As a defender of the electoral vote system for electing the President of the United States, I cannot resist tracking the polls every four years and placing little bets on the final victory total (270 or more out of 538).
The Virtues of the Way We Do It
Briefly, there are several virtues in using electoral votes, apportioned amongst the 50 states and the District of Columbia, to elect a president. In modern times--with one exception*--it has been the case that the electoral vote total exaggerates the margin of victory in the popular vote. Secondly, the system deflates the strength of minor parties while amplifying the margin of victory of the winner.
Except in Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis within each state. The Democratic and Republican parties have to capture pluralities of the popular votes cast in each state.
The electoral vote system has obviously encouraged a two-party system by almost always having narrowed the election to a race between the two major party candidates. A different system, i.e. awarding the Presidency to the popular vote winner nationwide, would encourage minor (or "maverick") parties or candidacies. There would be a greater possibility of sectional third parties; and the ever-present threat that dissident wings of the Republican and Democratic parties might bolt and run separately. More militant wings of the existing parties could proliferate. "Splinter" parties, that is, based on ethnicity, or economic region, or religion, or gender.
The electoral vote system is a practical way to extract from the popular will a non-sectional, countrywide choice for president--because of the necessity to campaign in all regions of the United States to put together a combination of 270, or more, electoral votes. The presidential race of 2008 is a perfect case in point.
The Issue of Federalism
More important than direct or plebiscitary democracy in choosing a president is the issue of federalism. Our presidential elections are, in part, federally democratic--and not nationally democratic. State lines channel and organize the popular will. The unit rule--winner-take-all--makes the states as electoral entities permanently important. Democracy itself is not at stake.
Because of the complexity of our pluralistic society we value local democratic responsiveness to geographically-based minorities. As Robert Dahl of Yale taught us, we have what amounts to a system of (numerical) minorities' rule in this country.
The Bottom Line
Thus, the decision we make every four years is about choosing which shifting portion of an overall democratic electorate will temporarily capture the White House. Term it national majoritarian, in counting electoral votes.
The bottom line is that the electoral vote system replaces numerical uncertainty (the outcome of the popular vote divided three or more ways) with an unambiguously transparent constitutional majority. That sustains the legitimacy of the electoral result.
* NOTE: The awarding in effect of Florida's electoral votes to George W. Bush in 2000 by the abnormal and extra-constitutional decision of the Supreme Court to interrupt the re-count of the popular vote for president by the state of Florida--even though Al Gore had won more popular votes nationwide and probably within Florida, as well--remains an awesome usurpation of power by the high Court that can rightly be characterized as a crime against the established order. NOTHING in the Constitution, laws, or precedents, had ever envisioned a role for the Court in resolving such a momentous "political question." Under the Constitution and laws of the United States, the election of a president, in the case of a disputed election, had been left entirely to Congress and to the states under our federal system of government. The case of Bush v. Gore will live in historical infamy.
For one more election cycle, I hereby stick my neck out and predict which states Barack Obama and John McCain will win on Nov. 4; and the separate totals in electoral votes they will amass in the contest for the presidency:
States for Obama
California (55); Colorado (9); Connecticut (7); Delaware (3); D.C. (3); Florida (27); Hawaii (4); Illinois (21); Iowa (7); Maine (4); Maryland (10); Massachusetts (12); Michigan (17); Minnesota (10); Nevada (5); New Hampshire (4); New Jersey (15); New Mexico (5); New York (31); North Carolina (15); Ohio (20); Oregon (7); Pennsylvania (21); Rhode Island (4); Vermont (3); Virginia (13); Washington (11); Wisconsin (10).
States for McCain
Alabama (9); Alaska (3); Arizona (10); Arkansas (6); Georgia (15); Idaho (4); Indiana (11); Kansas (6); Kentucky (8); Louisiana (9); Mississippi (6); Missouri (11); Montana (3); Nebraska (5); North Dakota (3); Oklahoma (7); South Carolina (8); South Dakota (3); Tennessee (11); Texas (34); Utah (5); West Virginia (5); Wyoming (3).