Sunday, January 28, 2007

Circumventing the Electoral College

People like to bitch a lot about the Electoral College, and whether or not they do tends to hinge on whether or not that institutional arrangement benefits their preferred candidate. After the 2000 Presidential Election, Democrats railed against the thwarting of the national will. In 2004, John Kerry came reasonably close to winning the Presidency had Ohio swung the other way - he too would have won the Presidency while losing the popular vote. Had we enjoyed a Kerry/Edwards victory in 2004 you'd better believe Republicans would have protested en masse. It's no secret (or at least, it shouldn't be a secret) that our constitution was deliberately designed to mitigate the will of the majority. Madison and other Federalists feared factions - both minority and majority - would damage the institutionalization of the liberal values on which they hoped the United States would be founded. Majority-thwarting institutions were established to help maintain stability and individual rights; the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the Electoral College are undemocratic by design. I think there's a great deal of value in this line of thinking. Majority rule is not right by virtue of it's majority support. Just because 50 percent plus one of the population wants to strip racial minorities or their rights, or seize the property of the middle class does not make such actions right, normatively speaking. The Senate over-represents rural populations to ensure, in part, that states will large populations would not push through policies which might adversely affect numerical, rural, minorities. This makes a lot of sense, as our governing institutions emphasize consensus over the tyranny of the majority, and the emphasis on republican government (separation of powers, checks and balances, civic-minded citizens) works toward that end.

That said, I still think the electoral college is a damned ridiculous - and antiquated - body.

I would say that the Senate, Supreme Court, and our Federal arrangement mitigate the strength of numerical majorities well enough. The Electoral College was intended to give numerically smaller states a greater stake in Presidential elections, and to limit the strength of the mob. During the 19th century, state and local governments had much greater policy portfolios, and the Federal government was largely side-lined when it came to issues that affected local populations. You could say that there was a greater deal of (potential) local democracy during this time, as the lines between the local and federal spheres were pretty distinct, and accordingly, state governments were held more accountable for favorable and unfavorable policies. As the portfolio of the Federal government increased during the Second Industrial Revolution (late 19th, early 20th century) individuals found it much harder to affect change locally. Local policies were increasingly shaped by Federal laws, funding, and guidelines, while the disconnect between the individual and the Federal government remained. The popular elections of Senators changed this dynamic to some extent, but did nothing to increase the connection between voters and the Executive Branch.

During the late 20th century, people managed to develop alternatives to effect change in the executive branch. Participation in politically active civil-society and single-issue organizations gave citizens an effort to shape executive policies by way of lobbying. However, we all know the problems that can arise with this arrangement. Today, the will of individuals has very little effect on executive politics. By removing the barrier of the Electoral College, I think it would increase the 'level of democracy' (for lack of a better phrase) in our country; a level of democracy which is lacking.

I'm certainly not the first person to make these arguments. People seem to be generally opposed to electoral college (except when it benefits their particular cause at particular points in time) as it's overtly undemocratic. In fact, it seems fairly insulting. The Senate's majority-will-thwarting role in the legislature makes sense, I think, to people, as does that of the Supreme Court. However, the Electoral College essentially represents those elitist tendencies that many of the Federalists had toward the masses. These fears were probably legitimate at the time, but the demographics have changed quite a bit over the last two-and-a-half centuries. But there's not much that can be done short of a constitutional amendment to change the current situation...

... or is there?

Electoral arrangements are largely left up to the states to decide. The Constitution only requires that each state be given a number of electors equal to the number of Representatives and Senators that they have in Congress. It is up to the state legislatures to determine how these electors are to cast their ballots. Most states have a winner-take-all arrangement. In Washington State, we have 11 electors (9 Reps + 2 Senators), and they are determined by the party committee which wins the state. If the majority of Washingtonians vote Democrat (as has been the case since 1992), then the State Democratic Committee picks the electors. There's nothing in Washington State law which dictates that the electors have to vote a certain way, but you can bet that the parties pick the most loyal of loyalists to cast those votes. Some states have laws which require electors to vote in such a way as to reflect the will of the majority, while one or two states split their votes proportionately (Reps win 60 percent, they get 60 percent of electors). There has been a movement afoot to use state laws as a way to circumvent the electoral college.

The Associated Press reports* on some efforts to reshape the way electoral votes are allocated on the state level. Apparently, some state legislatures have voted to require that their respective electors cast ballots according to the will of the national majority. This would, of course, do away with the election night newscasts in which states are colored-coded according to whom their electoral votes are pledged when the polls closed. Those votes would only be allocated when the all the polls were closed, and the popular votes were tabulated. This would ensure that whoever wins the popular vote would also win the electoral, and would (hopefully) remove certain regional wedge issues from the national dialogue.

Of course, any institutional arrangement can be used to over-represent one group or another, and if these changes were adopted nation wide, some states would find themselves as the new foci of political activity, while other states would fall from prominence. This doesn't really change anything. However, it would make the election of our President more democratic, which is, I think, a good thing given the other, undemocratic arrangements that we have which limit the strength of majority factions.

Check out the link and let me know what you all think.

*I was unable to find a direct link to the AP, so here's a link to the story by an AP reporter via the Seattle Times