Saturday, May 19, 2007

Examining the Electoral College, Part 4: Nationwide Popular Vote

As noted in my earlier comments, the functioning of the Electoral College today bears little resemblance to the intention of the founding fathers, negating the argument that we should introduce no change now because the founding fathers knew what was best. As Robert Bennett says in Taming the Electoral College,
“In some ideal world the method might have been splendid, but that splendor could not be realized in the real world of American politics. For that reason alone, if we were searching today for a way to select the president, it is thoroughly unlikely that we would come up with something even remotely like the electoral college.”
Furthermore, as Bennett notes, “the electoral college seems always to be a work in progress.” Given changes that have occurred on the federal level and the changes in state selection of electors, this is clearly true.

The “wrong winner” problem that we saw in 2000 (where Bush was elected by the Electoral College even though Gore won the popular vote) isn’t necessarily the reason for changing the system to a direct popular election. If such a system had been in place in 2000, both sides would have campaigned differently and the outcome might have been different, just as the outcome in 2004 might have been different. But as noted earlier, there are other potential problems with the current system and there are numerous proposals for reform. The most prominent of those reforms is the Nationwide Popular Vote (NPV) movement. And this is not surprising given, as Bennett notes, steady movement toward relegation of decisions to popular election: popular election of Senators, under the 17th Amendment; referenda, as practiced in many sates; the popular election of electors, which all states now practice.

There are defenders of the electoral college system. One argument against shifting to NPV is that it is too big a change. But Bennett notes that “the electoral college has changed over the years in ways that are fully as momentous as direct election would be, and far from being brittle, the system has proved remarkably adaptable.” Defenders also argue that the “winner-take-all” system of selecting electors requires candidates to concentrate on states as integrated units, but it isn’t clear why that’s a particularly desirable outcome. And while under the current system the presidency could be captured by a candidate who wins the electoral votes of the 11 most populous states, the NPV would require candidates to campaign nationally, since votes everywhere would count equally.

Next: Problems with the “Contingent Procedure”

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