With less than two weeks until polls open for the 2008 election, the consensus is that Barack Obama is headed for a decisive victory. In the Electoral College, he is likely to win about two votes for every vote won by John McCain, even while the popular vote margin could be quite close: perhaps five percentage points difference. It is even remotely conceivable that McCain could win the popular vote while losing the electoral vote, thereby reversing the outcome of 2000.
This would be a good time for President Obama to take the lead in proposing the elimination of the Electoral College, an antidemocratic anomaly that has no proper place in a country that sees itself as the world’s leading democracy in the 21st century.
The Electoral College is a part of the original Constitution, and is vested with the formal election of the President and Vice President. Each state receives a number of votes equal to its seats in the House of Representatives plus two votes for the two senators allocated to each state. After the early crystallization of political parties, the Constitution was amended to put the presidential and vice-presidential nominees on the same ticket; originally, the Vice President was to be the runner-up to the winner of the Electoral College vote. That was stopped after a prolonged standoff between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr (who had been nominated as President and Vice President, respectively, on the same ticket, and who got the same number of electoral votes: Burr pictured above).
The Electoral College stands alongside the Senate as an intended check on the power of the people. Senators were originally elected by state legislatures and thus had a most indirect relation to the popular vote. The Constitution was amended in the early 20th century to provide for popular election of senators. The Founding Fathers conceived the Electoral College, like the Senate, to be composed of men of substance and wisdom who might consult the populace, but who would make decisions independently. By the time Jefferson left office, though, it was clear that the popular vote would determine the electoral vote in each state. It became exceedingly rare for an elector to vote contrary to the popular vote of his state. Although it is nowhere specified in the Constitution, a state’s electoral votes are almost always allocated unanimously to the candidate who won the popular vote, thereby producing the magnifying effect I noted in the first paragraph, and occasionally producing a split between the popular and electoral votes, as in 2000.
Thus the original reason for the Electoral College was superseded early in our history, but it is still with us, notwithstanding the injustice perpetrated in 2000. There are usually two reasons one hears for keeping it. They contradict each other, and neither one is valid. The first is that the College enhances the influence of small states because it overrepresents them. It is true that there is some overrepresentation, but it is quite minor. If we look at the behavior of presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the current campaign, there is no evidence that they are devoting disproportionate attention to small states, unless they are swing states like New Mexico or New Hampshire. Neighboring Utah and Vermont are getting little attention, because they are solidly in the camp of one of the candidates.
The second argument for the Electoral College is that it favors large states because they have big blocks of votes. Here again, the behavior of the campaigns gives the lie to this argument. You don’t’ see much campaign activity in any of the three largest states, California, Texas and New York, because all are essentially uncontested. Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio are seeing a lot of campaigning, because they are closely contested.
In fact, if our presidential elections were decided like our congressional and senatorial elections, by a straight popular vote, for the first time every voter, no matter where he or she lived, would have equal importance. Right now, Pennsylvania voters matter more than New Yorkers, New Hampshire voters matter more than Vermonters, North Carolinians matter more than Tennesseeans. With a national popular vote, candidates would have to go after every voter, not take some for granted.
Amending the Constitution is hard, but this may be the year when Republicans come close to experiencing the frustration that Democrats had in 2000. That would make it the right time to do the right thing and get rid of this antidemocratic relic of another age.
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
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