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Eliminate the Electoral College

Posted: 09/27/2012 7:05 pm

The Electoral College is one of the most dangerous institutions in American politics today.

The primary impact of the Electoral College is to give the citizens of some states more influence over the presidential election than citizens of other states. If you live in a Battleground State you are showered with attention. Your issues gain traction at the national level. You have political power. But if you happen to live in a Red State or a Blue State -- as do roughly 79% of Americans according to Nate Silver's electoral map -- then you are pretty much out of luck. Your vote doesn't matter. And when we say "your vote doesn't matter," we can actually quantify this. According to the Princeton Election Consortium a vote in Nevada this year (a small battleground state) is over one million times more likely to have an impact on this election than a vote in New Jersey (a large Blue state).

This is horribly unjust. It makes a mockery of the principal of "one man, one vote"; it doesn't matter if we all get one vote when some votes are worth more than others.

The Electoral College undermines our belief that the electoral process is fair. Every time that a candidate wins the popular vote but fails to win the presidency (which has happened three times so far in American history), it has caused the people to question whether the system is broken and the wrong person became president. Combined with the widespread understanding that most votes in most states simply have virtually no chance of affecting the outcome of the presidential election, the effect is to erode our collective belief that our most important political office is actually chosen democratically.

And that is exactly why the Electoral College is so dangerous. Social scientists have demonstrated that people are happier and more efficient when they believe that they are living and working under a fair set of rules. In addition, people are more likely to follow the laws or rules voluntarily when they believe that their voices are being heard, which can reduce corruption and helps society run more smoothly. Studies have even shown that people will voluntarily conserve scarce resources when they feel that they have input into the way policy is created. This so-called procedural justice is a huge boon to democracy; our active participation in the political process encourages us all to be productive and law-abiding citizens. In short, one of the most important catalysts for successful democracy is our communal belief that we can all make a difference by participating in the system--our belief that every vote matters.

And the Electoral College actively violates that belief. The Electoral College ensures that some votes matter more than others. It is past time that we got rid it.

Unfortunately, amending the Constitution is a slow and difficult process. Thankfully, there is a short-term solution that would serve almost as well: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). The NPVIC requires that member states give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, and it only takes effect if enough states pass it into law so that NPVIC states control over 50% of electoral votes. Currently it has been passed by eight states (CA, WA, IL, MD, VT, MA, NJ, HI) plus Washington DC, totaling 132 electoral votes.

There is historical precedence for changing the way states award electoral votes. Originally, electors were selected by each state's legislature, not by the popular vote in that state. Only after the so-called Corrupt Bargain of 1824, which "stole" the election from the popular Andrew Jackson, were the rules changed. It is time to change the rules again.

Some defenders of the Electoral College would argue that this would effectively reduce the power of small states and rural communities. Candidates might end up spending most of their time campaigning for votes in and around the larger cities, and would spend most of their time in the largest states. But the current system doesn't actually benefit most small states. Voters in solidly blue states like Delaware and Hawaii, or solidly red states like Alaska and Wyoming are neglected, while large swing states like Florida and Ohio are showered with intention.

Besides, don't we want our candidates spending their time talking with the most people, and dealing directly with the issues that affect the most people's lives? For instance, isn't it time for an election where the candidates spend as much time talking about public transportation (taken by tens of millions of Americans every week) as they do about family farms (when there are less than one million professional farmers in this country)? When each vote counts equally politicians will be incentivized to talk about issues that are of importance to all Americans. As it stands, resources are inefficiently focused on helping the lucky few that live in swing states, instead of used in ways that will do the most good for the most people.

The Electoral College is a cancerous tumor on American democracy, as it slowly eats away at the basic notions of fairness and equality in our political system. It is well past time to cut it out, and the NPVIC offers a fairly quick and painless way to do so.

Danny Oppenheimer is an associate professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Mike Edwards is the founding contributor of Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media. Both are co-authors of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well.

 
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