Sunday, October 24, 2004

Do we still need an Electoral College?

After last year's situation where Gore won the popular vote but Bush the Presidency, and with this year looking like it just may happen the other way around (Bush wins popular vote, Kerry President) the question many people are asking is: Do we need the Electoral College?

To answer that comes a blogger I recently stumbled across, over at Let's Try Freedom. In an ongoing series of posts he argues that yes, we do need it, and here's why:

Reason The First: Because Otherwise We'd Have Another Civil War

If the voting was done on a direct popular basis, the rural areas of the United States would have no effective voice. There would be no political point in them remaining in the Union, and they would secede again (and with considerably more justification this time); the cities wouldn't be able or willing to let them go. To avoid just that kind of sectionalism, secession, and war, the Founders (angel choir) decided to compromise with a system that gives major populaton centers a large voice, but not an overwhelming one.

Reason The Second: It Requires Candidates To Make Their Pitch To Large Parts Of The Country

The EC forces candidates to craft policies that appeal to large sections of the country, not just to one or two cities. It also forces them to visit large sections of the country. If we had a popular vote system, candidates would quite logically spend all of their time in NY, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, LA, and Seattle.

Even if a state doesn't have many electoral votes, the candidate generally tries to hit it at least once, because if his opponent wins, she gets a small but meaningful boost. In a popular contest, no such incentive applies. You don't really care that your opponent got 90,000 votes in Rhode Island and you only got 80,000; you will make that up with one photo op in Greenwich Village. The electoral system makes that 10,000 vote margin worth 3 EC votes, and you can't really afford to just blow off any particular state. It's better to forget about running up the score in NYC and start bolstering your support in other parts of the nation.

Reason The Third: It Reduces The Incentive To Commit Vote Fraud

Many areas of the country are solidly in one political camp or another. Texas is not in play this year. Everyone knows what Massachusetts is going to do.

When a place has one highly dominant party, that party naturally controls all of the voting machinery. All of the voting judges are of that party; all of the ministerial jobs at the state level are held by people who are members of the party. This makes voter fraud a lot easier than in a scenario where there the area is hotly contested, and people of both parties are in positions of authority.

Under a popular vote system, there would be a strong incentive for such one-party areas to run up the vote count through fraudulent means. It's easy to get away with, and there's a return on the "investment" - all those lovely additional votes.

The Electoral College serves to check this tendency. Once a state is in the bag for Candidate X, Candidate X's partisans in the electoral machinery have no incentive to try and run up the count. They can settle for their honest victory and not feel any pressure (from the national parties, for example) to come up with more votes somehow.

Reason The Fourth: It Enhances The Power Of Minorities

The Electoral College enhances the voice of minority interests in the selection of the President. It isn't just racial minorities - currently the main beneficiaries of this effect are Southern blacks, Mormons, and the we-like-whores-and-poker libertarians in Nevada. The geographical nature of this enhancement also means that members of a minority group have to take it pretty seriously in order to get the benefit; if the Mormons decide tomorrow that they don't need to live in a special area and exodus all over the country, poof, there goes their political influence.

It is very easy to formulate a system that protects the influence of minorities, but such systems have the danger of leading to serious factionalism and infighting, as in the proportional-representation nightmares of many European governments. The electoral system provides a voice for these often-disenfranchised groups, while the geographical restriction ensures that the system does not degenerate into a hundred warring factions.


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