Elec­toral Col­lege is the worst of both worlds

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By E.J. Dionne Jr. E.J. Dionne’s email ad­dress is ej­dionne@wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

It’s im­por­tant for those who fa­vor the pop­u­lar elec­tion of our pres­i­dents to sep­a­rate their ar­gu­ments for di­rect democ­racy from the out­come of a par­tic­u­lar con­test.

My col­league Ge­orge F. Will’s re­cent col­umn in de­fense of the Elec­toral Col­lege of­fers an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity to make a case that has noth­ing to do with the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

After all, Will, ad­mirably and elo­quently, in­sisted that Trump was un­wor­thy of nom­i­na­tion or elec­tion. So our dis­agree­ment re­lates en­tirely to his in­sis­tence that we should stick with an ap­proach to choos­ing pres­i­dents that, twice in the last 16 years, over­rode the wishes of Amer­i­cans, as mea­sured by the pop­u­lar vote.

Will brushes aside these out­comes. “Two is 40 per­cent of five elec­tions, which scan­dal­izes only those who make a fetish of sim­ple­minded ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism.”

But when is a be­lief in ma­jori­tar­ian democ­racy a “fetish” or “sim­ple­minded,” and when is it just a be­lief in democ­racy? The cur­rent sys­tem makes a fetish of ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism (or, to coin an awk­ward but more ac­cu­rate word, plu­ral­i­tar­i­an­ism) at the state level, but it’s held mean­ing­less na­tion­ally. Who is fetishiz­ing what?

Part of the an­swer, of course, is that ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism or plu­ral­i­tar­i­an­ism are not fetishes at all. They are how we run just about ev­ery other elec­tion in our coun­try. If the peo­ple get to choose the state trea­surer or the county recorder of deeds by pop­u­lar vote, why should they be de­prived of a di­rect say in who will oc­cupy the coun­try’s most im­por­tant of­fice?

Ac­cord­ing to Will, Elec­toral Col­lege ma­jori­ties are very spe­cial be­cause they pro­mote a par­tic­u­larly vir­tu­ous way of at­tain­ing power. “They are built,” he writes, “by a two-party sys­tem that as­sem­bles them in ac­cor­dance with the Elec­toral Col­lege’s dis­tri­bu­tion in­cen­tive for ge­o­graph­i­cal breadth in a coali­tion of states.”

But “ge­o­graph­i­cal breadth” is a rel­a­tive term. The ex­ist­ing rules en­cour­age can­di­dates to cam­paign in 10 or 12 swing states and skip the rest. Where’s the breadth? The win­ner is picked not by the laws of elec­tions but by the serendip­ity of the casino. If you’re lucky to hit the right num­bers, nar­rowly, in a few states, you can over­ride your op­po­nent’s big mar­gins in other states.

True, Will notes hap­pily, the Elec­toral Col­lege gave the pres­i­dency to Abra­ham Lin­coln although Lin­coln won just 39.9 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote. But there was no “ge­o­graph­i­cal breadth” to Lin­coln’s vic­tory. He car­ried not a sin­gle state south of the Ma­son-Dixon Line. Will and I can both ret­ro­spec­tively cheer Lin­coln’s elec­tion, but an out­come we hap­pen to like doesn’t vin­di­cate the process.

And at least Lin­coln won a plu­ral­ity of the to­tal vote, beat­ing the No. 2 fin­isher, Stephen A. Dou­glas, by 10 per­cent­age points. Will notes that 1860 was among the 18 of 48 elec­tions since 1824 that pro­duced pres­i­dents who won less than 50 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote. Yet in all but five of those, the win­ner got the most votes. Nonethe­less, to be con­sis­tent with my lean­ings to­ward ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism, I’d fa­vor a pop­u­lar vote with an in­stant runoff in which vot­ers could rank their choices. The trans­fer of sec­ond­pref­er­ence bal­lots would even­tu­ally pro­duce a ma­jor­ity win­ner.

The way we do things now, Will says, “quar­an­tines elec­toral dis­putes” by con­fin­ing them to one or, at most, a few states. I sup­pose, but not many of us felt “quar­an­tined” in 2000 from the im­pact of Florida’s elec­toral may­hem.

A fa­vorite metaphor­i­cal de­fense of the Elec­toral Col­lege is that the win­ner of the World Se­ries is de­ter­mined by games won, not runs scored. But in the Elec­toral Col­lege, some games (and votes) count more than oth­ers. Cal­i­for­nia gets one elec­tor for ev­ery 713,637 peo­ple, Wy­oming one for ev­ery 195,167.

And con­sider a dif­fer­ent metaphor. I doubt that Will, a fine writer about base­ball, would want the na­tional pas­time to mimic ten­nis. Imag­ine bas­ing the win­ner of a game not on the num­ber of runs scored but the num­ber of in­nings won, and with some in­nings count­ing more than oth­ers.

But the ques­tion of how a demo­cratic re­pub­lic should work is not a game. Will says that the Elec­toral Col­lege has “evolved” since the 18th cen­tury. Well, yes, we now have the worst of both worlds: The Elec­toral Col­lege is no longer the de­lib­er­a­tive body en­vi­sioned by the founders, but it still thwarts the wishes of the ma­jor­ity. Will does not ex­plain why only “po­lit­i­cal hypochon­dri­acs” think that the win­ner of the most votes should pre­vail. In the ab­sence of one, we should com­plete our evo­lu­tion to­ward democ­racy and elect our pres­i­dents di­rectly.

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