Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is There a Way to Defend the Electoral College?

Two weeks ago today we did a post on how the Democrats may be falling short in Colorado. One topic of the post was how the Democratically-controlled state Senate approved a bill to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).

Here’s what we said:

“Other issues mentioned above are going to be equally unpopular. The Electoral College issue, for example, is one that probably doesn’t sit well with voters. The state Senate approved a bill to join the [NPVIC], in which a state’s electoral votes would go to the overall national winner of a presidential race. Once enough states join the compact to reach 270 votes, the compact would go into effect. Because Colorado is a smaller state, they would effectively get less say in a presidential contest. Besides, a good communications director can easily argue that the bill is taking the vote away from Coloradans, and make a GOP political gain.”

To our surprise, that paragraph drew a bit of criticism from two comments. One commenter complained that “the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.”

Actually, it’s more like once every 18 presidential elections. From the time George Washington was elected in 1789 there have been 56 presidential elections and the Electoral College winner has lost the popular vote 3 times. These presidents who lost the popular vote were Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and - most famously - George W. Bush in 2000.

(We should also point out that it is popularly believed that the same happened with John F. Kennedy in 1960. In fact, Kennedy won the popular vote by a mere 115,000 votes nationally. We’re not going to get into the allegations of vote theft here.)

We should make it clear that in our post we were not discussing the merits of the Electoral College or the NPVIC, but rather discussing the political side effects of trying to change the system - i.e., what it would do to the public opinion of Democrats in Colorado.

Nonetheless, the merits of the Electoral College and NPVIC is an interesting topic, so we figured we’d devote a post to the subject.

It is easy for liberals - like ourselves - to criticize the Electoral College (all three presidents that lost the popular vote were Republicans) but we think we should look at it from a more neutral position and give both sides of the argument.

Reasons to Oppose the Electoral College

Let’s see what else our commenters said...

“The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided "battleground" states. 98% of the 2008 campaign events involving a presidential or vice-presidential candidate occurred in just 15 closely divided "battleground" states. Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). Similarly, 98% of ad spending took place in these 15 "battleground" states. Similarly, in 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states and over 99% of their money in 16 states.”

We’re not going to fact check this, but from what we would expect this is probably true (or at least reasonably close to being accurate). The fact that many big states like California, Texas, New York, etc. are almost completely ignored during a presidential race is troubling to the average democratically-minded American (note the small “d” in democratic).

This is certainly a reason to draw concern. It seems almost morally wrong for such states to be ignored. In principle, they should receive their due attention from the presidential campaigns.

What else?

“[A] recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. This national result is similar to recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado-- 68%...”

This is true. The poll the commenter refers to finds that a whopping majority of Americans would support a direct popular vote. And although there was a noticeable partisan divide, even 60% of Republicans support this theoretical election system.

Furthermore, the 68% support for a national direct popular vote in Colorado seems to hinder our argument from the previous post. We’ll return to that point later.


“The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule enacted by 48 states, under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.”

Absolutely true. Just take the 2008 campaign in Nebraska, for example. For most of the state, very little effort was put in to winning it from either side because McCain was pretty certain to win there. Yet in the 2nd Congressional District - which is pretty much just Omaha - the Obama campaign was determined to win. After putting money and operatives into the city they picked up one electoral vote from Nebraska.

Nebraska is one of the only two states in the union that currently divides its electoral votes - the other being New Hampshire. Of Nebraska’s five electoral votes, two go to the overall state winner, and the other three go to the winner by congressional district. If they did not do this, the Obama campaign would have never put any serious resources or effort into the state because they knew they wouldn’t be able to win outside Omaha. So why would they bother?

Reasons to Support the Electoral College

In response to the argument that candidates don’t focus on enough states under the present system, the first thing an Electoral College advocate would say in rebuttal is that states should simply use their freedom to divide their electoral votes. In fact, many states have done this at different times in American history but have chosen not to today.

The Electoral College advocate might also argue that this method of choosing a president is grounded in the Constitution, thus cannot legally be ignored. Of course, if the NPVIC is adopted by enough states for it to go into effect, approved by Congress, and signed into law, it would be completely legitimate constitutionally.

His or her best argument would probably be that a national election is just too big for a direct popular vote. There actually may be something to this.

Presidential campaigns are divided on a state-by-state basis structurally. You are essentially running a unique campaign in every state, all held together by a relatively small national team. Frankly, nobody in campaign politics knows how to run a campaign bigger than a statewide race in California because no one has ever had to run a race bigger than that - and the Golden State only makes up about 12% of the U.S. population.

A nationally-run race would be a campaign manager’s worst nightmare. The Electoral College helps them keep it at a truly state-by-state basis because winner-take-all would be far too much for a campaign to organize on a national level.

