Friday, June 18, 2004

The Beauty of the Electoral College

This is a very long post; sorry about that, but the subject seemed important enough to warrant it.

This past weekend, when I was travelling from Chicago, I read two articles in two different sources (Business Week and USA Today) attacking the Electoral College. Journalists seem to have a grudge against the Electoral College; but it is a grudge without good reason. So here is my defense of that marvellous, and horribly misunderstand, institution.

1. First, and foremost: The Electoral College was not responsible for the 2000 fiasco. The culprit is not hard to find at all: The Great State of Florida had difficulty figuring out how to interpret its own laws. (This was the second time in history Florida has confused itself enough to force us all to wait during an election. One wonders what other things Florida might be confused about.) So, my first and fiercest insistence to journalists on this subject is that they should stop blaming reasonable institutions and start blaming the unreasonable ones. The Electoral College depends on state governments actually knowing what their own laws mean. Perhaps it is a flaw to assume governments know what they are talking about - but let's lay the blame where it's due. In fact, the actual Constitutional electoral process went on without a hitch in 2000. The whole dispute was a dispute over how to understand Florida's election process, which is why some members of the U. S. Supreme Court (at this level, reasonably) had doubts about whether the matter fell under their jurisdiction.

2. Both the articles I read made the error of blaming the fact that political candidates target some voters and not others on the Electoral College. Do they know anything about politics? Any look at a parliamentary system - and parliamentary systems are the only democratic systems currently existing that work as well as our Electoral College system - shows voter targeting at work. Take Canada, which is having an election now. All the parties (except for the Bloc Quebecois, which is the exception that proves the rule) are focusing disproportionately on Ontario. Why? Ontario 1) has been a Liberal Party bastion and 2) being (relatively) heavily populated carries a lot of votes and 3) currently in a phase of discontent with the Liberal Party, is a chance for the opposition parties (especially the Conservative Party) to break the Liberal Party's once-solid majority government. Canada has no Electoral College system, but there is voter targeting all over the place. The Conservative Party, which largely has the West locked, has even moved all of its Western campaign buses into Ontario. Voter targeting is an inevitable result of the combination of partisan democracy, the tendency of like-minded people to gather together, and the impossibility of a candidate meeting every single group of potential voters. If these three conditions are met, politicians will target swing regions, even if we abolished the Electoral College.

Further, the criticism seems to be based on the view that voter targeting is necessarily a bad thing, which is false. The idea seems to be that if you aren't being specifically targeted, your vote does not matter or is wasted. Let's take a basic example. Suppose you are a Democrat in Texas. The chances of Texas's Electoral College votes going to the Democratic candidate at this point in time are astronomical. Are you 'wasting' your vote? The first thing to keep in mind is that a vote can't be wasted. You can be outvoted, of course; but if you can't handle being outvoted, perhaps you shouldn't be in a democracy. In a genuine democracy it will in the long run tend to be the case that everyone will be outvoted on many things. So what? Deal with it. The second thing to note is that if you don't vote, you have not 'saved' your vote; since you didn't vote, you had no vote to save. If you don't vote what you have done is waived your right to vote; we should worry not about 'wasting your vote' by being outvoted but rather about wasting your right to vote by not voting at all.

Nonetheless, one might say that because one can predict Texas's Electoral College votes with such certainty - because Texas is already locked in as a Republican state - there's an inevitability that indicates that, if you are voting Democrat, your vote counts less, and likewise if you are a Republican in a state locked-in as Democrat. But this is to talk as if votes had no importance except for the immediate election. This is perhaps a common view; it is also a false one. Republicans in Democratic states and Democrats in Republican states, if they are genuinely serious about being Republicans and Democrats, are immensely important. One could argue that there is even a sense in which they need to get out and vote even more than their counterparts; that is, while their vote is not any more or less important in the greater scheme of things, it is far more urgent for their party. If a Republican does not vote in Texas, other Republicans have his back; but Democrats need to push their voting numbers up to put Texas back into play. The same can be said about the alternative situation of a Republican in a Democratic state. Further, states change. It wasn't too long ago that Texas was locked in as a Democratic state. The Republicans didn't magically take it over; they slowly and steadily took it over. When you vote, your vote is not merely important for the immediate election; it gives politicians something to consider for the next election. It gives your party something to point to as it tries to take back the state. Your vote is not any more or less important depending on whether you are in a state that largely agrees with you.

3. In (1) I looked at the most absurd slander against the Electoral College; (2) seems to be the fashionable slander this year. There is another slander, however, which is my pet peeve. It is not so obviously absurd, and it is not so fashionable, but it is the one that really annoys me. It is the claim, which has many variations, that the Electoral College was something the Founding Fathers thought up in order to limit the power of ordinary people and strengthen the power of the landed class. This is the sort of claim that is always given without any support or argument whatsoever. It is hard to find any good evidence for it. When Alexander Hamilton argued for the Electoral College in The Federalist no. 68, he gave the following reasons for accepting it:

3.1) "It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture."

3.2) "It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

3.3) "It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder....The choice of several, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes."

3.4) Foreign powers need to be prevented from exercising their desire to wield excessive power over our affairs. "How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes....And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation migth be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office."

3.5) "Another and no less important desideratum was, that the Executive should be independent for his continuance in the office on all but the people themselves."

Reasons (3.4) and (3.5) bring up the key point. Hamilton is arguing for the ratification of the Constitution; in effect, all his reasons here are reasons why the Articles of Confederation should be modified by the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, there was no President in our sense; the whole authority of the federal government was vested in the Congress. One of the innovations of the Constitution was the proposal of a powerful chief magistrate, independent of but checked and balanced by the legislature, and it puts the election of this President not in the hands of Congress, nor in the hands of the state legislatures, but in the hands of the people. YES: The Electoral College was created to increase the power of the people by giving them an orderly, simple way to guide and control who was chosen to preside over the Union.

4) The Electoral College represents the United States better than any other institution of our government. Why? Because we are a sovereign Nation constituted by a Union of sovereign States. The original idea of the Founding Fathers was to have both Congress and President exemplify this fact. For Congress this was changed by the Seventeenth Amendment, which made Senators to be elected by direct election rather than by States; some people attribute to the passing amendment the increase in the power of special interest groups over our national legislature. Whether or not this is so, the President, being elected by state-level representatives of the people, i.e., by the Electoral College, is the only one of our three branches of government that symbolizes this fundamental truth. The President of the United States is chosen by the people, via their representatives, to preside over the Union of States. Our current system captures this beautifully. So keep the Electoral College!

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