Graduating from the Electoral College

We all know the states where the 2012 presidential election will be decided. Not New York, which hasn’t voted Republican since 1984, a year when only Minnesota could muster support for Walter Mondale. Not Texas, where you have to stretch back to 1976 to find an election where a Republican victory wasn’t a given. The battlegrounds on which this year’s presidential race will be waged are Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and Wisconsin, and if you don’t live there, you can forget about the presidential campaigns giving you an ounce of attention. You’re either a given in the candidate’s electoral college tally, or they know you’re out of their league. Is it unfair? That majority of states who get ignored election after election sure thinks so. So why, after over 200 years, are we still using the Electoral College?

Let’s explain.

Who thought up the Electoral College in the first place?

Blame the founders. If you remember your history lessons from eighth grade, deciding how this new nation would elect presidents and representatives was one of the biggest fights at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention. Southern states weren’t too keen on elections based on pure popular vote, given that a large percentage of their populations consisted of slaves who were denied citizenship. The priggish delegates also doubted the intelligence of those citizens who weren’t fortunate enough to be part of the political aristocracy, a secondary reason for deciding to rely on a college of electors to choose the executive.

So how does it work exactly?

Time to bring out your handy pocket Constitution. Article II, Section 1 has all the goods.

To wit, Clause 2:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

And Clause 4:

The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

A translation for those of us who don’t speak the language of the white-wigged: All the states get Electoral College votes equal to the number of representatives they have in Congress—at a minimum, three. States get to decide how to divvy up their votes. All except Maine and Nebraska use a winner-take-all model now, which means whichever candidate gets the highest vote tally gets all the Electoral College votes. In the original incarnation of the Electoral College system, each elector got two votes—one to cast for a presidential candidate, one for a vice-presidential candidate. The first-place finisher became president, and the second-place finisher became vice president, which is why our second president, John Adams, and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, were of such different political stripes.

So that’s the same system we have today?

Not exactly. The original version of the Electoral College only lasted four presidential election cycles, after which it was served a quick and painful death at the hand of political parties. The founders—who may have been sneaking sips of the ol’ Aaron Sorkin Kool-Aid—still retained their idealistic notions of governance despite all those Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention kerfuffles. That meant that they hoped political parties, and all the acrimony and complexity that follows in their wake, would not tangle up the political system too quickly. That turned out to be a tad too optimistic, as our political parties have become such a hallmark of American politics that they deserve their own Ken Burns documentary. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran under the Democratic-Republican banner and John Adams and his rather more forgettable and non-duel-starting running mate ran as Federalists, the majority of the electors devoted one vote to Jefferson and one vote to Burr, leading the presidential candidate to tie with his vice-presidential pick. The election then went to the House of Representatives, which elected Jefferson, but Burr was understandably a bit grouchy since the presidency seemed to be within his grasp for a few moments.

Politicians realized that there was a potentially fatal flaw with their beloved Constitution. The 12th Amendment—ratified in 1804—made it so that electors had to cast distinct ballots for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, ensuring no Burr-like scenario would happen again.

So our election system’s been around for more than 200 years! Has anyone tried to get rid of it?

If you had a nickel for every time someone has started a group to abolish the Electoral College, you couldn’t start a super PAC or anything, but you could enter a drawing to have dinner with Barack and George Clooney at the least. People—mostly from those states that have voted reliably blue or red for decades—have been grumbling for years about the Electoral College.

We came this close to adopting a runoff presidential election (imagine a system like the French presidential election, where you start off with a football team-sized field of candidates that is narrowed down through several turns of voting until BOOM, president) instead of using the Electoral College in 1969, when Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by 110 electoral votes—but only collected 1 percent more of the popular vote. However, Southern and small-state senators eventually quashed the proposal with a filibuster.

Electoral College grumbling reignited after 2000, when George W. Bush became president despite Al Gore winning half a million more votes. The National Popular Vote movement has been at the forefront of pushing for electoral reform, and their most successful effort so far has been the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Professors started putting together proposals for national popular vote legislation in 2001, and in 2007 the bills were introduced in 42 states. Since amending the Constitution is an arduous and unlikely avenue for reforming anything, the only other option is for states to change how they allocate their Electoral College votes, since the Constitution puts the logistics of the Electoral College and most other electoral policy in their hands. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact posits that the involved states allocate their Electoral College votes on a national winner-take-all basis, which amounts to basically using the Electoral College’s power to elect presidents based on national popular vote. For example, if this compact were in effect in 2004, New York’s electoral votes would have gone to Bush, even though the state always roots for blue. The compact would only go into effect if the law passes in enough states by the July 20 before a presidential vote—until it has a majority of the electoral votes, the compact remains dormant. If the day ever came where the Electoral College ceased to exist, so would the compact.

Sounds pretty legit. Will it work?

I wouldn’t be too optimistic given our country’s languorous pace at changing anything. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is gaining members, though. Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont, and the District of Columbia have all passed the bill in their state legislatures. If the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is going to go anywhere, they need the support of some electoral heavyweight states like California and New York—which are still a bit skeptical about tossing out the Electoral College—as well as some reliably Republican states, too. However, the Electoral College works to the advantage of Republican geography. Those same states that were afraid of drowning in a popular vote—small and sparsely populated states—during the Philadelphia Convention vote consistently Republican today.

The public seems ready to alter our centuries-old method of electing the president. Gallup found in 2004 that 61 percent of Americans approve of amending the Constitution to elect the president by popular vote.

As presidential election gear-churning grows more visible thanks to the perpetual Web and cable television coverage, it gets easy to see how insanely invested both parties are in swaying a handful of states, making the whole affair seem somewhat less democratic to everyone else. Just last week, The New York Times hosted a Sunday dialogue that highlighted that many readers have conflicted feelings about the Electoral College. The whisperings of a revolution are there.

Would getting rid of the Electoral College actually change electoral results?

If you look at results, getting rid of the Electoral College doesn’t change much. Only three elections—1876, 1888, and 2000—would have resulted in a different president had the elections been conducted by popular vote alone.

But the process of presidential elections could change significantly if presidents didn’t have to be strategic about where their votes come from, or at least had to employ a different strategy of how to go about getting votes. Right now, presidential candidates—the only representatives elected to stand for the entire nation—campaign more like regional candidates, favoring issues that play well in Ohio to the detriment of issues that deserve attention on the coasts. With a national popular vote system, instead of trying to placate only the hard-to-woo voters on the fringes of their party and the opposing party, candidates could take the revolutionary step of campaigning in urban areas where an extremely large number of untapped—and ignored and disenfranchised voters—have been up for grabs for decades. Only 56.8 percent of the voting-age public cast a ballot in the 2008 election—a race that was defined by its buzzworthiness. That leaves 43.2 percent of the nation up for grabs—and I’m betting you won’t find most of those voters in the swing states where presidential candidates spend all their resources. Swing state New Hampshire, for example, saw 71.7 percent of its population hit the polls in 2008. In Minnesota, 67.6 percent of the people voted. Texas, on the other hand, had only 54.1 percent of voters turn out. Having a chance to shake hands with the president, or even be bombarded by political ads, makes a difference.

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