Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 8th, 2007
In an aside to an earlier post, I mentioned that I’m skeptical about the so-called “National Popular Vote” (NPV) plan. Even if my skepticism concerned anyone, NPV supporters in Maryland can breathe easy, of course, because our state has passed a law making Maryland the first state to pledge to cast its electoral votes for the popular vote winner, if other states comprising an electoral majority follow suit. If enough other states follow suit, NPV might be an elegant veto of today’s electoral college system, without all the fuss of a constitutional amendment.
But maybe this problem and its remedy deserve a fuss. I think the “National Popular Vote” is based on a misdiagnosis of the problem with our electoral college, and actually replaces one antidemocratic effect of that system with another, worse one. The real problem isn’t that the outcomes of 51 State races overrides the popular vote; in my opinion, the problem is simply that the apportionment of electors to the states makes election outcomes in small states — and, as it happens, rural Western ones — far too important, at the expense of those in other states.
Removing each state’s Senate-based
electors would have resulted in a Gore
victory in 2000, as the linked
By contrast, the “51 race,” indirect election feature of the electoral college system is actually a good thing, in my opinion. Why? There are a number of reasons, I think, and I’ll try to develop them further another time. But fundamentally, they all boil down to this: because it’s the 51 states that actually administer elections — not the federal government. Under the NPV system, Maryland would routinely risk forfeiting its electoral votes to a candidate its voters didn’t favor — a candidate who necessarily only won elsewhere, in elections that were by definition completely unaccountable to Maryland voters.
The way the electoral college is composed, however, is a bad thing. Why? The formula for allocating electoral votes to each state is to add the number of Congressional representatives from each state — proportional to the number of that state’s population, but with a minimum of one — to the number of senators from each state. The result is to guarantee states with paltry populations like Wyoming and Alaska a minimum of three electoral votes — and a vastly disproportionate influence on the outcome of presidential elections.
The 2000 presidential election is Exhibit A for most critiques of the electoral college. But as the first image on the right shows (and the linked spreadsheet documents in detail), the effect of of just abolishing each state’s “Senate-based” electors would have resulted in a 225-211 Gore victory, much more closely matching the popular vote outcome — and without requiring any state’s voters to accept misrepresentation of their collective decision based on election outcomes administered elsewhere.
Adjusting the electors to a completely population-proportional formula (i.e., having the least populous state wield one electoral vote, and others proportionally more) would have had similar results.
Gore would also have won if
electoral votes were more
proportional to state populations.
It’s not the electoral college per se that needs to bother us, it’s how its votes are allocated.
Of course, both the current system or one modified by abolishing Senate-based electors leaves many “losing” voters misrepresented. But
(a) that’s a state of affairs they accept in all kinds of ways as it is, for example in voting for governor;
(b) given that one election’s losing voter may be the next one’s winning voter, it’s rational to accept a winner-take-all system to maximize your winning vote’s impact; and
(c) there’s nothing preventing a given state from choosing to emulate Maine or Nebraska and open the door to split electoral votes.*
One may argue that it’s disingenuous of me to judge my electoral college scenarios by whether Gore would have won the 2000 election, rather than simply preferring the popular vote result. My goal, however, was mainly to demonstrate that the 2000 outcome could have been avoided with a constitutionally more conservative remedy than NPV.
But I’m willing to take it a step further and say that if either electoral college reform I propose were undertaken, I would actually prefer the electoral winner to the popular vote winner when they were different. Why? For the very reasons the electoral college system was designed in the first place.
Think about it. You’ve ironed out the disproportionalities, and now you have an election where Candidate A wins 50 out of the country’s 51 states and jurisdictions by slim but consistent margins, say 51-49%. But Candidate B is a favorite in one large state, say… Texas. Or Florida. Or wherever. She wins by 60-40% there, and hence wins the popular vote. But just look at the map; personally, I would like Candidate A’s claim to the whole country’s leadership better than I like Candidate B’s — and so would quite a number of other voters, in quite a number of other states. Supreme Court, here we come.
Reasonable people can differ about this kind of thing, of course — but they did, they wrote a Constitution about it, and they basically found for the electoral college method, not the popular vote one. I suggest that if we’re going to change a fundamental process of our democracy, and in so doing undermine the federalism that’s one of our republic’s most important features, let’s do it right: by Constitutional amendment, not by a state compact.
* Maine and Nebraska election law calls for splitting their electoral votes, casting the Senate-based votes on the basis of the statewide winner and the remaining votes on the basis of each congressional district’s winner. In practice, though, both states’ election results have led to “no-split” electoral votes in past elections.
EDIT, 6/8: “One may argue” paragraph rewritten for clarity; the original text will be saved in comments in case anyone cares.