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I'm Gonna Send My Vote to College

I suppose I could write a note about the Electoral College. I’m curious what y’all think of it.

On the one hand, it’s presumably a bad idea to have a unpopular method of selecting the president, just from the point of view of legitimacy. It’s also plausible that the system depresses turnout in non-battleground states, although I’m not convinced that a national popular vote would really encourage participation. And there are the nightmare scenarios, the 1876 sort of thing. So, yeah, there are problems.

On the other hand, there are reasons to stick with it. For one thing, the act of changing the election system is always fraught. The first cycle or two would be unpredictable, in a lot of ways, and I feel pretty strongly at the moment that unpredictability is a Bad Thing when it comes to selecting Presidents. The first Party that figured out how to manage a national popular election would be at a tremendous advantage, and I have no idea how that would work. Now, it’s also true that aversion to change is a problem and that we oughtn’t to live with problems just because we don’t want to change. The cost of change is one thing that has to be taken into account, though, and when it comes to something like this, I’d want to make pretty damn’ sure that the new system would be better than the old one.

Would it be? I have logistical qualms—it’s bad enough when one state has a too-close-to-call outcome and requires a recount; I can’t imagine a national popular-vote recount. I mean, let’s start with the beginning of the logistics: since our States run their own elections, the popular vote in each State would presumably be certified by that State, and the Popular Vote would be some sort of simple addition of those numbers. Frankly, that concerns me. Who would have the authority to institute a recount? Who would have standing to challenge a State’s certified count? What about standards for ballot certifications? Could one State challenge another’s standards? None of these are insuperable, but they aren’t entirely nugatory, either. In our current set-up, it’s unlikely that more than a few states would be close enough to require recounts, and unless the electoral college were close, those recounts would be relatively low-stakes. Yes, we’ve had an example in our lifetimes of a high-stakes recount, but (a) can you imagine recounting a hundred million votes across the country instead of just Florida, and (2) we probably tend to overemphasize the fact that we were alive for the 2000 election, and underweight the fact that there have been only three or four out of fifty-six presidential elections that were seriously hinky.

Alternately, we could jettison the state elections and have federal elections come under federal control. This is as feasible as getting rid of the Electoral College; it could presumably be included in a Constitutional Amendment that explicitly enshrines the right to vote. This is very appealing to me—we could have automatic national registration (or, more accurately, just voting without having to register) and a national registry that would reduce duplication and the potential for fraud. We could have national standards for ballot access and for (f’r’ex) absentee or mail-in ballots. We could institute a Federal Holiday, and lower the voting age, and possibly institute fees for non-voting like they have in Australia.

Of course, we could do all of that stuff while retaining the Electoral College, too. I mean, getting rid of the Electoral College is popular, so maybe that’s the way to get the other, less popular stuff done. But the actual Electoral College part seems like one of the lower priorities, to me.

And of course there are non-logistical drawbacks to a national popular vote election, too. Our newly national political Parties are not, so far, tremendously beneficial to governance, and I fear that a national popular vote Presidency would exacerbate that. While there are problems with the outsized influence of battleground states on policy promises, it’s not clear how a popular election would actually work—would the retail politics of town meetings and handshaking be an insupportably inefficient use of time? That wouldn’t be an improvement. Would the candidates pander purely demographically rather than geographically? Would the demands of a nationwide GotV increase the marginal utility of More Money?

There are possible positives and negatives; I’m inclined, by instinct, to think that the improvements are outweighed by the cost of change. I can’t really get worked up about it either way, though. Essentially, if it’s not a close election then the Electoral College and the popular vote will go the same way. If it is a close election, then the Electoral College and the popular vote would be fucked up in different ways.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


You make a good point about the challenges of a national recount--close elections are problematic no matter how you slice it.

I would say that if energy is going to be invested in Federal election reform, changing the allocation of senators among the states and the composition of House districts are both much more urgent and would go much farther to strengthening democracy in the Federal government. An iron-clad guarantee of the right to vote is also more important. Given the way in which vote-packing contributes to House majority that is supported by fewer voters than the House minority, I think a national presidential election could exacerbate the unrepresentative nature of the House, as Presidential candidates could benefit more from running up the score in some regions while cratering in others.

I'd like to see the public presentation of democracy to do more to emphasize that democratic processes and the right to voter are not only about fairness--they are also about better decision-making: a more democratic society will do better and making decisions that promote the common good. The Republicans seem to view elections as a zero-sum competition for power, so they want to "win" by suppressing the vote, but when they "win" on that basis, everybody loses, because our society gets worse because it is poorly governed. A subset of Republican partisans may be too hate-filled to notice that they are making themselves miserable along with everybody else, but the majority should see that most of the time, minority groups want to control government so that they can screw over everybody else. There are times when minorities do need to be protected from majorities, but that's not best done by giving the minority control of government: it's done by placing limits on the power of majority government.

I'm most interested in having guaranteeing an absolute right to vote for every citizen over age 18 (or lower if we can get agreement on lower).

The reality of voting varies widely across the country: ballot equipment, registration deadlines, obstacles to voting, accessibility of polling places, removal and restoration of voting rights, wait times, early voting and vote-by-mail and absentee voting opportunities, etc. That seems like a great example of our fractured and multilayered democracy creating experimental conditions that let us see which conditions work better, but we don't tend to actually learn much (or want to learn much) from seeing what other states have done. And as you note, the costs of change are high.

Those differences make a national election problematic, since we don't provide comparable conditions nationally. And because we don't isolate our elections to a single race, there are other pressures from other races and ballot questions that drive turnout up and down in difference places.

But the difference between a national popular vote and an Electoral College vote is really about how we tally up our results, and the truly upsetting prospect is having those tallies produce divergent results. There are other solutions to that problem, such as a run-off election in the case of a divergent result.

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