Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Thoughts on the Electoral College

Thanks to the presidential elections of 2000, many Americans are aware of the shamelessly strange Electoral College. Unfortunately, most remain unaware of the beliefs that gave rise to our country’s adoption of this system. This post will superficially discuss the basis for the Electoral College, its relevance today, and what the hell we should do about it.

A brief reading of one of the Federalist Papers, #68, reveals that part of the original reason for creating the Electoral College was the unbridled ignorance of the average early American. Our ignorance was due to a variety of factors, but the most likely contenders are the dearth of adequate education and the difficulty of disseminating ideas and opinions. In essence Alexander Hamilton advocated a wherein voters select electors who would be responsible for having the judgment and knowledge to elect a qualified candidate for president. This was necessary because, "Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States." This yields a couple of pressing questions: 1. Has the Electoral College actually shown better judgment than that of average voters? 2. Have changes in technology altered the political landscape in a way that makes direct voting more reasonable? For my money the answers are pretty simple; No to the first and yes to the second.

The 2000 election provides a helpful test-case for deciding the first question. Approval ratings for President Bush and the majority of his policies are now unequivocally negative. His presidency has been almost universally acknowledged to be a crushing failure, by republicans and democrats alike. Time seems to have shown President Bush to be an example of the very type of candidate that Hamilton warned us about so long ago. If you will think back to the days of the 2000 election you will probably remember the many interviews, polls, and studies that showed a large number of Americans voting based on painfully superficial criteria. It was not uncommon to hear someone say that their vote for Bush was based largely upon the sense that he was ‘one of us’ and that he would be a good guy to have a barbeque with. In essence, President Bush was shown to have mastered, “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.” On the other hand, former Vice-President Gore was almost universally acknowledged to have appeared stiff and unapproachable.

Yet somehow the slight majority of American people rose above their impetus to vote for the popular candidate and instead voted for the cold, calculating, but qualified candidate. Of course the election was incredible close, but Gore won the popular vote. In response, the Electoral College committed the very crime it was created to prevent; It elected the charming and popular Average Joe. Whether or not one voted for Bush before, it is pretty much unarguable that he has governed poorly, that the popular vote was the correct vote, and that the Electoral College is about as effective at choosing presidents as FEMA is at disaster relief.

When I can finally stop laughing and crying maniacally at the irony of the universe, I take two lessons from the 2000 elections. First, the Electoral College is a relic, a vestige of an earlier time in our democracy. Second, the American people are underestimated…maybe.

I say ‘maybe’ because it is impossible to forget the sound bites of Americans proudly describing their decision to vote based upon things like hairstyle or barbeque appeal, and because hindsight is 20/20. Perhaps Bush came off as more qualified than I remember, or perhaps Gore seemed unfit to govern for more legitimate reasons. There are so many variables and so much inescapable bias that I find it difficult to write much about this without qualification. This much, however, I can address. Even if it is impossible to determine whether the Electoral College makes more foolish decisions than the average voters, it is easy to show how such a thing could be. First of all, the electors are often chosen as a result of their long loyalty and involvement in one major political party or the other. This could have the effect of making the Electoral College even more dependant on party lines than a popular vote. At the very least, we should question whether or not our modern day electors are actually more qualified, or are simply partisan zealots.

Secondly, the rise of the Internet has changed the whole ball-game. It allows news to be communicated around the world almost instantaneously, it gives average people the tools to research complicated issues, and it provides a way for each political candidate to present their ideas and plans in full. (This last element has been utilized poorly so far, but I am confident that as time passes we will see an expansion from general declarations of a party’s platform into detailed descriptions of policy available online). Nevertheless, it is clear that circumstances have fundamentally changed in recent decades. The Electoral College may have been useful for most of our country’s history, but that was only because the essential circumstances remained unchanged. But now they have, and we should take proud advantage of it. Average voters now have the tools to be as educated as the traditional electors, and they have fewer ties that restrict to voting along party lines. The Electoral College has ceased being useful. It reduces the impetus to vote by unnecessarily complicating the process. Even those states that require electors to mirror the popular vote have maintained an unnecessary distance between the act of voting and the act of electing. The Electoral College drives candidates to ignore large portions of the country in favor of a small set of ‘battleground states’. It has become a fundamental impediment that deprives citizens of the right and duty of a meaningful vote. We should dump the Electoral College as part of a comprehensive effort to change our elections from sound-bites and photo-ops into a substantive discussion of issues.


  1. I'm sorry - but your idealism and faith in the 'Average People' is just too much - since when was it a lack of tools that prevented Joe Six Pack from researching complicated issues. Play him a sound bite, spread a rumor about the other guys, do some photo-ops, package it on Madison Avenue and you've got yourself a 'democratic election' he can participate in without having to miss the Nascar Race on TV. The miracle is that we don't elect more movie stars, bumbling Good Old Boys and ego-maniacs - who else would run in such a nasty beauty contest.

  2. I definitely feel your frustration, but the last few years have been telling. With every increase in frustration, the average American pays slightly more attention to political matters. And though the quality of their choices is often suspect, I see internet innovation giving rise to a more informed populace. Things like the YouTube debates, the rise in grass-roots political activism, and the advent of open source development techniques give me some optimism. In fact, I am still holding out hope that candidate websites will someday include a forum-based discussion of policy. With every innovation that shrinks the rift between voting and change, or between Joe-six pack and his representatives, the likelihood of a more intelligent voting pool grows.