to mind – the stink starts at the top – three quarters of a century of an “institutional” yet “revolutionary” national monopoly. Hmm. But here, if state X has laws that you hate and can’t change, you can move to state Y. Leave liberal California and move to conservative Wyoming. Leave Red Neck Utah and live in the Peoples Paradise of, um, Vermont. Pretty sensible idea. (It’s the same reason we must tremble at the thought of a world government. What if all the world had been dominated by the Soviets? Where would one find asylum?)

Some complain that only battleground states receive the benefit of a focused campaign. Um … this seems like a problem? You like all the campaign ads on TV and radio? You think they’re useful? Informative? Accurate? Honestly, have you ever changed your informed position because of what you saw in a campaign ad? Hi, I’m Senator Joe Sincerity, and I love my mother ... so vote for me! And the attack ads! Joseph “Mama’s-Boy” Sin-cerity - he eats puppies ... while they’re ... still ... alive!!! That Florida gets more campaign media dollars than Texas seems like a boon for Florida media moguls, but a blessing for Texans in general. Here’s the thing: it is no longer the year 1924. News coverage is national – not, as may surprise some, limited to hometown papers. Hardly a meaningful objection.

There’s also the obvious problem, that if three candidates all make a good showing, another election would be required. That, or the unhappy solution of having a president elected with, say, 34% of the vote. If, say, two liberals lost, with 60% of the vote between them, and a conservative won with forty percent, the very purpose of the reform would have been undone – and you’d have a situation far more objectionable than the Electoral College.

Finally, and most salient, what of the recent oddity of Gore winning the popular vote yet Bush winning the election? That got right up Lefty’s nose, didn’t it. Here’s the thing, Lefty: if the rules had been different, then the Bush strategy would have been different. If he had to win the popular vote, he would have tailored his campaign to win the popular vote. In other words, if the rules were different, the strategy to win would have been different. Since both candidates were college graduates, and thus presumably aware of the need to win states rather than a popular majority, no one can say the outcome was unfair. Well, they can say it was unfair, but only by reverting to the schoolyard tactics of gimmes and do-overs.

Federalism is absolutely necessary to protect citizens from government. States must have and retain rights and powers, independent of the central government. There must be a rivalry between local and national governments, to outdo the other in protecting citizens. How can I be so sure? A case from history: Once upon a time, Senators were selected by state legislatures, the intent being that states as entities would be represented, just as citizens were represented by the House. Then, in 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment changed the selection process to a popular vote, the idea being that the Senate would no longer be a richman’s club. Alas, the desired effect has not been forthcoming. It is still a richman’s club, with the added ugliness that now the Senate is no longer the federal voice of state’s rights, but just another, longer, smaller House - whoring for the popular vote. The Senate was stripped of its most important function, while the desired outcome remains as elusive as ever it was. The law of unintended consequences.

The purpose of the Electoral College is not obscure. It is a safety net. Before it is shredded, better reasons than those so far adduced must be in evidence. The end.


J

1 comment:

Jack H said...

This is pasted in from here:

http://www.fairvote.org/blog/?p=56

My second comment is off-the-cuff - pressed for time.

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My comment, from mid April:

This is the same bonehead move they pulled in 1913 - with the 17th Amendment. There was a purpose, for a state appointed Senate. It’s called “Federalism.” There they go again.

I write this up in one of my postings:

http://forgottenprophets.blogspot.com/2006/03/electoral-college.html

for any interested.

Best,

Jack H

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Another Jack's response, that same day:
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I note your post, The Electoral College.

Your first argument in favor of retaining the Electoral College system:

"First, the Framers of the Constitution seem to have been quite a bit wiser than the toadies and mediocrities who thrust themselves forward into public office nowadays."

One, ad hominem is not reasoned debate. Two, I find it hard to believe wisdom - that is, innate intelligence - has declined among humans over the last 250 years. Taking wisdom in its other sense - lessons learned from life’s experiences - it probably has increased since 1787. Anyway, as Congressman John Anderson put it, the FFs settled on an Electoral College because they couldn’t agree otherwise. Can’t make a decision? Leave it to the states.

