Election 2012

Pages carry a box of the Electoral College votes to the House Chamber to be certified, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP)

More vividly, perhaps, than ever before, this election campaign has underscored the deformations of presidential politics wrought by the Electoral College.

For the last several months, residents of most states, including Massachusetts, have been spectators to a competitive contest that has unfolded in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and a handful of other states. We have watched campaign events on television, but nothing much has gone on in our neighborhoods, and there is almost no attempt to mobilize voters for the presidential contest. A friend of mine, visiting Boston and New York from Latin America, has been unable to obtain a souvenir Obama campaign button. You’d think we were electing the president of Ohio.

The candidate who wins the popular vote might end up giving a concession speech and living somewhere other than the White House for the next four years.

The contorted shape of the campaign, of course, is only one of the defects of the system that we have come to call the “Electoral College.” (The phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution and became common only in the 20th century.) Others could surface on election night. The candidate who wins the popular vote might end up giving a concession speech and living somewhere other than the White House for the next four years. (See Gore, Albert.)

There is even a very slight chance that this multi-billion dollar campaign could culminate in an Electoral College tie – in which case a very undemocratic tie-breaking mechanism will astonish the populace and install Mitt Romney in the presidency.

The flaws in our Electoral College have been evident almost since the nation’s birth. Responding to the Constitution’s vague mandate that state legislatures had the right to determine the “manner” of appointing electors, those legislatures – and the political parties that had begun to emerge – quickly learned to game the system for partisan advantage.

They held popular elections to choose electors when it suited them, but, at other times, the legislatures chose the electors themselves. They allocated electoral votes on a proportional or district basis in some years (this appears to have been the intent of the founders) but switched to “winner take all” if that would aid the preferred candidate of the legislature’s majority.

Virginia adopted “winner take all” in 1800 to help insure the election of Thomas Jefferson (who, until then, was an advocate of allocating electoral votes by district). By the early 1800s, it had also become clear to everyone that the Electoral Colleges in each state would never become the deliberative bodies that the founders had envisioned.

Not surprisingly, serious efforts to reform the system began in the early 19th century, and, since that time, more than 700 constitutional amendments have been introduced into Congress in order to change the way we elect presidents. Several proposed amendments have been passed, with the requisite super-majority by one branch of Congress, and one, in the late 1960s, was approved by the House of Representatives and defeated only by a filibuster in the Senate.

For most of our history, proposals for replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote were deemed unrealistic – because a national popular vote would greatly reduce the influence of southern states in which African-Americans could not vote but counted towards the states’ allotment of electoral votes. More generally, reform initiatives have foundered because particular political factions have judged that their short-term partisan interests were better served by keeping the Electoral College.

The long trail of unsuccessful efforts ought not discourage attempts to change an electoral system that Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, in the mid-19th century, characterized as “artificial, cumbrous, radically defective, and unrepublican.”

One promising sign is the progress made in recent years by the National Popular Vote inter-state compact, an agreement among states to cast all of their electoral votes for the candidate who wins the national popular vote. The compact, which will take effect only when states with 270 electoral votes have signed on, has already been joined by nine states (including Massachusetts) with more than 130 electoral votes.

Other reformers would prefer a constitutional amendment mandating a national popular election for president, while still others would rather target the “winner take all” problem by requiring states to cast their electoral votes in proportion to the state’s popular vote for each candidate.

Much can be debated about the best strategy to achieve change, but the bottom line is that change is long overdue. For the last half century public opinion polls have consistently indicated that between 60 and 80 percent of all Americans would like to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote, and it is time for our political parties and elected representatives to take serious note of that popular preference.

Even if today’s election goes smoothly and the electoral vote is congruent with the popular vote, we ought not kick the can down the road for another election cycle or two. We deserve an electoral system that is more consistent with our democratic values (e.g. one person, one vote) and less prone to yielding anomalous results.

