Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

The Importance of the Electoral College System

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” I think we need to abolish the outmoded, archaic Electoral College system and finally make real the principle of one citizen, one vote.”   You can expect to hear that sentiment expressed a lot in this year.  That opinion has been voiced from time to time because, under the Electoral College system, it is possible for a presidential candidate with the majority of the popular votes to lose to the candidate who gets the majority of the electoral votes.   And it happens.  That seems to be a bad thing; yet equally bad things would be possible under a strictly popular-vote election of presidents.

The Constitution provides that electors for a State be equal to the number of Senators plus the number of Representatives from that State.  Thus, the system reflects the importance of individual States, just as the makeup of  the U. S. Senate does: all States are equal in having two Senators each.   Similarly, in presidential elections using the Electoral College system, the small or sparsely populated States can be assured of having at least  two electoral votes.  

If  popular vote totals determined the outcome of  presidential elections, a small or sparsely populated State would become increasingly insignificant compared to States with large cities and large populations.   Even now presidential candidates tend to ignore the special needs and opinions of  people in States with low population and to campaign only in densely populated States.

But the worst part about abandoning the Electoral College system is that it would promote an increase of minor-party candidates.   Under the Electoral College system, minor-party candidates usually do not get any electoral votes because a candidate has to get the majority of popular votes in a State before getting any electoral votes.  But in a popular-vote election, minor-party candidates are able to pick up votes here and there all across the nation but not enough to win an election.   

What’s so bad about that?  When three or more candidates are vying for votes, it is difficult for any candidate to get a majority of the popular vote.  In 1992 when Ross Perot was in a race with Clinton and Bush, no candidate got a majority of the popular vote.  Clinton did get sufficient electoral votes to be elected, but he received only 43 percent of the popular vote.  That didn’t seem to bother the “one citizen, one vote” advocates.  It’s as though the act of voting is more important than any result that voting can have.

Suppose we had been using just popular votes to elect the president in 1992.   A run-off election would have been necessary between the two top popular-vote getters ––or we could have declared the candidate with a plurality of  popular votes the winner.  That would have been just another way  of reaching the same imperfect goal that we reached in 1992.  All this makes the phrase “one citizen, one vote” a rather meaningless slogan.

Even with only two candidates vying for the office, democracy is always a little unfair.  It’s always a bit of a compromise.   As Thoreau noted, it’s of little consolation to the person who is on the losing side of some issue to know that the majority ruled.

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Written by polemicscat

June 17, 2008 at 3:50 pm

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