Friday, October 19, 2012

A Better Case for the Electoral College


Good for Dan Foster of the National Review, an Electoral College supporter who presses the point even though it appears that there’s an electoral bias against his preferred candidate in this cycle. However, I strongly disagree with his case:
In short, the College reflects the formal and constitutional fact that the president is elected chief executive of a union of states — federated but sovereign — and not a glomeration of people. The executive of the Constitution, of the Founders, is president of the United States, not president of America…It affirms that we vote as citizens of the several states, not mere residents of arbitrarily drawn administrative districts.
That’s a great defense for using an electoral college for the (non-existent) chief executive under the Articles of Confederation, but it doesn’t work at all under the Constitution of the United States, which is in the name of “We, the People,” and not the several states. We vote for federal offices as citizens of the United States, not as citizens of our particular states – which, after all, really do resemble “arbitrarily drawn administrative districts” quite a bit, especially outside of the original thirteen and, perhaps, Texas, at least if you squint hard enough. I mean, North and South Dakota? New Mexico and my native Arizona? Hardly. To the extent that was ever ambiguous, it was thoroughly decided by the Civil War and the subsequent amendments.

(And, no, that doesn’t kill off federalism, which has plenty of strong arguments apart from notions of sovereignty).

I’m mostly a marginal supporter of the Electoral College on other grounds, as regular readers may recall. For example, I like the Madisonian idea of overlapping but different constituencies for different offices. That case doesn't depend on any mystical reading of state's rights (why should I care that, as Foster points out, more states supported Bush than Gore? So what?). Instead, it goes back to the Framers' problem that they wanted to listen to Montesquieu, but discovered that in their Republic there were no separate estates to represent separately. There were only -- are only -- people. Nothing to be balanced!

On top of that, I still believe that the interests which benefit from the electoral college are, on balance, those that are hurt by other factors in the overall system. Currently, the states helped appear to be medium-size competitive states (Ohio most of all, but Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia and Pennsylvania are all in Nate Silver's top ten tipping point states right now). It's not as good as when California and New York were swing states, but it's still a different set than are helped by the Senate.

And I tend to think that the chances of a “wrong” result are small enough that it doesn’t bother me – just as I’m not bothered by the chance that there will be a split between the overall vote and partisan control of the House of Representatives. If there was a persistent large EC bias, that would be a different story, but it's usually under 1% and floats between the parties. If a "wrong" result happens in an otherwise very close race, I just don't see a convincing democratic case against it. I am bothered by the Senate, but alas there's nothing that can be done about that one -- and at any rate it's the malapportionment that bothers me and everyone else who complains about the Senate, not the very real possibility that even if the states were all of identical size that a party could still win a Senate majority with the minority of the overall votes.

But again: it's good to see people making arguments they support even when it goes against the short-term interests of their party.

23 comments:

  1. For me, the biggest argument against the electoral college is simply one of legitimacy. You can always come up with an alternate electoral system that gives a different result. But usually it feels like special pleading: "My candidate would have won if we did an instant-runoff.".

    With EC vs. Popular vote, though, everyone involved seems to feel that the Popular result is 'right' and that the EC would be 'wrong' if it gave a different result. Given that, better just to switch to what seems more legitimate to people as a whole.

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  2. The two-party duopoly has greatly dampened my enthusiasm for the Electoral College. But of course the factors that have allowed two parties to dominate the political landscape aren't directly related to the EC system ...

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  3. How many times does a president have to be installed in office contrary to the wishes of a majority of Americans before the chances of a "wrong" result become too much? Once seems like enough to me.

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  4. I could have done without another paean to the grand vision behind a constitutional framework that was hammered out to protect the interests of 18th Century slave-owners.

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    1. It's a mistake to think of the Constitution in general, and the political theory developed around it (some of it at the time, some of it later), as simply about protecting the interests of slave-owners. First of all, if that's all they wanted to do, there were much better ways of doing it!

      And you can't get around it, anyway. "Democracy" as a system which uses elections and a system of representation was developed by slaveholders; democracy of any kind was developed by Athenian slaveholders. It's not as if there's some ideal democratic system that the Good People use and then some deformed one that the Bad People invented to subvert it.

      Whatever form of democracy (if any) one supports has to be attacked and defended on its own terms, not by whether it's been used for evil purposes at some points in history. They all have.

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    2. I was referring to the Electoral College in particular not the Constitution in general (and criticizing the post you were citing more than your own, btw).

      I agree that the constitutional framework should be attacked and defended on its own terms. So that means that if the defenders of the electoral college (and the Senate, and so on) will refrain from ascribing everything to a lofty grand vision handed down from on high, I will refrain from pointing out that our founders were nothing more or less than politicians, wallowing in the same muck as our contemporaries .

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    3. The point, I think, is that one of the reasons an electoral college was used, rather than a direct popular vote for president, was because the electoral college was more beneficial to the south, which had a large number of people living in it and giving it congressional representation who were not able to vote. A direct popular vote would have limited southern power over the presidency to the number of voting white males in the south, which was considerably less than the power they wielded through the electoral college.

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  5. If anything, the U.S. has become far more unified than it once was, and the concept of states greatly weakened over time. You can see it clearly from the language: in the Founders' time, the term "United States" was treated as a plural (the 11th amendment refers to "one of the United States"). In a sense, the very word "state" is an anachronism; in virtually all other contexts than federalist systems it means country, and that's practically what it did mean at our nation's founding (Thomas Jefferson actually referred to Virginia as "my country"). Although the Constitution did create a much stronger central government than under the Articles of Confederation, the weakening of the states was gradual, and was helped along enormously by the Civil War. Nowadays, most of us here think of ourselves as Americans first, and Alabamians or Californians or Marylanders second (if at all).

