Thursday, November 17, 2016

Does the Electoral College Strengthen or Hinder American Politics?

We experienced a rarity in American electoral politics: a presidential candidate won the electoral votes, but not the popular vote. We had this happen with four other presidential candidates: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush in 2000. After the election, I saw the topic of the Electoral College popping up. I saw views from it is wonderful to it being undemocratic to "let's hope electors override the popular vote in their state and vote for Hillary," the latter of which probably won't happen. Those against the Electoral College argue that the United States should simply have a popular vote. Senator Barbara Boxer is arguing that in her long-shot attempt to introduce legislation to end the Electoral College. I even get annoyed sometimes by the Electoral College because I live in such a blue state that my vote doesn't really count. However, that is not the system in which we live. We do not live in a direct democracy. We live in a representative republic, and part of that is the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is written in the Constitution: "Each State shall appoint in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress (Article II, 1)." This Article was later modified via the Twelfth Amendment.  Some portray the Electoral College as a way for slavery to have been preserved at the time. However, the more probable explanation is that of balance of power: balance between branches of government, balance between federal and state governments, and in this case, balance between big and small states. It is a system to make sure the vote is not only popular, but that the consensus is transregional, i.e., cannot win with isolated support. It can help mitigate regional tensions as a result. Think of the Electoral College in a similar way as you would the World Series. In order to win the World Series, you need to win more games (states), not runs (people). In a way, it's like having 51 micro-elections within one greater election.

Also, President John F. Kennedy said that if one were to upend the Electoral College, it would undo other aspects, mainly the Senate. Finally, if there was not an Electoral College, could you imagine the nightmare behind recounting votes and court challenges for 50 states? Plus, it helps avoid run-off elections in which there is no clear majority, much like Nixon in 1968 or Clinton in 1996. With this in mind, let us remember that the Constitution (Article V) requires that two-thirds of the House and Senate need to approve this modification. It's no wonder that there only have been 17 amendments added since the Bill of Rights was signed.

There are certain advantages to direct democracy, aside from the obvious appeal of giving everyone an equal say in the election. For one, the system is winner-take-all in all but Maine and Nebraska, which can be a problem because the minority in a certain state is not represented. The Electoral College gives more power to swing states, such as Ohio and Florida. It makes it more difficult for third-party candidates to get electoral votes. These reasons can very well help explain why the United States has such low voter turnout.

When talking about the Electoral College, Alexander Hamilton said, "It may not be perfect, but it is excellent." While there are pros and cons to each system (see here), I'm not so sure I agree with Hamilton. A part of me prefers a multi-party parliamentary system in which various parties can better represent peoples' views. Granted, it does run the risk of appeasing to fringe political parties in order to make coalition governments, like in Israel or the United Kingdom. The question of a bi-party versus multi-party system takes a slight tangent, which is why I come back to the question of "Can we reform the Electoral College?" Some ideas (see Congressional Research Service report here): If we have Congress vote for President, or even state assemblies vote for the President, it would feel more undemocratic, even though we, the people, vote for the representatives. The status quo can be replaced with the Congressional District method, in which the Electoral College voters select a candidate based on the popular vote in their district, as well as statewide votes. One could also have a proportional system in which the electoral votes allotted can be proportionate to the popular vote, which would cause some of the smaller states to lose some power. I hesitate to say that the Electoral College is a good system simply because it perpetuates a bi-party system. Given how this past election went, I am tempted to advocate for something to undo a two-party system, even if that is the Electoral College. As reluctant as I am to say this,  until some well-thought plan is proposed that is superior to the status quo, I begrudgingly support the Electoral College.

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