10/23/2012 04:37 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

In Defense of the Electoral College System... and Some Responses

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This story first appeared on MinnPost, a nonprofit news site for and about Minnesota. You can read the whole series here.

I guess it's obvious that I have a pretty bad attitude about the Electoral College system. So I thought I'd better carve out an installment to discuss what defenders of the system tend to believe.

It would change campaign tactics

The biggest argument is that if we had a system in which the popular-vote winner became president, it would change the way people campaign for president. Specifically, the two parties would spend more energy and money trying to gin up support and turnout in places where they have a lot of support.

Instead of ignoring the three most populous states as they do now because they are never deemed to swing states, Democrats would devote resources to maximizing their votes in California (No. 1 in population) and New York (No. 3) and Republicans would do the same in Texas (No. 2). By the same token, within states, the campaigns would focus on metro areas where more votes are at stake and deemphasize rural areas.

Obviously, true, although easy to overstate. California has a population of 38 million, many millions of whom are not yellow dog Democrats. The Republicans would be fools not to try to maximize their vote there.

But to the degree that it's true, what's so bad about it and why should it be preferable to provide an incentive for the campaigns to focus on the odd happenstances that turn New Hampshire into a swing state and Vermont not?

This sometimes bleeds into an argument that the president needs to be elected by the whole country, not just a few big metro areas. But the Electoral College system makes it just as easy - even easier - for a candidate to win by carrying one region big and losing another. 

Prospect of a nightmarish recount

Having gone through the "dimpled-chad" nightmare of the Florida 2000 recount, I have more sympathy for this argument than any other on the list. If the nationwide popular vote resulted in a near-tie between the two tickets, both parties would have an incentive to seek recounts wherever they thought such a recount might gain them a few votes, including in states that weren't even close.

Reinforcing the Democratic Republican duopoly

Those who believe that having only two meaningful political parties is a positive, stabilizing feature of U.S. politics also sometimes argue that the Electoral College system reinforces the duopoly, since it is so hard for any additional party to compete for the presidency. Under normal scenarios, the most a third-party presidential candidate can realistically hope to do is carry a few states, deny the major party tickets an Electoral College majority and force the election into the House of Representatives, where a third party would seem to have little chance, since there are so few members of Congress from third parties.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in a previous installment, the Electoral College system gives small parties an outsized possibility of determining the outcome of a presidential election by siphoning off a couple of percentages from one of the major party tickets in a couple of close states. But why is this a good thing?

The World Series silliness

If you get into enough discussions of this question, you'll eventually start to hear some sports analogies. The World Series is not won by the team that scores the most runs over seven games, but the first team to win four games, even if the other team has scored more total runs.. A tennis match is not won by the player who gets the most points, but... OK you get it.

True again, although I can't imagine how this constitutes an argument on the merits of the Electoral College system. But I guess it means that football and basketball games should be decided by which team carries the most quarters instead of gets the most points.

A more charitable view of the World Series silliness is to suggest that the Electoral College system reinforces the basic structure of the national government as a federation of state governments by making states (and not each individual voter) the basic building block of the presidential election system.

The appearance of a strong mandate

Historically, and leaving aside a few problematic cases, the Electoral College tends to create the impression of a bigger mandate for the president-elect than does the popular vote. In 2008, just to use the most recent example, Barack Obama won a solid victory with 53 percent of the vote, but that translated into 68 percent of the electoral vote. I have heard it argued that this somehow makes the winner seem more legitimate or to have a stronger mandate as he enters office. The effect is even more exaggerated in three- or four-way races, which turn out to more common than you might think. Both of Bill Clinton's elections included a relatively strong showing by independent candidate Ross Perot, which in both cases prevented Clinton from even reching a majority of the popular vote. But both elections were Electoral College routs. In 1992, Clinton's 43 percent of the popular vote yield 69 percent of the electoral vote. In 1996, Clinton's 49 percent of the popular voted, translated into a 379-159 electoral vote margin over Bob Dole.

To call this distortion of the actual size of the margin an argument in favor of the Electoral College strikes me as a minor act of desperation by people who just can't bring themselves to face how weird this system is. The popular vote margin is, of course, very widely reported, even more than the electoral vote margin. It doesn't fool anyone, and if it did, why would fooling anyone be a point in favor of the system. 

Framer worship

This one suggests that whatever the Framers came up with is sacred. Seems odd especially in this case, where the system has never operated the way the Framers anticipated or intended.

One of the problems with a series like this, which suggests that many of the 21st century problems of American democracy have roots in the Constitution, is that some people view the Constitution as a sacred text that cannot be questioned.

I said in an earlier installment that I have great respect for the Framers' contribution, although I also said there were dark chapters that anyone contemplating the various constitutional compromises should acknowledge and, of course, the most famous of these was the Constitution's treatment of slavery. The original document protected slavery in many respects and even rewarded that detestable institution with special privileges. Although it had never occurred to me before the research for this series, that included special benefits for slave states under the Electoral College system.

It's pretty simple. As you probably know, in creating the House of Representatives, the original Constitution counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning seats in the U.S. House. This gave the slave states extra representation in the House. That's bad enough. But since the formula for allocating electoral votes is based on the number of House members a state has (plus two more representing the senators), it also meant that slave states were overrepresented in the Electoral College.

In this essay, the constitutional scholars Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram David Amar suggest that both at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 and when Congress adopted the 12th Amendment in 1803 that deference to the slave states played a key role in dooming direct national election of the president. They write:

"At the Philadelphia convention, the visionary Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed direct national election of the President. But in a key speech on July 19, the savvy Virginian James Madison suggested that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South: "The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes."

In other words, in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves (more than half a million in all) of course could not vote. But the electoral college -- a prototype of which Madison proposed in this same speech -- instead let each southern state count its slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount, in computing the southern states' share of the overall electoral college."

Yikes. Based on the "bonus" electoral votes it received for its slave population, Madison's Virginia had the great weight in the early Electoral Colleges and that may have been among the reasons that Virginians held the presidency for eight of the first nine presidential terms. When Virginia's Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams of Massachusetts for the president in 1800, the bonus votes of the slave states tipped the balance.

Perhaps the greater salience of the "Framer worship" argument is to remind us that the Framers not only gave us the Electoral College, but made a Constitution that is harder than any other constitution in the world to amend.

There is, however, a work-around that would -- without amending the Constitution -- guarantee the election to whichever ticket got the most popular votes. I'll summarize that idea in the next installment.