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In Defense of the Electoral College

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Every four years there are rumblings about the Electoral College (EC) and calls to abolish it. Since doing so requires a Constitutional amendment the calls usually don’t get very far; even in the best of times there always seem to be bigger fish to fry. Sometimes, though, the vagaries of the system are anything but trivial, as we were all reminded in 2000. The immediate and understandable reaction on the left was, why are we still stuck with this thing when it just put someone who lost the popular vote in the White House? It seemed to exist only to block the will of the people. But in 2004 a popular and electoral win led the president to characterize it not just as the popular preference for president, but an accountability moment that granted him political capital, which he in turn defined as comprehensive support for everything he wanted to do. Dana Nelson describes this understanding of the presidency on page 177 of “Bad For Democracy”, citing Barney Frank’s use of the political science term plebiscitary democracy: a system “wherein a leader is elected but once elected has almost all of the power.”

Such a formulation is nothing less than a radical attempt to seize power from the citizenry (and can only be done if we acquiesce). We should expect, and be expected, to do more than cast a quadrennial ballot for president. We should be talking, persuading, agitating and advocating between elections for or against those policies that matter most to us. For better or worse Congress is the object of these efforts. Think about the big issues of the last few years - Social Security privatization, immigration reform, various FISA changes, the bailout - and they all received passionate response and intense lobbying efforts by Americans towards their Representatives and Senators. Even though not all succeeded, the fact is that is where people directed their energies.

Since that is where we have the best chance of affecting policy, transferring some authority there could easily make the government more responsive. For example, instead of having EC electors selected in a separate process just make everyone in Congress one (and let D.C. continue to use its current process to get its three). There are some noteworthy benefits to doing this. First, it would take away some power of the executive branch - which throughout our history has almost exclusively expanded. A vote by Congress for the president would make it much more difficult to assert an accountability moment, mandate, or otherwise claim near-total freedom of action. Second, the president would owe something to Congress. Heaven knows the last eight years in Congress have been an ongoing, catastrophic failure of courage in the face of presidential bullying. While no rules, legislation or other mechanisms can compel anyone to stand up to such tactics it certainly might help to stack the deck a little. If the “accountability moment” had been with Congress and not voters we might have seen much different behavior on both sides.

It also might mitigate one of the structural weaknesses in our theoretical model of checks and balances: The tendency of officials’ parochial interests to trump institutional concerns. A nearly perfect example of that is on display at the very moment. We have just found out that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have spent more money on the financial system in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did in World War II. How exactly the money is being spent and who in particular has benefited is basically a complete mystery. Bloomberg News - not, remember, a branch of the federal government - has filed a lawsuit to obtain details on where it has gone. Congress ought to be asking the same questions and could much more easily find out. But instead we have politicians squabbling about relatively small amounts based on how much their constituents depend on the domestic auto industry. The much larger executive overreach passes unnoticed.

It is important to not fly from crisis to crisis and to not always look for solutions to future problems by generalizing from the most recent one. But those of us on the left are in a position to argue from principle (and with great credibility) about scaling back the scope of the presidency now that a Democrat is about to enter the White House. In the last week Libby Spencer has exhorted her readers by post and in comments to not focus too much on Barack Obama. Instead we should focus on what we can do, and what we can convince or representatives in Congress to do. Such an ongoing and hands-on commitment might be more effective - and empowering - if the presidency receded somewhat from its overwhelming primacy in our political life.

Reader Comments (8)

Back in 2000, it wasn't the EC that enraged this voter but the bullying tactics of the Republican party, the Supreme Court's abrogation of our rights, and evidence of ballot manipulation.

And speaking of rage, the secrecy surrounding the bailout money is getting us into far worse trouble now. The EC is an easy target, but not the one to waste ammunition on. For example,I'd like to know how much of the bailout money is being used for political -- partisan -- purposes. We are, of course, responsible for what Congress -- the people we vote for most directly -- do or don't do. Some voters think wearing a flag in their lapel is all they owe to their citizenship in a relatively free country. Wrong. Oversight -- being active watchdogs -- is what we owe the system. Maybe your idea of making Congress (which chamber? both?) the EC is just ticket. It's certainly worth a hard look.

November 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPW

I don't see that the EC performs any purpose other than its original one - making sure that the small backward states have more power than they should. It is also painfully clear that the Congress serves no useful purpose, not that it shouldn't or that we don't need it.

If we are going to engage in serious Constitutional reform, then let's abolish the Electoral College and the Senate and increase the size of the House. Then let's have federally regulated apportionment of congressional districts, and federally funded elections supervised by federal officials on paper ballots only. Let's bar corporations from using their funds directly or indirectly to support or oppose any candidate for public office or any political policy position. And I want a pony.

November 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

Charles, I was looking more narrowly at the balance of power between Congress and the president, not generally at Constitutional, governmental or equine reform. All of them are worth looking at, obviously (especially the last one).

November 21, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

If I understand you correctly the system you advocate would be a disaster. It would put the selection of the president in the hands of the house/senate.

That, in no way, changes the power of the EC to allow smaller states to influence the decision. Given the present system (a limit of 435 in the House) that is only going to get worse.

Add Gerrymandering and the clout of one party is likely to end up with a far more realistic end state of the "permanent 'x' majority" with a matching legislative and executive, and the eventual re-shaping of the judiciary to match.

November 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Karney

I like the idea of abolishing the Senate. To put the election of the president in the hands of an expanded House is an interesting proposition--it makes our system more parliamentary and so while we're at it (since empirical study shows that systems that are strongly centralized, proportionally representative and parliamentary are far more robustly and effectively democratic) why don't we make the House function through PR rather than through single member districts? Then we might grow something better than a two-party, winner-take-all system. The president's then accountable to a proportionally representative House and people can stop pinning their superhero fantasies onto him and train a more realistically political set of expectations and demands for accountability onto a more broadly representative political body. And my preference is for fainting goats.

November 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDana Nelson

Terry, small states will always have some influence. Whether they have undue influence is hardly a given, though. And you're right that Congressional elections of the president would make the hazards of gerrymandering even more pronounced, but that would then make state-level elections all the more important. That might further devolve power away from Washington and act as even more incentive for citizens to get involved locally.

November 24, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

Dana, lots of folks have left feedback here and the places I cross post. One of the main themes was expanding the House or abolishing the Senate. I suspect the Senate wouldn't quietly go away, and smaller states in particular would put up a big fight. Maybe turning it into a ceremonial House of Lords type of institution would be possible. As for PR, it was set back a generation by the Lani Guinier circus. I hope its time comes around again soon.

November 24, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

I favor a slight refinement of the winner-takes-all formula used by
most states to allocate their EC delegates. The formula can be refined so a recount is unlikely to change the outcome by more than
1 or 2 EC delegates in any recounted state, rarely enough to affect the overall outcome, yet still preserve the basic desirable winner-takes-all property.Allocate all of the state's EC delegates to a single candidate only when that candidate has a sizable win.By sizable, let's say at least a 2% lead over the candidate who finishes 2nd in that state. (A candidate who receives at least 51% will win all of the state's delegates, since the candidate who
finishes 2nd will receive at most 49%.When there are 3 or more candidates, the leader might win all with less than 51%.) Here's the proposed formula:
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June 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercarababe

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