Tomorrow, the battle for the presidency reaches its dramatic conclusion. And while a split between the popular and electoral vote is highly unlikely, the crusade to change the system will drag on. Those who argue most vociferously for scrapping the Electoral College — let’s call them scrappers — claim the current approach is rooted in outdated values. They insist that relying on the national popular vote would be simpler, more modern, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, those are the same arguments that gave us the leisure suit.
The Electoral College was intended, first and foremost, to retain a pre-eminent role for states in choosing their president. The framers believed that states mattered, empowering them with equal status in the Senate regardless of population. They didn’t oppose popular will outright; members of Congress and state “electors” have been chosen by direct vote for over 200 years. Yet they sought a system that would discount lopsided statewide votes and regional candidates — which the Electoral College very much did in 1888. That year, Grover Cleveland lost the presidency despite a popular vote margin that came from landslide victories across the post-Civil War South.
The scrappers’ desire to eliminate the role of states is an extension of the belief that pretty much everything should be decided by the federal government — down to school lunch menus and restrictions on bullying. But a national popular vote would only encourage candidates to focus on the largest population centers. Dallas, Chicago, and San Diego would see intense activity. The 24 states with populations less than 4 million? Not so much.
The residents of those big cities often complain that they are ignored. They’re wrong. Today, candidates campaign on broad national themes; they have to. The realities of today’s digital media make it difficult, and risky, for a candidate to send different messages to different parts of the country.
Scrappers complain that only eight or 10 states are “in play” during the campaign’s final days. But in closely divided states like Ohio, Wisconsin, or New Hampshire, candidates have to speak to swing voters occupying the middle ground. The effect is one of moderation — for both sides. That’s not to suggest that candidates never try to rally their base; but history shows that winning independent voters is the key to the White House. The Electoral College system helps make it so.
The scrappers’ argument appears oblivious to the fact that the “key” states change over time. Within the past few decades, California and New Jersey have moved from Republican strongholds to Democratic layups. Missouri and Virginia moved from reliably Democratic to reliably Republican and now are swing states. The assumption that today’s electoral battlegrounds will be unchanged 20 years from now ignores history.
The Electoral College also acts as a natural check on fraudulent behavior, and it allows resources used to combat fraud — or voter suppression — to be deployed where they are valued most. Think of it this way: In a national system, a single highly corrupt precinct within a highly partisan state can do a lot of damage. (And therefore the incentive to engage in such behavior is also greater.) By contrast, the strong two-party system in swing states acts as a natural check on bad behavior.
The 2000 election is the scrapper’s last refuge — what a spectacle! To be sure, the election systems used by Florida in 2000 were a disgrace. But imagine the nightmare of having to recount every vote in the entire country. That would have been a likely scenario in 1960, 1968, and 2000, when the popular vote margins were less than 1 percent. The Electoral College system isn’t designed to stand in for the popular vote. It is meant to be a better system. And it is.
Recognizing the difficulty of changing the Constitution — getting three-quarters of the Senate to support an amendment that punishes small states is one tall order — the scrappers have an alternate plan of attack. Call it “serial unilateral disarmament.” The scheme is to get individual states to enact binding legislation that pledges their electors to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. It would take effect if it’s passed by states making up a majority of the electoral vote. So far, only eight states, including Massachusetts, have signed on.
Think about that for a moment: The country votes, and the state effectively declares: “We’re with the winner.” In Massachusetts’ case, it boils down to this: “Let the other 98 percent of America decide who should receive our electoral votes. We can’t be bothered.”
With that kind of lazy thinking, the leisure suit just might be due for a comeback — at least on Beacon Hill.