Obama vs. Romney: Why the Electoral College System Still Works Just Fine

Although he supported the Electoral College after the 2000 election, former Democratic nominee for president Al Gore stated that he believes the Electoral College should be replaced by the popular vote. The Republican Party platform includes a plank opposing the primarily Democrat supported National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and any scheme to “abolish or distort” the Electoral College. Not to mention that this is a very realistic possibility in 2012, particularly with Obama winning the popular vote and Romney winning the Electoral College. Which segues into the question of every presidential election on whether the Electoral College is an archaic outdated system that defies the principles of democracy by focusing the election on a few swing states, or a pragmatic way of forcing the candidates to address a diverse array of interests that maintains the system of federalism in our constitution?

First, it is important to understand that this was not a partisan issue before the 2000 election, as you had Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue. For instance, in 1979 Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) stated that by switching to a system of direct election “Candidates will soon realize that all votes are important, and votes from small states carry the same [importance] as votes from large states.” The same year Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-NY) gave arguably the most powerful defense of the Electoral College by conveying that it preserves the core American value that “power is never installed, save when it is consented to by more than one majority.” Therefore, the fact that the parties are seemingly divided on this issue now is a result of the 2000 election, and probably would be reversed had Bush won the popular vote and Gore won the electoral vote as more people initially predicted in 2000.

Federalism

Robert Dahl in How Democratic is the American Constitution? explains that the Electoral College severely distorts equal representation by using the example of how a vote in Wyoming is worth about four times more than a vote from California. Since the number of votes in the Electoral College reflects the number of representatives a state has in Congress, Dahl’s logic implies that Congress distorts equal representation as well. Although the House maintains proportional representation, the Senate provides two representatives for each state irrespective of population. This bicameral legislature, forcing legislation to be approved by both the people through the House and each state through the Senate, is undisputedly an inherent part of our federal system as it requires two concurrent majorities. Likewise, disproportional representation of the individual voter is an inherent part of the American political system through Congress and the Supreme Court (specifically when it exercises judicial review), making the election of the executive through the Electoral College similar to the other branches of government.

The Electoral College maintains the principles of federalism that our republic was founded upon.

A national popular vote undermines federalism by rendering states as useless entities in the election process, only conferring to states the administrative duty of certifying votes. Rather than following every other federal process that requires concurrent majorities, the popular vote leaves the presidency at the hands of one majority. The Electoral College requires candidates to win majorities of the popular vote in individual states, while simultaneously requiring at least 270 electoral votes nationwide. This is not to imply that all federalism is destroyed by the elimination of the Electoral College, but rather to convey that this innate relationship present in the Electoral College is rooted in maintaining Constitutional balances and not simply the founders’ animosity towards the general public. 

Pragmatism

Many critics of the Electoral College point to the 2000 election, and the Supreme Court case that followed as an example of its failure. It led to a drawn out process and debate about whether recounting votes compromised the Equal Protection Clause through disputes over voter intent among a myriad of Constitutional issues. What is overlooked, however, is that Gore won the popular vote by only 500,000 votes or less than one half of 1 percent. In a purely popular vote system this would have led to a much more lengthy process, requiring the campaigns to file lawsuits in a number of states including Florida calling for a recount. This bureaucratic debacle could have resulted in a number of Supreme Court cases since other states such as Missouri also experienced unrecorded and/or disqualified votes. It's hard to believe that the Supreme Court would have ruled differently if it was a popular vote system and ordered a nationwide recount at the cost compromising voter intent (although you can make an argument that the decision was politically motivated). If the idea of the Electoral College is to elect the president through a “one individual one vote” system, than a popular vote would have failed as well in 2000 because not all the votes would have been accounted for, leading to de facto disenfranchisement.

The Electoral College provides clear winners in presidential contests in which candidates barely secure a majority or only win a plurality of votes. For instance, in the election of 1980 Ronald Reagan only won 50.7% of the popular vote but won an overwhelming 90% of the electoral vote. An election that could have resulted in nationwide recount due to the slight difference in the popular vote did not because of the very clear decision handed by the Electoral College. A better example is the 1992 election in which Bill Clinton only won 43% of the popular vote, but won 69% of the electoral vote. In a purely popular vote system, such an election could require a run-off and further dragging out the election process at the expense of lower voter turnout in a subsequent election. Such a process would only cause more dysfunction in the electoral system, as recounting 130 million votes is legally and physically impractical, and to have it happen potentially a second time is even more unreasonable.

Lastly, if the Electoral College were abolished, 21% of the United States would be ignored in the Presidential election. Exit polls from the 2008 election show that an overwhelming 79% of voters come from suburbs (49%), cities with a population 50-500,000 (19%), and cities with a population of at least 500,000 (11%). This whole segment of America, which has a very different interest from those that live in cities, would be completely overshadowed by candidates running on platforms that clearly favor urban areas. States like Iowa and Colorado that are predominantly rural and considered swing states would not be given any attention with the exception of candidates pandering to their cities. With these rates of turnout, candidates can legitimately win elections by winning votes in solely urban areas and catering only to those interests. Farmers, agricultural workers, and other vital interests to the U.S. economy would be shunned because their votes are simply not needed to win.

Conclusion

The current Electoral College system has effectively included smaller, more rural swing states such as Iowa and Colorado as well as larger, densely populated states such as Ohio and Florida. Although, the Electoral College does give more emphasis to these swing states in each race, it brings relevance to states that have a diverse array of interests that would otherwise be ignored in favor of largely metropolitan areas in a popular vote system. From both the federalism and pragmatism standpoints the Electoral College is an effective formula that maintains the tenets of concurrent majorities required to gain power in the American republic while pragmatically including a diverse array of the voting populace.

If the 2012 election is a repeat of 2000, we should not call it an injustice, but rather understand the workings of a system that is still effective 225 years in the making.