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Electoral Relic? Peculiar Institution?

Because of the way the last few presidential elections have turned out, calls for abolishing the Electoral College have once again become popular. Unfortunately in the discussion of the Electoral College I rarely, if ever, hear a proper defense of the institution or of its historical reasons for being. I assign blame for that to the current generation of anti-intellectual ideologues who claim to speak on behalf of ‘conservatism’ and who are indulged in that presumption by both the Republican party and by the press. On issue after issue, they have proven themselves inarticulate, shallow, and incapable either of historical perspective or of intellectual discourse. I wrote these letters to The Boston Globe in response to stories published during the last presidential campaign critical of the Electoral College as an attempt to provide that perspective and discourse. Neither was published.

25 April 2004

In your Sunday editorial Electoral Relic you lament the fact that the presidential campaign is focused almost entirely on the 18 “battleground states” whose electoral votes might realistically go to either candidate while the rest of the states, in which the electoral outcome is not in doubt, are being ignored. That this presents a problem for democracy is indisputable, but your resulting recommendation — to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a popularly-elected president — is neither the wisest nor even the most practical solution to the problem.

In terms of wisdom, there are legitimate reasons for the existence of the Electoral College. Our system of government is a federalism, a union of autonomous states which has ceded certain (and in theory limited) overarching powers concerning national interest to a federal government. The national legislature, and particularly the Senate, are structured specifically with that in mind, to recognize and protect the autonomy and political integrity of the individual states; the Electoral College provides the same function in the selection of the chief executive. As an adjunct to that function, the Electoral College (and the Senate) also provides some small but meaningful measure of protection for smaller (typically rural) states against the overwhelming population advantage of large urban states in popular elections. The delegate advantage relative to population afforded to the small states helps to protect their minority interest from a tyranny of the urban majority.

But, in a practical sense, you have ignored the fact that the states which are not “in play” in the presidential election — the states whose electoral votes are for all practical purposes already committed to one candidate or the other — have it within their power to bring themselves back into play without resorting to a national campaign to amend the constitution. All they need do is change their own rules — which are fully at the discretion of the various state legislatures — for committing electoral delegates from “winner-take-all” to proportional allocation.

Even states which are sure bets for one side or the other don’t typically provide electoral unanimity. A split of 55%-45% or 60%-40% or even 70%-30%, a guarantee of irrelevance to presidential campaigning under the current rules which award all electoral votes to the winner, would make a state worth engaging if delegates were allocated proportionally to the vote tally. A proportional allocation of delegates would also bring the tally in the Electoral College itself much closer to the result of the popular vote.

In our zeal to rationalize our presidential elections we don’t need to amend the constitution, to throw out the Electoral College with its mechanisms for protection of state interests. The states have it within their power to make themselves relevant to presidential politics. All they lack is the will.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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