Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Skipping the Electoral College Pep Rally

Joe Knippenberg has directed our attention to David Lewis Schaefer’s defense of the Electoral College. The November election results might direct our attention to the subject again. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic Monthly and Harry Siegel of have recently argued that the planets are lining up for John McCain to lose the popular vote but win a majority in the Electoral College and, thus, the presidency.

There are two plausible developments that could lead to this outcome. First, Barack Obama could do significantly better than John Kerry in some of the bluest states, such as Illinois, New York and Maryland. Because of increased turnout by black voters and Whole Foods liberals, he could exceed Kerry’s margins of victories, winning a bigger percentage of significantly larger state electorates. The winner-take-all feature of the Electoral College, used by every state except Maine and Nebraska, guarantees that improving on Kerry’s performance by hundreds of thousands of popular votes in heavily Democratic states will not add even one electoral vote to Obama’s tally.

Secondly, some of the states that Kerry lost decisively could be ones that Obama loses narrowly. Kerry barely managed to secure 40% of the popular vote in such southern states as South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. Here again, increased black turnout could add hundreds of thousands of votes to Obama’s national popular vote total, but not a single electoral vote.

If both these things happen, Obama wins a clear popular vote majority while McCain wins a close but clear majority in the Electoral College. One political consultant told Siegel the odds of this split-decision happening in November were 50/50. Another thinks there’s only a 20% chance, while a third says that an Obama popular vote victory in excess of 52% to 48% would make the split-decision highly unlikely, but “if he gets it by 2 or 3 points, it is plausible. Absolutely.”

Would this be a big deal, or a big nothing? The latter, says Schaefer, who sees no need to abolish the Electoral College “just because candidates who ‘lose’ the popular vote by a small margin sometimes come out on top in the electoral vote.” He is serene about this prospect because “the true purpose of an electoral system . . . . is to choose an effective leader whom even most supporters of the losing major-party candidate will regard as tolerable – so that the government is perceived as representing the people as a whole, not just victorious partisans.”

Prof. Schaefer must hang out with Democrats who take way more Prozac than the ones I know. My impression is that an awful lot of Al Gore’s supporters have never regarded George W. Bush as a tolerable, effective leader representing the people as a whole, as opposed to his own victorious partisans. Many of their reasons are unrelated to the Electoral College, but the ones that concern it cannot be waved away.

These Democrats don’t think that Bush, quote-unquote, “lost” the popular vote in 2000. They think, correctly, that he lost the popular vote. Much of their anger derives from the discovery that under the Electoral College – which they remember vaguely from American Government 101 as being odd, complicated and something they hoped wouldn’t be covered on the final exam – winning the national popular vote not only isn’t dispositive, it isn’t even relevant to the business of picking a president. The starting point of their thinking, in other words, is that the guy who gets the most votes ought to win the damn election, just like “American Idol” or the local school board. If we’re going to have a system where the guy who gets the most votes for our most important elective office doesn’t necessarily win the damn election, the reasons why had better be clear and compelling, rather than murky and esoteric.

This is why Marc Ambinder says that if McCain loses the popular vote but wins the presidency of our nation, where the overwhelming majority of citizens do not have post-graduate degrees in political science, there could be a “constitutional crisis.” According to “one Republican who has advised the McCain campaign,” America “can stand that sort of thing once every 100 years, but not twice in 8 years – especially with the Republicans winning every time.” Ambinder wonders whether our democracy’s “ability to perpetuate itself without violence” can “sustain another disparity.”

It’s probably overwrought to think that McCain’s election as a silver-medal president would bring down the curtain on the American experiment in republican government. But it is merely wrought to think that it would spell the end of the Electoral College. Either a constitutional amendment or the National Popular Vote initiative would have enormous political momentum. Democratic legislators, more numerous and riled up than they have been for many years, would put it at the top of their agenda.

In my next post, I’ll argue that the best solution is to retain, but reform, the Electoral College.

Discussions - 6 Comments

The only solace is that a "split decision" is always unlikely. If it happens and favors McCain, then RIP Electoral College. This election is revealing the continuing rift in America. Forget this purple stuff, Americans are now so different that we could begin to question if we are united at all. The Democratic primary was a great example and the general election continues on the same theme of the white working class against the minorities, graduates, and wealthy. I can't think of a time since the depression when politics in both parties have broken so clearly along such distasteful lines.

The effect of all this is to make this election extremely touchy. Any "foul" play will be reacted and over-reacted to. Rioting of the 60's will look tame if anything even smelling below board happens to Obama.

That could happen, although it's very unlikely. I agree that it would be a genuine constitutional crisis and arouse great racial animosity. There's no guarantee that the EC will not, one day, produce a perverse and dangerous result. But so might a very, very close popular vote.

This is all a moot point: right now Obama will be carrying every state that Kerry did in 2004, along with Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, and New Mexico. McCain might,(though unlikely) get more of the popular vote, but an electoral college majority seems beyond his ability.

It wouldn't be a Constitutional "crisis;" it would be uninformed rabble in the streets.

A whiff of grapeshot should suffice to restore order. It worked in the 1860s, and it will work now.

I always thought the Electoral College was meant to protect the small states. Today I would say it protects rural voters from major city voters. If we go with a strict popular vote then the differing needs of the rural population will be extinguished and only the needs of the city dwellers will be addressed. (Guns in downtown Manhattan are bad so people in the Alaska wilderness don't need them either.)

Keep in mind that the main media at the moment, namely TV, costs much more per impression in big cities than in smaller towns and rural area. So, if you just looked at TV, candidates get more bang for the buck in smaller towns and rural areas.

For example, in California, candidates for governor or U.S. Senate don't campaign just in Los Angeles and SF, and those places don't control the outcome (otherwise we wouldn't have recently had governors Reagan, Dukemejian, Wilson, and Schwatznegger). A vote in Alpine county is just an important as a vote in Los Angeles.

If the National Popular Vote bill were to become law, it would not change the need for candidates to build a winning coalition across demographics... any candidate who yielded, for example, the 21% of Americans who live in rural areas in favor of a "big city" approach would not likely win the national popular vote. Candidates would still have to appeal to a broad range of demographics, and perhaps even more so... because the election wouldn't be capable of coming down to just one demographic, such as voters in Ohio.

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