Friday, August 31, 2012

Still Not Broken

Every four years, there are new calls to abolish the Electoral College.

This time, the call comes from Al Gore, historian extraordinaire:

"It's always tough to amend the constitution, and very risky to do so," he said on Current TV, which he co-founded. "But I think its time, I think our country would be stronger and better if it went according to the popular vote."
Yes, it's always tough to amend the Constitution. The process was intentionally made to be difficult. Yes, it's risky to do so. No, the country would most definitely not be better off if "it" (the presidential election) went according to the popular vote.

The electoral college was one of the triumphs of the Founders. The smaller, less populous states, were concerned that control of the nation would be permanently vested in the larger, more populous states. This fear was partially allayed by dividing the legislature into two houses: The House of Representatives where the number of Congressmen a state has is based on its population; and the Senate, where, regardless of population, each state has two Senators. But the Founders went further, placing control of the executive branch of the federal government in the hands of the states, each state getting as many votes as it's total of Senators and Congressmen.

Each state decides what procedure to use to allocate its electoral votes between presidential candidates. For quite some time, the most frequently used method has been to award all of a state's electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in that state. That is why it is possible for a candidate for president to win the popular vote, but lose the electoral college. Imagine an election in which Candidate A wins 99% of the popular vote in states having 268 electoral votes and Candidate B wins the popular vote in states having 270 electoral votes with 35% of the popular vote because Candidate C also ran in those states and received 32% of the vote. It has even happened (including to Al Gore).

Why does the Electoral College exist? Primarily, to prevent the domination of the presidency by a few populous states to the detriment of a large number of sparsely populated states. And it has some additional beneficial effects, over and above requiring that national candidates campaign beyond the borders of New York, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Florida.

Presently, there are a couple of ways that electoral votes are allocated to candidates. In most states, the candidate with the largest number of popular (no majority required) votes wins all of that state's electoral votes. In Maine (and possibly Nebraska), two electoral votes are allocated to the overall vote winner in the state and one electoral vote is allocated to the vote winner in each Congressional District. There is a push to have states adopt something called the "National Popular Vote" law, which would allocate all of the adopting state's electoral votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote. Despite claims that the Electoral College would be preserved, nationwide adoption of the National Popular Vote law would make the electoral college moot, effectively repealing it. Six states, having a total of 132 electoral votes, have adopted the law, according to the website, the latest being electoral behemoth California. I don't think that is a good idea at all, which is why I am glad that no further "progress" has been made for a year.

The thing I noticed about the Electoral College during the 2000 election was that the winner take all system makes stealing an election through fraudulent votes extremely difficult. Unfortunately, the National Popular Vote law does not provide the same anti-fraud protection, and, of course, neither would eliminating the Electoral College altogether.

Elections are human enterprises. We have to expect that they will not be perfect and that the participants will always attempt to “game” the system. There is absolutely nothing wrong with tailoring your campaign strategy to account for the effects of the Electoral College. It exists for very purpose of encouraging candidates to do so. On the other hand, since humans are involved, we should also expect some people to attempt to subvert the system. All we can do is make the system harder subvert and make it easier to discover and either prevent or correct the subversion. I think the Electoral College achieves both of those objectives.

It is not hard to imagine the huge incentive to fraud that exists when you give each candidate’s supporters in every state (regardless of whether the candidate is winning or losing in that state) the incentive to stuff any ballot box anywhere under a direct popular election. In a close election I don’t think we would have a president until the midterm elections rolled around. It is a given that most modern elections are quite close (a couple of percentage points difference) in terms of the popular vote. Some are excruciatingly so, as was the case in 2000. It is far too much to expect every partisan political operative in every election from now till kingdom come to refrain from enhancing their candidate's chances by putting a few extra pieces of paper, appropriately marked, in a box in some backwater polling place. The difficulty in proving that ballots for the other guy were fraudulently produced and/or that ballots for your guy were wrongfully excluded from the count on a nationwide basis (a few here, a few there) is immense.

The post election contest in Florida in 2000 was bad enough, and that only took about six weeks and about thirty trips to various courthouses. Fortunately, such a closely contested election only seems to happen once every one hundred years or so. Imagine, if you will, the same nightmare re-re-recount scenario occurring in all fifty states after literally every nationwide election, under the National Popular Vote law or in the complete absence of the Electoral College.

In addition, the Electoral College completely eliminates the incentive to cheat in the state or states where the candidate is strongest. This is precisely where cheating would be easiest and least detectable, and therefore most likely. But your guy is going to win there anyway and get all the state’s electoral votes, so it makes no sense whatever to cheat and risk being caught. This would not be the case in the absence of the Electoral College or under the National Popular Vote law.

Finally, under the winner take all system which is in effect throughout most of the nation, the ballot box stuffers in closer states must operate on a large scale to influence statewide results, rather than only district wide results. This makes detection easier and therefore more likely. The same effect is not achieved under the Maine district by district scheme, since a series of districts could be swung with widely scattered efforts involving fewer fraudulent votes. And of course, the National Popular Vote law would make the Electoral College moot and destroy all of its benefits.

The primary effect of the Electoral College is to force candidates to campaign outside of the main population centers of the nation. It has additional benefits in deterring vote fraud and making national elections very difficult to steal. For more than two hundred years, it has performed as advertised. The Founders were proud of the Electoral College. They had reason to be. All of its benefits would be abandoned by Al Gore and the proponents of the National Popular Vote law to adopt a system which would confer a different result about once a century.

The Electoral College ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.

Update: I realized that I read Bush's total popular vote as 48.87%, higher than Gore's 48.38%. Bush's total is shown as 47.87%. Therefore my comment (since corrected) that Gore had lost both the popular and electoral votes was wrong. Mea culpa. That does not, however, alter my conclusions. It just makes Gore's loss the price paid for the protections afforded by the Electoral College.

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