I'd like to beat one final note out of my previous posts suggesting we amend the anti-populism built into the Constitution out of the Constitution. This time it's about everyone's favorite questionable and undemocratic machine: the Electoral College.
The Electoral College elects the president. Each state is given a total number of electoral college votes based more-or-less on population. The vast majority of states give 100% of their votes to whichever candidate gets the most votes in their state (so the winner of the 50.1%/49.9% horserace gets all the votes), while a few uncontroversial states divvy it out pro rata, which is much smarter. To win, a candidate needs to garner more than half of the electoral college vote. If no candidate does, it goes to the House of Representatives for a vote, which is at least a more populist option than the Senate.
The electoral college was initially another compromise meant to assuage post-colonial states who were reluctant to give up any of their autonomy to a centralized federal government. The Articles of Confederation, a more state-power-centric first draft of the Constitution, had collapsed for want of centralization. The more independent states were now willing to accept a stronger central government because the new country was at risk of losing its legitimacy as a recognized nation, but still needed convincing before they would sign over their power to things like war and commerce. The electoral college essentially makes it so that states, not people, elect the president. The representatives for the states, who were the ones sitting at the table deciding whether to adopt the constitution, liked this.
The electoral college is monumentally stupid for a few reasons. For one, candidates don't need to get the most votes to win. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes lost the popular vote by 250,000 votes, a fairly solid 3% margin of loss. Naturally, he was sworn in as president shortly after. The same thing happened in 1888. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and the electoral college vote, but didn't quite get enough electoral college support to cross the halfway threshold as required. It went to the House, who elected John Quincy Adams president, for some reason. Then in 2000, Vice President Al Gore beat Texas governor George W. Bush by more than half a million votes. The rest is, unfortunately, history.
The problem is that, since a candidate needs just over half of the states' electoral votes to win, but then only needs just over half of each state's popular vote to win all its electoral votes, a candidate could conceivably win the presidential election with just over 25% of the popular vote, by winning just-over-half the votes of just-over-half the necessary states (100% x 0.5 x 0.5, then add a few votes). This would be a controversial-if-acceptable outcome if we had a slew of different political parties competing for president, but for the duration of United States history we have had two predominant parties. This means that a candidate could conceivably lose the electoral college vote, and thus the presidency, while at the same time winning almost 75% of the popular vote. This is nuts.
Practically speaking, however, the result of the electoral college is that candidates end up spending all their time and resources in a few contested "swing states" rather than campaigning across the country. Here is a map from Wikipedia showing the visits and money spent in each state by the 2004 presidential candidates (President Bush, Sen. John Kerry) during the five weeks preceding the election. See if you can spot a pattern!
Look at those insane maps. The amount of money and attention spent on a few people in Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and a few others is wildly out of proportion to their proportion of the population or their importance within the country for any reason besides their electoral votes. The campaigns had done their math: with the states they had "locked" (i.e. states in which they could reliably win more than 50% of the vote) accounted for, they only needed to beat the competition in these "contested" swing states. This creates a horse race centered around otherwise meaningless concentrations (or un-concentrations-- Iowa? Nevada? Really?) of the population. The electoral college does not create an incentive for presidential candidates to interact with the population at large, but instead to focus on a few geographic designations that have the most uncertain outcomes. This affects their funding, strategy, campaign promises, and eventually their actions as president. Some suggest, for example, that the reason biofuel, a dirty, expensive gasoline substitute, receives attention and support is because presidents line up to take "biofuel pledges" in order to satiate the swing state of Iowa's corn vote.
The electoral college, like the Senate and the Amendment Clause, privileges random segments of the population over others in a zero-sum voting situation, giving some swaths of the country more power over others based on their location, locations chosen because the lightning bolt of electoral math happened to strike them and not their neighboring states. This is bad. Abolish the electoral college.
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