Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Electoral College and American stability

The Electoral College has come under fire from numerous prominent politicians and activists recently. After the 2000 election, Hillary Clinton advocated dismantling the Electoral College in favor of direct popular election of the president. This year, George Will, Paul Greenberg and Bruce Bartlett have all excoriated the Coloradans seeking to allocate that state's electoral vote based on the proportion of the state's popular vote won by the candidate in the election. And with good reason, even if you're a Democrat -- such proportionality could swing the election for either candidate (Kerry's campaign says he is ahead in the state).

The most frequently voiced complaint of the Coloradans and of the Electoral College opponents in general is that the winner-take-all system disenfranchises the voters whose candidate narrowly loses the state. This position is akin to the concept of disenfranchisement used by the New Jersey Supreme Court in its ridiculous decision that allowed Frank Lautenberg on the 2002 Senatorial ballot -- that voters would be deprived of democratic choice without a Democrat on the ballow. Neither position has any merit.

Claiming that you are disenfranchised if all of your state's electoral votes goes to the winner of your state's election for president is a preposterous notion. By that logic a voter for any candidate who narrowly loses is disenfranchised. The meaning of "disenfranchisement" is that you lose your right to vote or that your vote is not counted in the totals that decide the winner of the election. Disenfranchisement does NOT occur when your candidate loses -- you have no right to 45% of the victor if your candidate loses 55%-45%. The winner-take-all electoral system in 48 of the states is therefore akin to a Senate race -- there is only one winner and he (or she) gets all the spoils.

As Claudia Winkler shows, there are some principled and thoughtful reasons proposed to eliminate the Electoral College such as better modern communications that ensure an educated electorate (if it chooses to be educated), the EC is partially a holdover from slavery-issue compromises (see below), the straight vote-count method is more directly democratic, etc. But none of them withstand scrutiny. Ultimately, this essay by Martin Diamond explains that the presidential elections are as democratic as possible within each state, therefore:

Despite all their democratic rhetoric, the reformers do not propose to make our presidential elections more directly democratic; they only propose to make them more directly national, by entirely removing the states from the electoral process. Democracy thus is not the question regarding the electoral college; federalism is.

The Electoral College, and the winner-take-all allocation on a state-by-state basis, is one of the great mechanisms of the US system. Why? Because it works in variety of ways.

The United States is the world's largest democracy where the head of government is directly elected; most have the head of government selected by the party that wins the majority of the legislature (see UK, India, Canada, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain) -- from a practical standpoint, voters know the prime minister of the new government will be the leader of that victorious party. But the US separates its executive and legislative branches of government, therefore the parliamentary system has no application.

The Electoral College is an historic compromise set up to balance the rivalry between the North and South of the US (industry v. agrarian slave-system), while continuing to ensure that the small states (population) would have a stake in the outcome of the election. Thus, less-populated New Hampshire has an importance in this election that surpasses its usual impact on the country. The fact is that even as the country has expanded, the various regions have had specific interests that are better served by a president who must campaign throughout the country and learn the needs of the people of various states. Voters in Iowa or Idaho have different concerns from voters in New York or Virginia. Those concerns are regional, but learning of them makes the presidential candidate more nationally in-tune.

Consider: in 2000, Al Gore Jr. won 677 counties; Bush won 2,434. Thus, Bush had broader national appeal, but Gore won densely populated areas by larger margins. If a presidency can be won by campaigning in certain densely populated areas for large swaths of the urban vote, then urban areas will be disproportionately influential in national politics.

Moreover, the Electoral College has minimized the extremism of US politics -- both the Democrats and Republicans are large nationally powerful parties, but those on the fringe have little political power and therefore cannot force dissolution of a government (i.e., Italy, Israel); the strong organizations also mean a two-party rivalry that forces each party to appeal to larger and more diverse constituencies, thereby moderating their platforms. What is good about that? In a country as diverse as the US, small parties with disproportionately large amounts of political clout can have a pernicious effect on the polity by further fragmenting US politics. In Israel (a fairly heterogenous small country), the various minor parties can completely hamstring the operations of government with their legislative and ministerial demands. In Italy (a relatively homogenous population), the old joke was that governmental stability meant no lost votes of confidence that year because from 1945-89, Italy averaged more than a government per year.

The Electoral College has contributed greatly to the stability of the US. In 1979, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke in opposition to the abolition of the Electoral College. He noted that of the 154 countries then in existence, only seven had existed since 1914 with the same governmental structure. Most of those were CONSTITUTIONAL systems -- either constitutional monarchies (Netherlands, UK, Canada) or a constitutional republic like the US. This is a great achievement and throwing out the Electoral College can only upset the stability of the US. How? See France, where Jacques Chirac won less than 30% of the initial presidential vote in an open contest before winning 80% in a run-off against right-wing nutter J-M Le Pen. France is on its Fifth Republic since the mid-1800s. As Moynihan noted:

politics is an argument about the future, and no one knows that future. However, as Hamilton and his colleagues argued, the study of history can give you some sense of probabilities. If we would study the modern history of Europe as they studied the ancient history of Greece, what would we repeatedly encounter but a democratic-republican society succumbing to a plebiscitory majority and to one man and to the end of the republic?

It happened in France; it happened in Italy; it happened in Germany. Almost the only places it has not happened in Europe, on one occasion or another . . . are the constitutional monarchies.

The last main argument of Electoral College opponents is that it can be anti-majoritarian because the president does not have to win the popular vote. That argument (more popular in 2000 than when Clinton won only 43% of the vote in 1992) ignores US history entirely. The Constitution was designed to PREVENT majority tyranny, thus it requires majorities built upon consensus with checks upon each majority's power. The Bill of Rights was forced upon the Constitutional Conventioneers because anti-Federalists feared a too-powerful national government that could control the minority through majority rule. A bill requires two majorities to pass through Congress, but the majority will can be checked by a presidential veto. An enacted law can be invalidated by the courts because it violates our Constitution. Thus, the Constitution is an anti-majoritarian document.

Ultimately, that anti-majoritarian document, the electoral system it created and the polity that was born and grew up under its aegis are what have made the US the most stable and exceptional republic in history. I'll close with this benediction from Sen. Moynihan in a speech to Congress:

. . . there is a solemn obligation of persons who have been blessed, as we have been blessed, by a stable political system to look to that stability as the most precious inheritance anyone can have. Look about the world and think of the experience of mankind in this generation. Ask what society has lived from 1813 without foreign invasion. Ask what society has never known a break in its congressional or presidential or judicial successions. Ask what society so accepts the principles of the Constitution as to enable the Supreme Court, appointed for life, to strike down laws of this very legislature, and to do so with heightened respect when it fulfills its constitutional mandate.

Ask what the legitimacy of justice is once we tinker with the balancing phenomenon of the electoral college.

We have a republic. It has endured. We trifle with its arrangement at a risk not only to the future of that republic, but, most assuredly, to the reputation of this generation of political men and women.

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