Thursday, October 25, 2012

The (whatever adjective you choose) Electoral College

Every now and then, anxiety about the Electoral College surfaces as a popular preoccupation - at least among those whose vocation (or avocation) is to be preoccupied about such things. Such anxiety is gaining traction again as we face the prospect of a very close election in which one of two terrible things could conceivably happen. 
First, the winner (with a majority of the electoral vote) might fail to win at least a plurality of the popular vote. This has happened before, and the Republic has survived. It happened in 2000, but was overshadowed (in popular attention) by the conflict over Florida's electoral votes and the Supreme Court's hijacking of a matter which the Constitution clearly leaves for Congress to adjudicate. Second, (and to my mind much scarier), the election could result in a 269-269 tie, leaving it for the newly elected House of Representatives to choose a President in January. Since the House would vote by states - each state having an equal vote - it is generally assumed that Romney would win in such a scenario. Meanwhile, the Senate (voting as individuals) would choose the Vice President. The likely result would then be Romney as President and Biden as VP - a cohabitation likely to be as unhappy as that of our second President and Vice President, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. While the second scenario remains unlikely, if it happened it would most certainly result in popular demands for fixing the way we elect our presidents.
The main popular argument against the electoral college is that it violates our modern obsession with one-person, one-vote. Of course, the electoral college comes from a time and a theory of political representation different from current political correctness. The question, then, is whether current political correctness ought to trump other and older ideas. There are many political institutions which reflect other times and older values, which would not be put in place today were we starting from scratch. But, of course, societies seldom start form scratch - and when they try to (e.g., the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution) the results are overwhelmingly frightening. The Burkean in me starts with a presumption in favor of existing constitutional arrangements and asks whether the supposed advantages of making a change outweigh the potential disadvantages. Sometimes, certainly, it is necessary to make a constitutional change. (The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution are good examples). But, to borrow Chesterton's famous phrase, if it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change.
The Electoral College has, among other things, helped institutionalize our two-party system, which on the whole has served us well. On the other hand, it has the unfortunate result that in any given state a vote cast for the losing candidate counts not at all. This translates further into diminished attention to those states by the candidates. The entire campaign focuses on the small number of so-called "swing states." Of course, not so long ago there used to be a lot more states in play - including such big states as New York and California. That there are now so few "swing states" is itself a consequence of the extreme polarization of our politics - and the growing geographical segregation of Democrats and Republicans.
There are serious institutional roadblocks to effective governance - e.g., the filibuster (which is not in the constitution and could be changed easily, were there any political will to do so). In the larger scheme of things, the electoral college ranks low on my list of obstacles to effective governance. On the other hand, the cultural polarization that effectively reduces the campaign to only a small number of states certainly should rank high on any such list.
While I am content to accept the constitutional legitimacy conferred on the winner by the electoral vote, I do, however, think that the right popular vote outcome contributes mightily to a president's political (as opposed to constitutional) legitimacy. In a close race like this one, even though one's vote may not constitutionally "count" in most states, still for the sake of popular vote legitimacy an important case can be made for voting anyway. and that is one reason why I will be voting in this election.

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