Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why the Electoral College is Still Important

Once again we are bombarded with images of protesters, usually in California, who are angry about the outcome of an election. They are carrying signs promoting two ultimately contradictory positions: 1) the Electoral College should be abolished, and 2) California should secede from the union.

I consider these positions conflicted because one (the idea of secession) is buttressed by the notion that California -- or any state for that matter -- still exists as an independent government in union with a group of other independent governments, while the second (direct election of President) seems to presuppose that there are no state affiliations or divisions.

As Madison argued in Federalist No. 39, the Constitution established a mixture of state-based and population-based governments. Originally, in the legislative branch of government, the Senate was supposed to be selected at state level, while the House of Representatives was supposed to be directly elected by the population. The Judicial branch was to be selected by Executive and then confirmed by Legislative. And then the third branch, the Executive, was also to be elected by a mixture of the two modes. Hamilton wrote about the electors in Federalist No. 68:

"Men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under 
circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the 
reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice."

At a time when the general population had less access to information about each candidate, it was important to provide a hierarchical approach. Remember, at this time all elections were local in nature and the largest voting pool was at the state level.

The Constitution provides the algorithm for determining the number of electors and mandates that to win the Presidency a candidate must receive a majority. Since the election of 1824, most states have appointed their electors on a winner-take-all basis, based on the statewide popular vote on Election Day.  We tend to look at the Electoral College only in terms of its impact on binary, two-party elections, but the true measure or restrictive nature may come in our future if the number of viable political parties or movements expand in America. For example, in a true three-candidate race, the winner would still need a majority of electoral college votes. If such a majority is not reach, the election is determined via a contingency procedure established by the Twelfth Amendment. This process involves the House of Representatives voting as individual states for President. This requires any minority candidate to build some sort of governing coalition of support.

We tend to try to compare American political systems against other nations without real knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of others. For example, in a Parliamentarian government, the Prime Minister is not directly elected either. Each party has a person they would consider their leader, and if that party wins a majority of seats, then their leader becomes Prime Minister. No Brit ever voted for Margaret Thatcher, they voted for her party. In those cases, and even other countries that directly elect an executive leader, they then must still put together a coalition of support within the Parliament.

Direct democracy is not only difficult in a nation of America's size, but can lead to factionalism that is harmful to the running of a republic. The "dual-mode" system put in place by our framers serves a valuable purpose of never forgetting that we are indeed a collection of states. A collection of states that come together as part of highly structured compromise that tries to temper the power of any state over another. To give equal power to Rhode Island as compared to California would be grossly unfair. But, to put forth a system in which a person may get a disproportionate amount of support among a very few states that can outweigh the decision of forty other states would also be just as wrong.

Our system now seeks to find a delicate balance. It usually doesn't come into play, but now twice in the last twenty years, a person has won the Presidency with a majority of electors but failed to win the national popular vote. And not surprisingly, each time it happens, a small group of disgruntled appear argue that the system has failed.

If, of course, the goal of the electoral college was to elect a President that the majority of voters had chosen, then it would have failed. But, if that were the goal we wouldn't need it in the first place. And remember, it wasn't done to limit who could vote, or because we didn't have the apparatus to conduct a nation-wide population-based election. It was an attempt to compromise between population and state's rights.

I would argue that the measure as to whether the electoral college is successful is in those cases when it differs from the popular vote. Did it temper the power of more populated states? In this last election, it appears that Secretary Clinton will win the popular vote by a 0.23% margin when limiting the choice to just those two. Or to put in raw vote totals, among the nearly 120 million votes cast to either of those two, the margin of difference is 283,000 votes. So, if we chose solely by popular vote, Mrs. Clinton would win.

Now, let's look at state dispersion. Mrs Clinton won 20 states and the District of Columbia while Trump won 30. Mrs. Clinton won two with as few electors as three (which is the minimum) while Mr. Trump won four. The largest prize for Trump was 38 for Texas, while Mrs. Clinton won all 55 from California.

This system, is not perfect. But then again, no three people would agree on what perfection would look like. If you want to know what tyranny would look like, imagine a candidate that might win New York, California and DC, by 90%, but then lose the remaining 48 states by a few thousand votes each, and win by a landslide of the popular vote. In that scenario the choice of the three main power centers could dictate to the rest of the citizenry. A candidate's message might only have to address the needs of those powerful states. You could in theory win on a platform of excluding California and New York from federal income tax. Not that it would happen, but it is possible.

Our current system requires our presidential candidates to actually visit the farmlands of Iowa, or the badlands of the Dakotas. They must actually meet the people. Sometime, when they take states for granted like Mrs. Clinton did Wisconsin, they get punished.

In conclusion, we either agree in principle to what the electoral college is attempting to do, or we don't. Stop arguing that it is broken when the two outcomes don't match. It wasn't designed to match. And its value still today in our society isn't in its ability to match. It is designed to ensure that the person who will be President as broad appeal across a majority of independent states.

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