Sunday, October 12, 2008

Is It Time to Finally Scrap the Electoral College?

As Barack Obama is so far holding on to all of the ‘blue states’ won by John Kerry in the previous presidential election and John McCain possibly losing a few of his ‘red states’ who voted for President Bush, the trend of this election is clearly in Obama’s favor especially with an economy in such dire straits. I argued in a previous blog article that the economy would not play as large a role as other divisive issues like abortion, gay rights, and gun control. But I underestimated how profoundly this economy would affect so many people in such a negative way. The loss of one's job or the fear of losing it, can get people’s attention in a hurry!

But while we are talking about red and blue states, it soon may be time for our nation to consider whether we want to continue our present Electoral College system of electing presidents or scrap it in favor of a national popular vote. Why now? From a practical standpoint, the only time we can attempt to do this is very early in a presidential term. When you consider that our presidential campaigns last about 2 years, it would be awkward if not unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game for the candidates. And in addition, since this would require a time-consuming amendment process to the Constitution, we need to get a running start as soon as possible after this upcoming election if we are ever going to do this. Assuming we want to.

But do we need the Electoral College? Our Founding Fathers wanted governmental power to be shared between the state and national governments. This is reflected in not only our presidential system which consists of 50 individual state races (and later the District of Columbia) but also our method of electing US Senators by the state legislatures
until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment. But this also indicated a condescending distrust from a different era that they had for people directly electing their leaders. Which is all the more reason for us to consider amending the Constitution.

There are a number of
arguments against along with arguments in favor of keeping the Electoral College which can be explored in each of the links. But a few of the arguments deserve some special mention here.

Whoever gets the most votes should win! It’s the simplest but the most compelling argument in favor of a national popular vote. Any system where someone who gets fewer votes but still wins cheats the electorate. Of course, Al Gore in 2000 (along with two other candidates in US history) got more votes but lost. And had John Kerry in 2004 managed to get a few more votes to allow him to win Ohio, he would have won over President Bush despite winning fewer votes. Neither result should have had the opportunity to happen!

One of the most often used arguments in favor of the Electoral College is that smaller population states get some attention from the candidates that they normally wouldn’t in a national popular election. However, it has been shown that what determines whether a state gets any attention by the candidates is how evenly divided the electorate is between those candidates. This means that in addition to smaller states being ignored now in presidential elections, there are also a lot of larger population states that get no attention (such as New York, California, Texas, and Illinois) because these states already have solid majorities for one party or another. Now the candidates (wisely under the present system) devote all of their time and campaign money towards the roughly 12-15 ‘swing states’ whose electorates are more evenly divided (and thus closely contested) while mostly ignoring the rest of the voting population.

Everybody’s vote should count equally! For example, in a state where one candidate wins by say, 10 million to 9 million, the 9 million votes for the losing candidate then have no bearing whatsoever on the overall election result in an Electoral College system unlike for a national popular vote. For those voters whose candidate has no chance to win in the state they live in, what’s the use in voting? That’s not fair!

So I am one of those who are in favor of scrapping the Electoral College. But first there is one big argument against a national popular vote that has to be addressed.

Back in 2000, when a recount was required in Florida to decide the Bush-Gore election, the country was in turmoil and the world was watching to see how we were going to deal with a recount over a number of weeks where there were problems with ‘hanging chads’ on punch ballots along with other irregularities. What if we had a national popular vote that was close enough to require a recount? If it was that difficult to conduct a recount in just a few counties of Florida, what would it be like to recount the entire national vote?

Unfortunately, we have a hodgepodge of state and local election procedures that vary in
the form of ballot used along with controversies around whether electronic voting is vulnerable to technical glitches and vote theft. Until these problems are solved to the point where we have uniform standards and confidence in the conduction of our voting process across the country, these problems may cause even more difficulties in a national popular election where they are harder to hide in a state’s election totals.

But we shouldn’t use one sometimes poorly run system (our elections) to justify the existence of another system that needs to be changed (the Electoral College). All it means is that we need to get to work on election reform as an equal priority while we decide whether the Electoral College is something we still really need or is just an anachronism from the 18th century that needs to go. This is not just an issue for political junkies to kick around. This is more important than that. This is an issue of fairness to all of our voters!

Post Script: I received in my comment feedback, an interesting (and likely more workable) alternative to amending the Constitution which I think is worth including at the end of this posting instead of just being hidden among the comments:
The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

The 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 comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 21 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes — 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

The website provides more details.

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