electoral college

For years, I’ve instinctively loathed the electoral college for its antidemocratic origins and effects. This year there have been some interesting discussions & defenses, some of which I am memorializing here …

  • Fact: Presently the electoral college dilutes the votes of residents of the more populous states and enhances the votes of residents of the less populous states. (As does the Senate.)

  • Some suggest this is good because smaller, closer government is more responsive than larger, further away government.

    Problems with this line of thinking:

    First, the electors are not the government. So smaller, closer elections of electors doesn’t generate closer relationship with the government.

    In fact, just the opposite is true: since the electors are not the government itself, the electors are merely a layer of bureaucracy between the citizens and the government.

    Second, it doesn’t make sense to suggest that a positive, pro-democracy effect was even intentional. That is, to the extent that electors are a smaller, warmer, fuzzier, more responsive interface to the citizenry, it wasn’t intentional.

    Electors are delegates/representatives to the “federal government”, true. But as conceived, the federal government was meant to be more of a federation and less of a government. The state government was where most of the governing took place. So the anti-democratic (the pro-bureaucratic hierarchy) effect is not only the most obvious, it is also the most probable.

    Today, given that the federal government is today of a government and less of a federation of sovereigns, then it makes more sense to have the representatives to that government represent the citizens directly rather than a subsidiary sovereign entity.

    In other words, since the states are subordinate to the federal government (de facto) in many — most — respects, placing electors between citizens and their representative seems to basically just institute a hierarchy at which citizens are at the bottom. Any responsiveness is diluted by the electoral college.

  • The opinions of Georgians should have little impact on the day-to-day lives of Oregonians, and vice versa.

    See above re: representative government.

  • justification back in the day: encourage small states to join the union.

    but, today versus back in the day: the colonies were much closer in size than they are today

  • numbers theory: some folks have tried to crunch the numbers to suggest that electoral college enhances the value of the individual voter’s vote. The theory goes something like this: by splitting into 51 winner-take-all states/districts, there are, effectively, 50 different elections to make a difference in.

    But of course, that would be true with any representative districting of an election. It doesn’t necessitate doing it on a state-by-state basis nor does it necessitate representing the states disproportionately.

  • It’s more democratic to have multiple small elections because any individual’s odds of tipping one of those elections are better — one in 500,000, or one in 50 million, depending on the state, but not one in a hundred or three hundred million, if it were a national election.

  • Splitting it into the 51 segments gets geographic diversity in campaigning. Otherwise the candidates would just focus on the urban areas.

    Yeah, talk about your geographic diversity to California and New York.

  • The electoral college keeps representation, interests, values of urban areas from swamping those of rural areas.

    I have yet to see why that is a compelling reason. Those who advocate it seem to do so as if it were self-evidently a good thing. But on any kind of a one person, one vote standard, why is the vote of a person in a rural area worth more than the vote of a person in an urban area?

    Moreover, our much-vaunted protection of the minority against the tyranny of the majority seems like an appropriate response here. This is the reason for the constitutional protection of minority interests.

    Personally I can think of one potentially compelling reason, and that would be environmental / zoning kinds of issues, in which those who are (a) stewarding the land, (b) earning their livings from the land, and (c) providing food and resources for the rest of us off the land, might have different interests not well represented by the urban areas.

    Last but not least, a friend [JL] pointed out on a list [11/9] that the most populous states with large urban populations also have large rural populations. This means that the big-population-state farmers (New York, California, Illinois, Texas, Florida) are underrepresented relative to the small-population-state farmers (Montana).

  • The electoral college magnifies victories ensuring stable peaceful democratic transitions of power.

    It magnifies victories as long as you look at the electoral college and not at the popular vote. Is this a sort of mass delusion along the lines of setting your personal clocks ahead 5 minutes so that you’re not late to events?

    Where’s the evidence that it ensures stable peaceful democratic transitions of power? Frankly there’s not enough evidence to suggest this. There are a number of other democracies without it that seem to be doing okay. And there isn’t enough evidence to show that this is going to work. We’ve made it 220 years or so. That doesn’t mean we won’t fall apart in another 20 years. And it doesn’t mean that we can properly attribute the 220 odd years to the electoral college.

  • Management is easier when handled by the states.

    This seems to be an argument against uniform federal standards, not for the electoral college, per se.

  • Lack of runoffs.

    This could be handled some other way. In a 1% tie, go to the House of Reps. Whatever. It doesn’t destroy the pro-democratic effect of having direct elections.

  • Recounts are handled on a state-by-state basis and can be focused on appropriate states. In a direct election the whole country would have to be recounted.

    No, recounts could certainly be done on a district-by-district, or precinct-by-precinct basis. Why not? Whenever an area is within a certain margin of error they can get a recount, or, whenever there are particular cues that indicate a need to recount, go ahead and do it.