Which is what this is about - the states using their Constitutional power over the selection of Electors.

"Thus, as few as eleven states could decide the presidency; in fact, eleven votes over half the population of eleven states could decide the issue - same as now."

Theoretically true, but you’re looking at it through the Electoral College lens. Fact is, we’d have a national, popular vote. If every voter in each of those eleven states voted the same way, then you’re right. But that’s not likely. Candidates will need votes from all sorts of states, big and small.

"Some complain that only battleground states receive the benefit of a focused campaign. Um … this seems like a problem? You like all the campaign ads on TV and radio? You think they’re useful? Informative? Accurate?"

It’s not about who’s watching ads. It’s about the constituencies. Presidential contenders have no incentive to make promises to safe states, to be responsive to their needs.

"There’s also the obvious problem, that if three candidates all make a good showing, another election would be required. That, or the unhappy solution of having a president elected with, say, 34% of the vote. If, say, two liberals lost, with 60% of the vote between them, and a conservative won with forty percent, the very purpose of the reform would have been undone – and you’d have a situation far more objectionable than the Electoral College."

The Electoral College is not a “situation.” Having a Presidential election decided in the House of Representatives is. True, the NPV plan is satisfied with plurality winners, meaning a national popular vote is susceptible to the spoiler effect, as with any single-winner election that does not involve a majority requirement. Instant runoff voting could solve that.

But imagine a spoiler within the Electoral College itself. The decision is made by the House.

Overall, though, this is about increasing the size of the electorate. More votes go into the same ballot box, in a sense. Therefore, the number of votes needed to turn an election by fraud or spoiler candidacy increases drastically. Remember what happened in Florida - a few voters spoiled the Electoral College result for one state, which threw off the result for 50 states.

"In other words, if the rules were different, the strategy to win would have been different."

Clearly. You’d campaign to more voters in all states. That is, more voters would matter - not just the swing sliver in a battleground state.


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My follow up, mid May:

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Belated greetings, um, Jack (? - for this is *my* name) –

RE “ad hominem” - that of course was not the substance of my argument - it was a passing characterization, gratuitous perhaps, but permissible in informal debate.

“Two, I find it hard to believe wisdom - that is, innate intelligence - has declined among humans over the last 250 years.” It isn’t about intelligence. It’s about precepts. These men were grounded in a classical way of thinking, and took as their mentors such thinkers as Locke. We cannot arrive at valid conclusions (true, by coincidence, but not valid through sound logic) if we operate from false premises. The current cohort of pols are precisely what I termed them: mediocrities. All generations will have them, but by dint of discipline, one might rise above one’s innate limitations.

“Taking wisdom in its other sense - lessons learned from life’s experiences - it probably has increased since 1787.” We’ll just have to disagree, on this. To imagine that TV somehow enhances one’s understanding of the human condition seems naive, to me. At most, it enhances our understanding of telefictions. To imagine that the hustle and bustle of modern urban life gives one more to subtle contemplation, is wrong on the face of it.

Anderson tells part, not all, of the story. To say the EC was a compromise is true. To say it is only a compromise is false. It is also one of the (non-democratic) checks and balances.

“Theoretically true” - no disagreement here.

“It’s not about who’s watching ads. It’s about the constituencies.” False dilemma. It *is* about ads. That’s what campaigns are, nowadays. The days of whistle stops are long past. TV and radio. It’s also about constituencies. I’m wondering if you understood my point? I’m arguing that the electoral college is a GOOD thing. It ensures the importance of the small states. Winning Nevada or Utah is important, in a close race. As for how you’re using “constituencies” - it seems to be as a promise of pork. National issues - which I take as the proper domain of a president - cross statelines, and so the constituency ought, it seems to me, to be more philosophical, than local. But I may be wrong.

“The Electoral College is not a “situation.”” Please. Pardon my ellipsis. The *deliberations* of the EC are as much a “situation” as the politics which would transpire in the House. But you could have taken it as an usage of synecdoche.

Re “spoilers” - we might imagine any number of solutions to imaginary problems. My position is that the EC is not a problem at all.

J

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