We also deserve – and need – an electoral system that will generate more widespread participation, engagement, and civic education. Just imagine what the final weeks of a close presidential election in 2016 might look like if a national popular vote determined the outcome: both parties competing avidly for votes in every state, county, and town across the nation; widespread public gatherings, rallies, marches; neighbors out talking to one another; students canvassing everywhere; state and county party organizations from Rhode Island to California vying with one another to see who could achieve the highest levels of turnout.

It would be chaotic, messy, tiring – and very democratic.


Could There Be A Tie In The Electoral College? (All Things Considered)

Mo Rocca Takes On America’s ‘Electoral Dysfunction’ (Here & Now)

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Tags: Election 2012

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  • tstag

    The electroal college is what makes the United STATES strong. It is what allows the smaller states to have an influence on what happens in the USA. The smallest states may only have One congressman but they have Two Senators, and therefore Three electoral votes. Thus the large Cities can Not dominate the political policy in the USA.
    And, to make matters even Better, if there is a tie in the electoral vote, that is Not official until the Electors actually cast their vote. Thus, a tie could be negotiated. Or, if something happens to one of the candidates between election day and the electoral college vote, then the Electors could take that into account.
    Maybe we should all find out who our Electors actually are?

  • isarose

    What it’s really time for is to retire the filibuster by phone call. It is unconstitutional – the constitution says that a bill must be passed by a majority of both houses. What is so hard to understand about that?

  • Max Ratnarathorn

    The Electoral College does what it was intended to do. It gives smaller states a counterweight against larger population centers. It is what makes us a republic and keeps the system from swinging to extremes (see the messy history of parliamentary systems). The Founding Fathers mistrust each other. That mistrust lead to the grand compromise that is our Constitution.

  • ePractical

    Well said tstag!

    I would add that expanding to a County based Electoral College would even better level the playing field and provide for an even more representative, prudent and just vote.

  • Dan Arts

    part of this article is grossly misled. this statement is false :One promising sign is the progress made in recent years by the National Popular Vote inter-state compact, an agreement among states to cast all of their electoral votes for the candidate who wins the national popular vote. The compact, which will take effect only when states with 270 electoral votes have signed on, has already been joined by nine states (including Massachusetts) with more than 130 electoral votes. There are no states with 270 electoral votes. So, what the hell is this persdon talking about?

  • dan c

    It seems to me most people here give the answer they’ve been told what the electoral college does – give smaller states … But does anyone think for themselves anymore? First, how does this happen? A larger state like California still has more electoral votes than say Ohio. Second, if this mechanism were true, why should smaller states have a counterweight over larger states? Isn’t each vote supposed to count? Isn’t this a democracy – majority vote wins? And why take, for instance, someone’s vote who voted for Romney in Ohio, and give it to Obama just because he got more votes in that state – which the winner take all philosophy? How is that fair? If you want to keep the electoral college, in a split state like that, why aren’t the electoral votes also split? say Obama 10, Romney 8? Again, I just don’t see how this is fair. How this is a democratic idea or implementation of an idea.

  • jefe68

    This is moot this time around as President Obama won both the electoral and popular vote.

  • BostonPeng

    Personally I wish we could outlaw political parties as well. If we could find a way to get rid of all the partisan bickering and blathering we might just find out our elected officials could actually get things done.

  • Guest

    uhhh The Electoral College was thought of at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 by the founding fathers. Its essential for balance for the election.

    Origins of the Electoral College

    The Constitutional Convention considered several possible methods of selecting a president.

    One idea was to have the Congress choose the president. This idea was rejected, however, because some felt that making such a choice would be too divisive an issue and leave too many hard feelings in the Congress. Others felt that such a procedure would invite unseemly political bargaining, corruption, and perhaps even interference from foreign powers. Still others felt that such an arrangement would upset the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

    A second idea was to have the State legislatures select the president. This idea, too, was rejected out of fears that a president so beholden to the State legislatures might permit them to erode federal authority and thus undermine the whole idea of a federation.

    A third idea was to have the president elected by a direct popular vote. Direct election was rejected not because the Framers of the Constitution doubted public intelligence but rather because they feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their State, people would naturally vote for a “favorite son” from their own State or region. At worst, no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country. At best, the choice of president would always be decided by the largest, most populous States with little regard for the smaller ones.

