Politics

Electoral College

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In a comment to Montag’s Electoral College vote I gave an imperfect defense of the institution based largely on sentimental reverence for a relic.

But there are better arguments than that for keeping it. Perhaps enough time has elapsed since 2000 that it’s worth a look at some of them, since election reform again seems to be in the air.

The first is the obvious one: Someday we actually might need that last defense against popular election of a dangerous demagogue. As hard as it is to imagine in this media-saturated age, it could happen. Some awful secret might transpire between election day and the meeting of the Electoral College that would change America’s mind about the candidate it had elected. There’d still be a last chance to hit “don’t send.”

Other arguments for keeping the electoral college reflect problems with direct popular election of presidents. It’s not necessarily an either-or situation (there are other ways to elect beside these two), but the problems are worth considering.

One is that direct election likely would lead to more, and more widespread, voter fraud. Think about it: The way things now stand, the GOP in, say, South Carolina only has to turn out enough Republican voters there every four years to outnumber the Democratic voters.

With nationwide direct elections, however, the South Carolina GOP would want to drain every single possible Republican vote into the polling places, because all the votes are going into one big pool. And in states where one party forms the majority, fraud by that party would be that much easier to accomplish, that much harder to prove.

The current system concentrates fraud in swing states (Florida, Ohio). A direct election would turn all 160,000 polling places in America into potential Broward Counties.

Doing away with the Electoral College, relic though it may be, would have consequences for the whole U.S. political system. It often is argued — and with good reason, I think — that the presence of the electoral college is what steered America into a two-party system. To win the presidency, you have to put a viable candidacy into every major state in a broad and diverse land. That forced regional and narrow interest groups to coalesce into national parties.

Do away with it, and you’ll likely see more Naders and Perots and Pat Buchanans in the mix, and see them gaining influence over the eventual winners. You’ll also likely see dozens or hundreds of candidates on the ballot at a time.

Pooling the vote also would leave much of America effectively disenfranchised. The Constitutional tug-of-war between big states and small states in 1787 was not about geography but about population: In a rural nation, the geographical size of a state usually was a measure of its population.

Since then, America has become intensely urbanized. Nowadays, under a direct popular vote, an America candidate could concen himself entirely with a few urban centers and ignore the vast rural heartland. The concentration of blue votes in such urban centers may be a clue to why dumping the Electoral College is an idea more popular with Democrats than Republicans. But the last time a candidate managed to game the system, and win the White House by ignoring half the country, was 1860. The results of that are a sufficient warning to the wise.