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 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.
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