Continuing the Discussion: The U.S. Electoral College

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The Electoral College: In Need of Reform


One person, one vote. Will that ideal hold this November 8th in the United States?

In some states it is likely to do so while in others, that ideal is open for debate. However, by revising the Electoral College to introduce a degree of proportionality into the process, the United States would not only affirm that ideal but would also expand democratic participation. At a time of high polarization, politicians from both sides should support these measures.

In 2012, a mere 57 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot for president. Furthermore, a disproportionate number of those voters resided in a few “battleground states” — states characterized by electorates who tend to fluctuate between voting for either Democrats or Republicans. In theory, the presence of battleground states should not be cause for worry. In reality, the number and composition of battleground states have proven remarkably consistent in recent history and are possibly detrimental to our democratic process; a candidate could win the presidency by drawing votes from the largest 11 states while ignoring the remainder.

Early proponents of the Electoral College viewed it as an effective mechanism in tempering the “passions of the masses” by placing the responsibility for electing a president into the hands of state electors. However, over time the states of Maine and Nebraska initiated reforms to maintain the spirit of the Electoral College while introducing a degree of proportionality to the process.

In Maine and Nebraska each candidate has the potential to secure electoral votes even though he or she may fail to gain a majority of the statewide vote. Under these rules, candidates win electoral votes by defeating their opponents in a particular Congressional district. However, two electoral votes are still reserved for the candidate with the most statewide votes. In this manner, reforms would encourage democratic participation within the state because a candidate has the opportunity to build his or her electoral total even though the statewide total may not be as favorable.

However, even though Maine’s electoral votes have never split in practice, this does not diminish this model’s potential within other states. Perhaps these reforms partially explain the relatively high degree of civic engagement within these states as evident from their voter turnout. In 2012, 67.7 percent and 60 percent of eligible voters in Maine and Nebraska respectively cast a ballot for president.

Though the form of proportional electoral voting used in the Maine and Nebraska model may invite regional and sectarian parties into the presidential election, the benefits to the democratic process outweigh the costs. In fact, the presence of more parties may galvanize more people to become involved in the political process. Some argue against the proliferation of parties but a democracy is intended to be messy to protect minority rights against the tyranny of the majority.

As a nation with relatively low voter turnout in recent presidential elections, we should be searching for reforms that encourage electoral competition to maximize the likelihood of participation. For this reason, the Electoral College system ought to be revised in order to promote competition.



The Electoral College: Not Electrifying, But Necessary


The U.S. Electoral College Map (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia)

The Electoral College has garnered a reputation for being unfair, outdated and contradictory to the democratic values at the root of the United States. According to critics, it allows for the possibility of electing minority presidents and discouraging voter turnout.

However, despite the fact that it may be in vogue to favor reforming or abolishing the system, many objections to the Electoral College are unfounded. The Electoral College is actually a highly functional method for selecting a president and should be preserved.

The most popular alternative, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), proposes that each state should change its laws to allow district-by-district voting and would only go into effect when enough states have passed similar legislation. However, NPVIC has as many problems as the current system.

The statement that the Electoral College doesn’t accurately represent popular will is evidently true. The candidate who wins the majority of electoral votes (270 or more) wins, even if they lose the popular vote. The system also over-represents voters from rural states, and the winner-take-all arrangement discourages third-party or independent candidates.

But is this as bad as it sounds? The U.S. Senate itself over-represents voters from rural states.  And more importantly, the winner-take-all system encourages the political stability of the U.S. by ensuring the survival of two parties that tend towards the center of public opinion. A direct popular election, in contrast, would encourage many political parties, some of whom would have regionalist or extremist views.

The 2000 Bush vs. Gore election caused many to want electoral reform, as Bush won Florida with under a .05 percent margin of victory, but received all of the electoral votes from the state and therefore won the presidency. However, popular voting in 2004 would have allowed George W. Bush to receive all of California’s votes although John Kerry beat Bush in the state by ten percent of the vote. It would have also allowed candidates like Ross Perot (who won 19 percent of the national popular vote but not a single state) to possibly force elections into the House of Representatives, as happens when no single candidate wins a simple majority of electoral votes.

There is no perfect way to elect a president, but direct popular elections and NPVIC are not as innocuous as they seem. Furthermore, they are difficult to enact since the party in power would likely end up losing electoral votes by changing the status quo. Rather than favoring small states, direct popular elections would favor large states. The winner-take-all system is clearly not as horrible as it is frequently described.

Finally, there is an argument that the Electoral College discourages voter turnout and diminishes minority interests because each state receives the same amount of votes regardless of voter turnout. However, the opposite is true as similar incentives are at work in local elections and congressional elections. In addition, many ethnic minorities and other special interest groups concentrate in states with more electoral votes. Presidential elections are therefore generally more sensitive to minority interests than other elections, which may in effect serve as a useful guard against the tyranny of the majority.

Rather than reforming the Electoral College, raising awareness about the rationale behind the system would be a better use of time. It encourages the two-party system that has defined U.S. history and given it stability, increases the protection of minority rights and fosters political participation.  

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