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    1. Just to sort of illustrate that last point: My family's from New York. In my life, I've lived in Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, and back to Massachusetts. I liked living in some of those areas better than others, but it wasn't really THAT different an experience; it's no big deal that I've lived in all those places, as they're all fundamentally American.

      It would have involved significantly larger adjustments, legal, personal, and cultural, if I'd instead lived in England, France, Belgium, Japan, and Brazil before moving to the United States. The two sets of experiences aren't even close to comparable, if in fact they ever were...

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    2. I didn't mention the increasing ease of travel over the last 200 years, though it is certainly a factor in the homogenization of states, as is mass communication. These factors probably also contributed to the creation of things like the European Union, which would have been unthinkable in the 18th century.

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  6. Presidential elections are intense in swing states, and the campaigns barely bother with New York or California or Texas except to raise money. The campaigns consider a voter in Ohio as hundreds of times more important than one in California.

    That is unfair. It is stupid. It is anachronistic. It occasionally yields a wrong result. It allows a tie that is broken in the House of Representatives.

    It is ridiculous.

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  7. "Currently, the states helped appear to be medium-size competitive states ... a different set than are helped by the Senate." True, in the narrow sense that the medium-sized competitive states get disproportionate attention from candidates. But the low-population states, the same ones helped by the Senate, also get a crucial benefit from the EC: a disproportionate likelihood that their preferred candidate for President crosses the 270-vote threshold and wins.

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  8. If a "wrong" result happens in an otherwise very close race, I just don't see a convincing democratic case against it.

    There's not a convincing democratic case that the person who gets more votes should win?

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  9. "On top of that, I still believe that the interests which benefit from the electoral college are, on balance, those that are hurt by other factors in the overall system. Currently, the states helped appear to be medium-size competitive states (Ohio most of all, but Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia and Pennsylvania are all in Nate Silver's top ten tipping point states right now). It's not as good as when California and New York were swing states, but it's still a different set than are helped by the Senate."

    I don't exactly follow this paragraph. If the problem is that the Senate rewards smaller states than using the popular vote would seem the appropriate remedy. Candidates would generally want to campaign in the larger states who suffer under the equal representation in the Senate. And you bemoan that New York and California are no longer swing states but they suffer the most under the current system. Unless you specifically want a system that is targeted towards helping medium size states. But I would want to here why it's beneficial to assign extra weight to Wisconsin at the expense of Texas.

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  10. With the disappearance of landslides, and the increasing tendency to focus Presidential campaigns on a handful of "swing states" it seems that discordant results between the popular and Electoral votes are becoming more likely. If it happens this year, as it might given current polling, that's twice in twelve years. If these disparities come to be viewed as common rather than freakish, that undermines the legitimacy of the system as a whole.

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  11. Why is a result in which one candidate wins the national vote and another wins the electoral vote a "wrong" result? The object of the game (rightly or wrongly) is to win the electoral vote, so campaigns' strategies are designed for that end. Why is the candidate who happens to get more votes nationwide in the process the rightful winner in any sense, even to those who want to abolish the EC? That candidate is not necessarily the candidate who would have won under a national popular vote system. The latter case, it seems to me, is the real "right result."

    I agree that the perception of the illegitimacy around such a result is in itself a problem, and one argument against having the Electoral College. But that perception seems mistaken.

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    1. It isn't "wrong" in the sense of violating the rules the system set up (though it should be noted that in the early days of the Republic, the popular vote wasn't comprehensively counted, and in some states the electors could be chosen by state legislatures rather than directly by the people). But it is still a legitimate criticism of the system to point out that an electoral/popular split is defying the will of the people.

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  12. Would be interested to see what you think of this defense. The author essentially argues that the EC forces candidates to find a broad base of support because running up the score in any one region of the country doesn't do them any good.

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/10/why_i_love_the.html

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  13. The United States has, I believe, a notoriously low voter turnout compared to other countries. Is the Electoral College one of the reasons for this?

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  14. I propose my own defense of the EC here: The possible electoral college controversy ahead — and what *not* to do about it. One thing I think is a key objection to the NPV in general is that it causes results in a fairly run election in a given state to be potentially overruled by in different states with inferior voting rights regimes. I.e., if you get rid of the EC, you need to empower the US government to also impose and enforce (a national voter registration and election process. That may or may not bother you or readers, but I think it adds a huge amount of necessary difficulty to abolishing the EC. I prefer removing Senate electors, to make state influence more closely proportional to population.

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  15. how about EC with proportional allocation of electors

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    1. I've thought about that possibility before, but it has problems of its own--for one thing, it would probably increase the influence of gerrymandering on presidential elections, which is (to me, at least) exactly the sort of result any election reforms should be avoiding. A while back Nate Silver had an interesting article about how the Nebraska legislature has redrawn the state's Congressional map to prevent a repeat of the "debacle" in which Obama managed to win one of the state's electoral votes. If all the states operated like Nebraska and Maine, you'd see this kind of thing on a grand scale.

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  16. Good for Dan Foster of the National Review, an Electoral College supporter who presses the point even though it appears that there’s an electoral bias against his preferred candidate in this cycle. However, I strongly disagree with his case:cheap swtor credits
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