Speaking up for the Electoral College is a bit like defending the English system of measurements. Like inches and gallons, electoral votes are supposedly one of those boneheaded legacies of days passed that can't be justified, or fixed. Every four years, there are calls to scrap the whole thing, a phenomenon that understandably peaked eight years ago. In a few days, God forbid, we could hear these cries all over again. But as I sit at my computer, changing states from red to pink to azure to blue to azure to pink to red, I beg to differ. The Electoral College is something from which the United States should never graduate. It's far too much fun.
Imagine life these days without it. Obama leads McCain in the popular vote in virtually every poll. (Or, as NPR put it yesterday with characteristic boldness, Obama leads in 'most' polls. Could it cite a few in which he doesn't?) Were it to disappear, we'd be stuck on election night watching one number, and one number only: the popular vote total. Given time zones and the current point spread, Obama would presumably jump to an early lead, and, at least by percentages, the margin would probably deviate little throughout the evening. And with the West Coast solidly blue, the end would be anticlimactic.
But with the Electoral College, we get to savor the wonderful quest for 270, and the infinite number of combinations producing it. Can Obama win without Florida and Ohio? What happens if McCain can pick off Pennsylvania? Could it come down to Montana, or one of those crazy states that apportion votes by Congressional district? It's all so beautiful to watch: we'll get those mural-sized maps of the United States, usually perched at some dramatic angle, and, as the Aaron Copeland-like music plays in the background, watch them gradually fill up with color. We'll see Chuck Todd and John King playing with their colored blocks. And, as it all unfolds, we'll get to ponder the marvelous vagaries of American geography and politics. Why should Vermont and New Hampshire ever differ from one another? What cultural or ethnic or historic quirks separate North and South Carolina and Dakota? Where does the Confederacy end these days? Why might Virginia, rebellious in 1860, now go blue, while West Virginia, which broke off because of Unionist sentiments, end up red? None of this would matter if the popular vote were paramount. The Electoral College helps celebrate our dwindling regional differences. We're all becoming too much alike: now that Tom Lantos and Howell Heflin are gone, Arnold Schwarzenegger is just about the only American politician left with an accent. The Electoral College is one of the last bulwarks against complete cultural and political homogeneity.
Thanks to it, moreover, millions of us have gotten to play with our own electoral maps these past few months. I don't know about you, but I love the shape of the United States. And now, I have an excuse to savor it several times a day. There's something so accidental and irrational about it: all those tiny states, too small even to accommodate their initials, in the East; how they swell up as you head west; how Florida sticks out like a hitchhiker's thumb; how enormous and wacky Texas looks; how New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona (quick: can you tell them apart?) all come together geographically, but maybe -- this time -- not chromatically. Without the Electoral College, it would all be one undifferentiated mass, like one of those boring topological maps that show only mountain ranges or North America in the Ice Age. (I love the states, period. Am I the only person who chokes up -- "Mr. Chairman, the great state of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, home of the next Secretary of State..." - during rolls calls?)
I know, the Electoral College means that every race boils down to a few toss-up states, the ones that are either left blank or sport an ominous shade of gray on realclearpolitics.com or fivethirtyeight.com. But what's wrong with that? It's great fun to see how the candidates apportion their time, and money, and ad buys, especially in the closing days, and how often they bump into one another. I don't mind Missouri and Ohio getting all that attention; they're generally disparaged or flown over, and deserve all the courting. And it's not as if New York and California and Texas are ignored: the candidates still have to come to them to beg. Besides, what would the alternative be? Without electoral votes, aspirants wouldn't have to be anywhere. They could conduct their campaigns by remote control, the way the Iraq War is run from Florida. Only television would matter: entire campaigns would consist entirely of ghastly Obama-like infomercials. But with certain states so crucial, candidates can't just mail it in. They actually have to show up.
Sure, the Electoral College creates problems every once in a while -- like once a century. But to me, this is a bum rap. I've studied Tilden and Hayes but can never seem to remember what actually happened there. But beyond that, the electoral vote has neatly matched the popular will. That even includes the year 2000, when by any stretch of the imagination, more Floridians voted -- or wanted to vote -- for Al Gore than for George Bush. Blame Katherine Harris, or Theresa LePore, or Roger Stone, or Sandra Day O'Connor for the calamity that followed, not Madison and Jefferson. The odds of all that ever happening again are infinitesimal -- hardly enough to kill off America's other, far more harmless peculiar institution, the one that makes presidential races sing.