Monday, June 27, 2011

Electoral College Must Be Abolished

Every four years, Americans go to the polls to decide who shall be the President of the United States, clearly the most important office in the land. But because we continue to rely on the 18th Century administrative machinery of the Electoral College, our presidential elections are beset with two fundamental problems. First, the candidate who receives the most votes does not necessarily win. Second, the votes of certain citizens are worth more than those of other citizens. For these reasons, and many others, the Electoral College needs to be scrapped.

In the Electoral College, each state receives a number of votes equal to the number of representatives they have in both houses of Congress. However, because all but two states cast their votes on a winner-take-all basis, the candidate who actually gets the most votes does not necessarily win the election, for he or she might win several states by large margins and narrowly lose certain critical states, all of whose electoral votes will go to the other candidate.

We saw this clearly in the 2000 election. Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote handily, getting half a million more votes than Republican George W. Bush. But because of an infinitesimal Bush victory in the state of Florida (itself only the result of a flawed intervention by the Supreme Court), Bush received that state's electoral votes, which was just enough to allow him to win the Electoral College and thus to become the President. The candidate who was the clear choice of the American people was not the one who actually ascended to the office.

On four occasions in American history (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000), the candidate who received the largest number of popular votes lost the Electoral College. In other words, in 1 out of 13.5 elections, the candidate who receives fewer votes actually wins. On five other occasions (1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004) a shift of a relatively tiny number of voters would have handed the victory to the candidate who lost the popular vote. Those who say that the Electoral College is not a problem because it usually reflects the popular will have not read their history books.

Beyond the fact that the Electoral College often allows candidates who lose the popular vote to still ascend to the Presidency, another major problem is that it gives an individual voter in a smaller state to have a disproportionately large influence on the outcome of the election than an individual voter in a large state. This violates the fundamental one-person-one-vote principle that should be at the heart of any representative republic.

For example, Wyoming has 563,626 and three electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 187,875 people. California, by contrast, has 37,253,956 people and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 677,344 people. Doing the basic math, we can see that a voter in Wyoming has nearly four times the influence on the outcome of the presidential election as does a voter in California. It's not fair, it's not democratic, and it shouldn't be tolerated.

These two problems would be sufficient by themselves to justify eliminating the Electoral College. But there are many other problems with it as well. One is that it causes presidential candidates to focus all their attention on a small number of "swing states", which are go conceivably go either way in the election, at the expense of those states which are considered reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, the powers-that-be pay attention to the things that matter to voters in states like Ohio or Florida, while voters in Texas and New York are out of luck.

Consider this. There are roughly the same number of Cuban-Americans in the United States as Vietnamese-Americans. However, the issues important to the Cuban-American community get huge amounts of political attention, while the issues important to Vietnamese-Americans are largely ignored. Why is this? Well, Cuban-Americans tend to live in Florida, a key swing state, whereas Vietnamese-Americans tend to live in California and Texas, which are not swing states. Neither community is inherently more important than the other, but the Electoral College creates an artificial importance for one over the other.

The Electoral College also effectively disenfranchises millions of voters in every presidential election. Because nearly all the states use a winner-take-all system to allocate their electoral votes, it means the losing side in any given state may as well have not cast a ballot for president. A Republican in New York or a Democrat in Texas effectively has no say in who is elected President, and this goes against the ideals of a representative republic.

The Electoral College is an outmoded and obsolete piece of constitutional machinery, and it must be done away with. This could be achieved by a constitutional amendment, which would be very difficult. But because the Constitution allows the individual states to decide for themselves how to allocate electoral votes, it can also be achieved more quickly and with greater ease by individual action by the various state legislatures.

The National Popular Vote movement provides a surprisingly easy way out of this morass. Legislation is being enacted by individual states, whereby their electoral votes shall go to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in the individual state, with the legislation taking effect as soon as the number of states equivalent to the winning number of electoral votes have enacted identical legislation. A few states have already passed the necessary legislation, and bills are advancing through the legislative process in most of the other states.

The Electoral College should be cast into the dustbin of history. Let us hope that the success reformers have achieved in recent years continues to build until final success is achieved.

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