Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Electoral College versus the popular vote

Since the 2000 presidential election, there have been calls for changing the way the president is elected because though George Bush received the majority of Electoral College votes, Al Gore received a larger number of votes nationwide. Democrats in particular have been very vocal about this and many on the left still harbor feelings that the George Bush ‘stole’ the election despite the fact his win was entirely in accordance with the Constitution.

The Electoral College is a device that founders of our country settled upon to create our republican form of government. Strictly speaking, we do not have a ‘democracy’ where matters are decided by the collective individual votes of those authorized to vote, we have a representative democracy where the people’s voice is theoretically expressed through elected representatives. However, the country’s founders recognized a problem would occur unless states with large populations were somehow balanced with respect to smaller states; otherwise, larger states would dominate national elections. It was therefore necessary to include provisions in the Constitution to give a reasonable voice to those living in less populated states.

Attaining more balanced representation in government was achieved by establishing one branch of the legislature representing population on an equal basis (the House of Representatives) and another branch giving equal representation to all states by having the same number of elected representatives regardless of state size (the Senate).

To achieve a more balanced ability to affect the outcome of national elections for president and vice president by lessening, somewhat, the dominance of states with large population, the concept of an 'Electoral College' was chosen. The Electoral College actually elects the chief executive but the composition of the Electoral College reflects the vote of the citizens in each state in a reasonable manner. Under the Electoral College system ‘Electors’ are selected in accordance with the outcome of the public vote for president in each state. The number of Electors provided to each state corresponds to the number of congressional representatives and senators each state is allotted in the House of Representatives by the population of the state, and the two senators each state has. In this way, each state influences the outcome of the presidential election by the size of their population, but not overwhelmingly so. The allocation of congressional representatives is readjusted every ten years following a national census.

Article II of the constitution directs that the number of electors correspond exactly with the numbers in the Congress (100 electors representing the Senate and 435 additional electors representing the House). Following enactment of the 23rd Amendment, the District of Columbia receives the same number of electors as the least populous State (3 electors). Therefore, currently there are a total of 538 presidential electors distributed among the States according to the total number of U. S. Senators and U. S. Representatives in each state (e.g., California has 54 electors, Texas 32, Iowa 7, Wisconsin 11, etc.). A candidate for president must obtain an absolute majority of the electoral votes — 270 — in order to attain the presidency.

Under the Electoral College system, the smaller states receive a slightly greater voice, proportionally speaking. For example, California is the largest state and its 33 million inhabitants have 54 electors, each of whom represents 614,000 inhabitants. However, Wyoming is the smallest State and its less than one-half million inhabitants are represented by 3 electors — one for every 160,000 inhabitants. This therefore gives Wyoming slightly more proportional strength.

Although on the one hand the Electoral College tends somewhat to over-represent voters in smaller States; because no matter how small a state is, it is guaranteed at least 3 electors, larger states still have the power to affect the outcome more than small states do. The combined number of electors in the eight smallest states (Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, and Rhode Island) produces the same number of electors as the single state of Florida even though Florida has a population more than three times greater than those eight smaller States combined.

Yet, on the other hand, if a candidate wins California and its 54 electoral votes, that candidate is one-fifth of the way to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Therefore, while California accounts for only 11% of the nation’s population it can provide 20% of the electoral votes needed to obtain the presidency. The Electoral College system therefore preserves a balance between population centers and between diverse state and regional interests, incorporating elements both of popular and of state representation in its operation.

But each state is permitted to determine the manner the state’s electors who will actually vote for the election of the president and vice president are chosen. It is because of this state right, some people are able to advocate changes in the manner of selecting the country’s highest officers. Rather than have electors of a state reflecting the outcome of the vote for president and vice president in that state by a general state election on a ‘winner take all’ basis, a state may choose some other manner of allocating the Electors from that state who will meet together in the ‘Electoral College’ to actually elect the president and vice president.

Currently, the popular vote in each state directs the electors of that state how to cast their vote for president. In most states, whichever candidate wins the popular vote in that state wins all of that state’s electors; but since the manner of choosing a state’s electors is left by the Constitution to each state, different states have different rules. For example, in Maine and Nebraska, the winner does not take all; rather, the candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district wins the electoral vote from that congressional district, and the candidate who wins the entire state receives the state’s two remaining electoral votes.

Various groups, (mainly liberals) claim that the Electoral College system is unfair to voters and want the Electoral College replaced a popular vote system. They basically argue that under the current ‘winner take all’ practices of most states, individual votes become meaningless because each state gets a certain number of electoral votes and the popular vote is not taken into account.

But proponents of the electoral college system say without the Electoral College candidates would spend less time trying to win the votes of many individuals in smaller states. As Curtis Gans, from the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, points out:

"The idea of getting rid of the Electoral College . . . would be profoundly dangerous, particularly in the present way that we conduct our campaigns. Essentially what this would mean is that the totality of our campaigns would be a television advertising, tarmac kind of campaign. You would be handing the American presidential campaign to whatever media adviser could out slick the other. Different States in different regions have important interests to which the candidate should be subjected and to which the candidates should be required to speak. . . . [D]irect elections would insure that all monetary resources would be poured into [televised political] advertising. There would be virtually no incentive to try to mobilize constituencies, organize specific interests, or devote any resources to such things as voter registration and education. . . . What we would have is a political system that combines the worst of network television with the worst of the modern campaign".

I believe without the Electoral College system candidates would logically spend their campaign courting voters in the most populous urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D. C., Miami, Seattle, etc., rather than visiting cities in more rural areas. Furthermore, since larger urban areas tend to be more liberal than the rest of the nation, the result would be presidential campaigns would cater predominately to liberal interests and liberals would have more power to select the winners of presidential elections.

Under the electoral college system, it is possible that a candidate can win the presidency by carrying a majority of only the 11 most densely populated states (California, Texas, Florida, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and either Georgia or Virginia). However, under a system of direct elections, this number could be reduced to even fewer states, particularly if they happened to be the largest states and could deliver overwhelming margins of victory, (such as Washington, D. C., did for Gore by the lopsided 86 to 9 percent margin). In fact, the margin of victory in a state would become more important than simply winning the state and thus could easily cause a candidate not to visit a close state but rather to spend time in a state in which he or she is already popular, merely to drive up the margin of the vote and add more to the candidates national total.

Therefore, contrary to what others may believe, the Electoral College system ensures a fairer outcome and, rather than minimizing the importance of each individual’s vote, it actually enhances the opportunity for the votes of many more individuals to be sought without unfairly benefiting liberals who count on large margins of victory in large urban areas.

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