Three cheers for the electoral college. Make that four

30 Apr

The U.S. Senate and the Electoral College are constitutionally designed instruments to negate the pernicious effects of raw majoritarian politics and the rise of factions (in today’s situation, the capacity for growing urban centers to impose their will upon the rest of the country).

From Derek Muller:

The Electoral College has hardly been a popular, much less well-understood, element of the American political election system. Under sustained attack by critics since at least 1796, it has withstood numerous attempts to abolish it and replace it with a national popular vote for president and vice president. And among its defenders, the stoutest justifications tend toward the view that it is the least evil among competing alternatives, or a Burkean skepticism that any other form of electing the executive would yield an ideal result. (And perhaps I find myself relying upon these half-hearted defenses more often than not.)

But count Tara Ross among its most enthusiastic and knowledgeable defenders, one who views the Electoral College not as a necessary evil, but as a valuable and integral component of our federal republic. Ross published the first edition ofEnlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College in 2004, a time when critiques of the Electoral College sounded more like empty threats, academic musings, or the waning echoes of Democrats still stinging from Al Gore’s loss in 2000.

Things changed in 2007. Those academic musings took the form of an actual legislative proposal. It is unlike previous failed efforts, like the proposed constitutional amendment that nearly garnered the requisite two-thirds majority in Congress in 1970. Instead, it proposes a compact among the States.

The National Popular Vote, as it styles itself, takes advantage of the constitutional grant of authority to the state legislatures to appoint presidential electors. Most states pick electors the same way: the candidate who wins a plurality of the popular vote in the state wins all of that state’s electors.

What if, NPV asked, each state awarded its electors to the winner of not just its own popular vote, but of the national popular vote? Of course, there’s little incentive for a state to unilaterally enact such a law. Why, after all, would Massachusetts commit to award all of its electors to President Bush just because the national popular vote total in 2004 went his way? Or why would Arizona commit its electors to Barack Obama in 2008?

Curing a collective action dilemma, the NPV doesn’t require unilateral disarmament. Instead, it only goes into effect once 270 electoral votes’ worth of states enact it. That’s a majority of the Electoral College. And that means that the winner of the national popular vote would always receive a majority of the presidential electors.

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