The beginning of the end of the Electoral college?

So, California became the latest (and obviously biggest) state to sign on for the National Popular Vote.  Hooray!  The electoral college makes zero sense for modern America.  To think that presidential elections in this huge, diverse nation of ours come down to campaign battles in just a handful of states is absurd.  I may be getting my factoids off, but I seem to recall that half of all campaign spending in 2004 was spent in two states– Florida and Ohio.  That’s simply ludicrous.  Anyway, this gets us almost halfway to the 270 electoral votes worth of states needed to implement this.  New York and Texas are crazy if they don’t sign on to this– they’ve got tons of people and never get any campaigning.

Anyway, this reminded me of a recent Chait post about just how absurd the arguments in favor of the electoral college are.

Reading Hertzberg’s arguments on this topic, I’ve come to notice that anti-N.P.V. arguments fall into four categories. You have assumptions that anything the Founders created must ipso-facto be correct. (Bring back the three-fifths rule!) You have arguments based on partisan motive, usually impugning liberals for being bitter about 2000. You have arguments based on lazy misrepresentation of the details of the N.P.V. plan. And fourth, and most common, you have arguments like the one Hertzberg takes apart here, which consist of imagining possible adverse scenarios under an N.P.V. These arguments tend to have certain things in common. They don’t assess the likelihood of an adverse scenario, they just invoke it. And they don’t balance the possibility of an adverse scenario against the actually existing adverse scenarios arising from the current system.

The last part is really key. Suppose we had a national popular vote, and somebody proposed to change the system to state-by-state winner take all elections. You could raise some really scary scenarios, couldn’t you? The less-popular candidate could win! Electors could defect and ignore the voters’ instructions! A state legislature could threaten to vote for its favored partisan and ignore the voters completely! Candidates would spend all their time in the dozen closest states and ignore most of the country! Why would we want to set up a method that results in people flying across the country to knock on doors in Ohio or Florida and ignoring their own neighborhood?

That’s without even invoking disasters that have not occurred, such as a 269-269 tie, or a candidate who loses the popular vote badly but squeaks into the presidency by concentrating his support in half the states.

Nobody creating an electoral system now would ever implement anything close to the electoral college.  That ought to tell you something.  To just keep doing something because a few smart guys 230+ years ago thought it was a good idea is not a good reason to keep doing it.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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