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The Electoral College

With Trump's narrow win in the election just past, we've started hearing complaints about the Electoral College, and even proposals to subvert its operation in some way.

Not all of these arguments are principled. Some of them come from people who really know very little about American political institutions, and normally have no opinions about them—but are unhappy, or angry, about an outcome that went against their wishes. Neither party has a monopoly on low-information voters.

But there are people who oppose the Electoral College on a continuing basis, even when it hasn't recently gone against their preferences and even when the next presidential election is a long way in the future.

One of the common arguments against the Electoral College is that it can happen that the popular vote, nationwide, favors one candidate, but the electoral vote goes to the other candidate. It appears that a lot of people believe that this is wrong as a matter of principle. I think this particular basis for opposition is unjustified.

Election of the president by popular vote means putting the entire population of the country into a single voting pool, and giving the office to whoever gets the majority of votes in that single pool. This is a form of what political theorists call a unitary state. But the reason there's a name for it is that not all states are unitary. The other sort of states are federal states. A federal state that has democratic mechanisms will divide its voters up into multiple smaller pools, which have some identity of their own, and will give those pools some influence over the outcome of some elections. And the result will be that some elections will be won by people who didn't get a majority in the national electorate.

We could imagine a setup where there are separate voting pools, but where the mechanism for counting votes ensures that the election will always go to the candidate who won the popular vote. But those aren't really federal states; those are states with a federal façade over a unitary architecture. People may have sentimental feelings about their states, or provinces, or cantons, in such a setup, but the subunits make no difference to the actual outcome.

And it seems to me that if your position is that the only acceptable outcome is that the candidate who wins the popular vote should always win the election, then you are saying that all federal states are illegitimate. Conversely, if you accept that federalism is a legitimate constitutional choice, then you can't object to an electoral process merely because it may go against the popular vote. An actual belief in federalism means believing that the vote of the subunits may be, not a flawed approximation to the legitimate outcome of a unitary vote, but a legitimate outcome in its own right. So unless you want to say that Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, and some other states are illegitimate, I think you need to do more than point out that Trump didn't win the popular vote if you want to say that his election was invalid.

Certainly there are less sweeping arguments against the Electoral College; arguments that while giving the states a separate voice in some things is a good idea, it's not appropriate in choosing the president. I'm not arguing, here, for rejection of that view, or of those arguments. I'm just saying that I think that the fact that the Electoral College sometimes goes against the popular vote isn't a sufficient reason for rejecting it—not unless you reject federalism as such, which I don't.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 3rd, 2016 11:14 am (UTC)
The people who are currently most vocal against the Electoral College are presenting a strict majoritarian argument, which effectively is anti-federalist. These people are mostly Democrats; let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say they're arguing on principle, and not just because their candidate lost. These people generally argue for weakening of state powers as well. If they thought it through completely, I think they'd argue for abolishing states as anything more than administrative districts.

A big problem with the electoral system is that we don't actually vote for presidential candidates; we vote for a slate of electors whose names don't appear on the ballot. It's a charade in which we're doing one thing on the ballot but another in actual procedure. If the system doesn't command a lot of respect, that's one reason.

Openly electing electors could open up some interesting strategies and perhaps weaken the two-party system's stranglehold. For instance, an elector could campaign on the pledge: "I'll vote for Johnson, unless that could result in an electoral deadlock, in which case I'll give my vote to Clinton."
Dec. 3rd, 2016 01:14 pm (UTC)
I did some counting on the latest election. It appears there are two different factors at work. One is that the states each get two extra electors over and above those proportionate to their population; that gives the smaller states some extra influence. The other is that all but a couple of states have all their electors go to the nominee who had a majority in that particular state; that doesn't systematically work to the benefit of any particular group of states, as far as I can tell. In this particular election, though, either factor by itself could have tipped the balance in favor of Trump.

The first could only be changed by a constitutional amendment. But under such an amendment, California's D vote by itself would have outweighed the R votes of sixteen (!) of the smaller states; all sixteen would have every reason not to ratify a proposed amendment, even if Congress passed it. The second, though, could be changed by the states choosing to change it, as how they choose their electors is constitutionally placed under their control; I believe both Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes up according to the popular vote in each state. Nothing would stop California from doing the same—except that California is virtually a one-party state, and having some of its 55 electoral votes go R instead of all of them going D wouldn't have much payoff for the Democrats in the state government. Or conversely for Texas.

Edited at 2016-12-03 05:29 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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