Electoral college? Try electoral relic

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE is an integral part of our democratic system. So you’d think there would have to be some decent reasons why we keep it around. But, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what those are.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill this month that would have helped phase out the electoral college. The bill pledged that, in presidential elections, California would give all its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote. This would only have gone into effect if and when states adding up to a majority of the electoral college agreed to do the same. Once 270 electoral votes worth of states signed on, the popular vote winner would automatically win any presidential election.

Most people instinctively, and correctly, believe that the candidate who gets the most votes should win the election. The majoritarian principle may not be so strong that it overrides any other consideration imaginable, but it’s pretty strong. If you’re going to have a system that allows the candidate who finishes second in the voting to win the election, you ought to have some pretty strong reasons for doing it.


So why should we occasionally let the second-place vote-getter win? Speaking against the popular-vote bill last month, California Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) warned that if we had a popular vote, “every candidate would be camped in L.A. and New York City, and they’d forget about the rest of the country.”

Would they? Los Angeles County has less than 10 million people, and New York about 8 million. So, in a country of 300 million, they account for about 6% of the population. Why would candidates spend 100%, or even most, of their time wooing 6% of the voters? Instead of making dozens of low-impact stops in L.A. and New York, wouldn’t it make far more sense for them to make a few stops there and visit the rest of the country as well?

Anyway, our current system encourages candidates to devote almost all of their time and resources to a handful of swing states. As it stands now, presidential candidates ignore L.A., New York and the majority of the country. During the last election, George W. Bush and John Kerry spent 40% of their money in Ohio and Florida. If your goal was to encourage candidates to spread themselves out, you almost couldn’t design a worse system than the one we have now.

Recently, George Will wrote a pro-electoral college column featuring some of the strangest rationales I have ever heard. He argued, for instance, that the electoral college “encourages candidates to form coalitions of states with various political cultures.” That’s an old electoral college rationale: It discourages presidential campaigns based on narrow geographic support and encourages those with a national base. I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason to let the second-place vote-getter win, but it is a reason, or it would be if it were true.

But it’s not. As nearly everybody knows, our politics has grown regionally polarized under the current system. Bush is loathed in the Northeast, West Coast and upper Midwest and wildly popular in the South, border states and Mountain West. (Or, at least, he was a couple of years ago. Now he’s pretty much loathed everywhere.) The electoral college exacerbates this tension. The Republican candidate has no incentive to try to coax more support in New England, which he can’t win anyway, while the Democrat has no reason to shop for votes in Texas.

Will proceeded to say that we might as well keep the electoral college because the popular-vote winner has won 42 of the last 46 elections anyway. Hmm. I don’t see why a system that usually lets the popular-vote winner win the election is better than a system that always does so. I mean, since the advent of TV, the taller candidate almost always wins, but it wouldn’t make sense to make height our formal criterion either.

Electoral college defenders, strangely enough, cite the 2000 Florida fiasco. Imagine, they say, if we were recounting every state. But recounts almost never produce sizable swings one way or another. Florida was so contentious because the final margin was so tiny (537 votes). A margin that tiny, or anywhere close, would be nearly impossible at the national level. The popular-vote margin in 2000 was half a million. No recount could possibly wipe out a lead of that size.

I’ve noticed that electoral college defenders don’t really weigh the pros and cons of each system. They just conjure up some hypothetical drawback that could occur under a popular-vote system. That sort of “reasoning” is bad enough. What makes it worse is that the drawbacks are usually things that happen anyway.