More on that point is the money issue. It is true that presidential campaigns spend virtually all of their money in just 16 (or so) states - but in 2008 the two major presidential campaigns spent approximately a combined billion dollars. That’s not including what was spent by the DNC, RNC, and countless number of issue advocacy groups that spent their own money in support of Obama and McCain. So, theoretically (if the campaigns have to focus resources on all 50 states and not 16) under a popular vote system, the two major campaigns would be spending about $1.5 billion each - if not more - while the parties and advocacy groups would spend an uncountable number of dollars.

It might actually be a big boost to our GDP, but Americans are already concerned that this country spends too much on political campaigns as it is.

Are these the reasons why so many states have not passed the NPVIC?

There are actually more practical political reasons why the NPVIC has only passed in 5 of the 50 states.

First of all, let’s look back to Colorado. If they were to pass the NPVIC they would effectively get less say because they’re a smaller state. The reason is because the number of electoral votes a state gets is equal to the number of U.S. Senators and Representatives in their Congressional delegation. A state like Colorado - with 10 electoral votes - effectively gets more say (proportionally) in a presidential race than California - with 55 electoral votes - because the two votes each get automatically for their Senators has a bigger impact in Colorado per resident. It is likely that the 68% of Coloradans that support the NPVIC don’t realize this, or haven’t really thought about it enough.

The bigger states, conversely, are often dominated by one party in their State Legislatures (Democrats in California and Illinois, Republicans in Texas). These politicians know that more votes are basically guaranteed to go to their own party’s nominee with a winner-take-all Electoral College system than with a popular vote system.

Finally, the battleground states have no real incentive to change the system because they like the special attention they get. This is the same reason why Iowa and New Hampshire are determined to remain the first two states during the presidential primary season.

We hope we’ve given you a good overview of the arguments for and against the Electoral College - especially the arguments defending it, since so few seem to be willing to make them. Ultimately it’s for you to decide whether you agree with the system or not. There are certainly good reasons to support the NPVIC, but as is the case with any debate, there are reasons not to support it too hastily.


Anonymous said...

Presidential candidates currently do everything within their power to raise as much money as they possibly can from donors throughout the country. They then allocate the money that they raise nationally to places where it will do the most good toward their goal of winning the election.

Money doesn't grow on trees. The fact that candidates would spend their money more broadly (that is, in all 50 states) would not, in itself, loosen up the wallet of a single donor anywhere in the country. Candidates will continue to try to raise as much money as economic considerations permit. Economic considerations by donors determines how much money will be available, not the existence of an increases number of places where the money might be spent.

Under the current system, they spend two-thirds of their time and money in just six closely divided battleground states; 80% in just nine states; and 99% in just 16 states. That's precisely what they should do in order to get elected under the current system, because the voters of two-thirds of the states simply don't matter. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns of voters of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

If every vote mattered throughout the United States, as it would under a national popular vote, candidates would have to reallocate the money they raise over all 50 states.

Anonymous said...

National support for the National Popular Vote bill is similar to recent polls

in closely divided BATTLEGROUND states: Colorado-- 68%, Iowa --75%, Michigan-- 73%, Missouri-- 70%, New Hampshire-- 69%, Nevada-- 72%, New Mexico-- 76%, North Carolina-- 74%, Ohio-- 70%, Pennsylvania -- 78%, Virginia -- 74%, and Wisconsin -- 71%;

in SMALLER states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Delaware --75%, Maine -- 71%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, and Vermont -- 75%;

in Southern and border states: Arkansas --80%, Kentucky -- 80%, Mississippi --77%, Missouri -- 70%, North Carolina -- 74%, and Virginia -- 74%; and in

other states polled: California -- 70%, Connecticut -- 73% , Massachusetts -- 73%, New York -- 79%, and Washington -- 77%.


Anonymous said...

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 28 state legislative chambers, in small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes -- 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


Anonymous said...

Dividing a state's electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system of electing the President. What the country needs is a national popular vote to make every person's vote equally important to presidential campaigns.

If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country's congressional districts.

The district approach would not cause presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates' attention to issues of concern to the state. Under the winner-take-all rule (whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In North Carolina, for example, there are only 2 districts the 13th with a 5% spread and the 2nd with an 8% spread) where the presidential race is competitive. In California, the presidential race is competitive in only 3 of the state's 53 districts. Nationwide, there are only 55 "battleground" districts that are competitive in presidential elections. Under the present deplorable state-level winner-take-all system, two-thirds of the states (including North Carolina and California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, seven-eighths of the nation's congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

A national popular vote is the way to make every person's vote equal and guarantee that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The National Popular Vote bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill is enacted in a group of states possessing 270 or more electoral votes, all of the electoral votes from those states would be awarded, as a bloc, to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). This would guarantee the White House to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).