Reform in the Electoral College

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The Electoral College was a brilliant 18th Century device that solved a cluster of 18th Century problems. But now a slew of 21st Century problems has appeared, and the Electoral College is unable to solve them. To fully understand this 200-year-old problem, you must first understand how the Electoral College was chosen.

The framers of our country faced a very difficult question at the birth of our government. How much power could they entrust with the people, and how much with representatives? The framers chose to create a lawmaking Congress, half of which was chosen by the people. But an executive branch still needed a President. There were three systems that could have been used to select this President. An appointment by Congress, election by citizens, or election by an Electoral College. The Electoral College system was chosen over a direct vote system, the founders believed people were generally misinformed and easily misled. The founders wanted to avoid disrupting the delicate balance of power between states. If a general election was held, a state could increase it's clout by recklessly extending it's franchise--for example, a state could double it's weight in a general election by allowing women to vote. By contrast, a state receives the same number of electoral votes whether it's franchise is broad or narrow, making it the far safer system, as it has remained in place for over 200 years. The theory behind the Electoral College is important, but so is how it actually works.

The Electoral College works like this today. Every ten years the Census adjusts the number of representatives a state has. This number plus two (for Senators) equals the number of electors a state has. Washington D.C. has three electors. Then each state has the right to decide how to choose the electors. Forty-eight states use the winner-take-all system, where a popular election is held statewide, and the winner receives all the electoral votes for that state. Maine and Nebraska use the district system, where a popular election is held in each congressional district, and the winner of the district receives that district’s electoral votes. There is a problem, however, the faithless elector. In twenty-four states electors are mandated to vote as pledged. But in the remaining twenty-six states, the electors can vote for whoever they want to, with no penalty if they do not vote for the actual winner! Since the people of a state vote for a president, it should be required that the electors vote for whom they are pledged to represent, not themselves. Although this has only happened three times in our brief history: 1948, 1960, and 1976, defecting electors in a close race would cause a crisis of confidence in our electoral system.

One of the main problems is the Electoral College System is fundamentally unfair to voters and presidential candidates. Ever since Kindergarten we have been taught the one person, one vote principal, and the idea that everyone has an equal voice in our government. For the people, by the people, right? That is an utter and complete lie. Look at the weight of an individual vote, a vote depending on the population of the state you are voting in. For example, each electoral vote in Alaska is equivalent to about 112,000 people. Each electoral vote in New York is equivalent to about 404,000 people. And that is if everyone votes! Moreover, the electoral vote does not does not reflect the volume of voter participation. If only a few voters go to the polls, all electoral votes are still cast! How many voters actually select the president? Under the assumption that all states used the winner-take-all system, all electors were faithful, there are only two candidates, and if a candidate lost a state the candidate received no votes, then a president could be elected with only 22% of the national popular vote. If there were three candidates, it would require only 15% of the popular vote. This means a good strategist could ignore 78% of the nation when campaigning. Remembering that only 49% of the nation actually votes, the outcome of an election theoretically could represent only 12% of the nation. 12%. The Electoral College gives the power to select a president to a few, and gives power to the two major political parties. A third party vote is seen as a wasted vote because it is nearly impossible for a third party to win a majority in a state, let alone a majority of the nation. The Electoral College is unfair to third parties, and unfair to the 88% of the nation excluded in the election process.

Yet, even that 12% is misrepresented by the Electoral College. In 1948, a shift of 30,000 votes would have delivered the White House to Gov. Dewey, even though he trailed President Truman by 2.1 million votes. In 1960 a shift of only 13,000 votes would have made Nixon president. And in 1976, a shift of 9,300 votes would have elected Gerald Ford, who trailed Jimmy Carter by 1.6 million ballots. These close calls would never have happened if a general election were held. The only real alternative to an Electoral College would be to abolish it, and hold a national popular election for the presidency. Yet there are some who defend the Electoral College, and grimace at reform.

There are only two real arguments against reforming our voting system, federalism and inertia. But neither one holds any weight. The notion of a national government holding an election is not a grave one, and state's rights would still be intact. The other argument, inertia, is absurd. It hasn't broken down yet, why worry?
The same could be said after the third trigger pull in Russian Roulette. Even after disproving these arguments, some still defend the Electoral College, claiming the Founding Fathers could not have been wrong. As I said before, the Electoral College solved many 18th Century problems, but they were just that, 18th Century problems. None of those arguments work today. Blacks and women are no longer selectively disenfranchised, and improvements in communications technology result in most voters are no longer misinformed or easily misled, making the Electoral College all the more obsolete.

What, then, should we do to reform the Electoral College? Most people believe the only way to change our voting system is by an amendment to the Constitution. There are thirty-nine generally smaller states in the US. These states hold a majority in the Senate, and likewise hold a majority in ratifying an amendment to the Constitution. The Electoral College gives a proportional advantage to the smaller states. Thus, it would be near impossible to to pass an amendment to abolish the Electoral College and take power away from the smaller states and give it to a national election. There is another way, however, to reform the Electoral College. The Constitution clearly states that the choice of electors is to be made by the states, and court cases have named it constitutional for states to require electors to vote for whom they are pledged. These precedents pave the way for an easier, yet just as effective, method of change called "Allocating the Electoral Vote". In this method, the states hold a popular election, then the candidates receive electoral votes based on percentage. Thus, if a state had ten electoral votes, and Candidate A received 70% of the popular vote, Candidate B received 18%, and Candidate C received 12%, then Candidate A would receive seven electoral votes, Candidate B two, and Candidate C one. In a worst case scenario a president could be elected with a minimum of 42% of the popular vote.

While this is not as accurate as a popular vote would be, it is far better than our current general ticket system. The reason this system does not require a constitutional amendment is because it can be imposed on an individual state basis.

I think the best strategy in getting a change in a 200-year-old system is to start small, test it out on a smaller basis, and if people like it, it will eventually become national policy. Whatever we change it to, the Electoral College needs to be changed. A system that denies third parties a fair chance, that is based upon outdated problems, that relies upon electors who can vote like they are deaf to your voice, that is molded to 12% of the nation, must be changed. However, there is only one way to get that change. It is to get involved. Every American that believes the system is wrong needs to speak up, and be heard. Get involved; get heard; get change.

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