    Finally, a so-called “Committee of Eleven” in the Constitutional Convention proposed an indirect election of the president through a College of Electors.

    The function of the College of Electors in choosing the president can be likened to that in the Roman Catholic Church of the College of Cardinals selecting the Pope. The original idea was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.

    The structure of the Electoral College can be traced to the Centurial Assembly system of the Roman Republic. Under that system, the adult male citizens of Rome were divided, according to their wealth, into groups of 100 (called Centuries). Each group of 100 was entitled to cast only one vote either in favor or against proposals submitted to them by the Roman Senate. In the Electoral College system, the States serve as the Centurial groups (though they are not, of course, based on wealth), and the number of votes per State is determined by the size of each State’s Congressional delegation. Still, the two systems are similar in design and share many of the same advantages and disadvantages.

    • BostonPeng

      Thanks for the background info, but I read that and think times have changed enough that it’s time to rethink the EC. Now voters have little excuse to not find out who the candidates are and why we should vote for Joe Blow over Jack(-ie) Smith. I’m not saying absolutely abolish the EC but let’s take a look at how it functions and whether or not it’s needed in the 21st century.

      I’m still in favor of abolishing the political parties. I know it’s a pretty radical idea, but if we could get away from partisan politics we may have a better shot at actually doing things for the Country rather than for the Party. Case in point: Mitch McConnell has once again taken a partisan stand in the wake of his party losing the election and will once again make the GOP the party, not of No, but of Hell No.

      I’m also with isarose. The filibuster by phone call is bastardization of what used to be a way to prompt discussion, and now it’s become a tool for stopping discussion in its tracks. I agree with the person I heard on either Talk of the Nation or On Point in that we need to at least change the rules so that you need 40 people to block discussion rather than 60 to continue it. We also need to do away with the anonymous hold, another tool that blocks discussion of a bill on its merits.

  • dj_segfault

    Some comments have mentioned eliminating political parties here, and that shows how the two issues are tied. I don’t think the problem is as much with the political parties themselves (though there are issues with parties focusing on their own success at the cost of the success of the nation as a whole), but the fact that the electoral college system makes it a near certainty that only a Democrat or Republican can get elected. Unless other parties are represented in the electoral college, it’s unlikely other candidates will be elected even if they get a large percentage of popular votes.

  • JoelN

    Well said, Max. Before we throw out the electoral college, let us remember that the same bias is built into Congress. Per capita (and the math is about the same for the electoral college), smaller states have about 3x as much of a say as do bigger states. If people want to switch to pure popular vote elections, on principle, why not get rid of the Senate and just have the House of Representatives, which is representation-by-population?

    That being said, I see much merit in the electors being determined proportionally from each state, which, as Prof. Keyssar points out, appears to have been the idea of the founders. This would, I believe, give us the best of both worlds, wherein you avoid the overwhelming dominance of large population centers in determining who runs the country while also ending the current system wherein the candidates essentially run for election in a handful of states pre-determined to be “swing.” It would also give third-party candidates a chance at building clout, as they could actually win electoral votes and perhaps affect elections regularly and significantly, reminding the country and the world that we are not just the 50% plus 1 who wins the presidency.

    • JoelN

      …or even the >50% whose candidate ekes out a plurality in a handful of contests in winner-take-all electoral states!!

  • Howard Philipson

    Fact: I live in upstate NY. Fact : I vote Republican most of the time. Fact: My vote does NOT count. Fact: I am disenfranchised : If all votes are counted, and one candidate wins by ONE VOTE, that candidate gets ALL the electoral votes. That is not protecting smaller states, that is taking MY vote away from me. Everyones vote should count ! Either by proportional voting or by head-count. It is infuriating to know that I am simply wasting my time in voting for a Republican when the state
    has a majority voting Democratic. All votes should count. Essentially my rights are being taken away from me, as my vote is completely negated, as are all others who vote in the minority, ( in any state ). Winner take all states should be changed.