Monday, March 25, 2019

Again, the Electoral College

At least one presidential candidate has now added her voice to the chorus of those calling (increasingly loudly) for the abolition of the Electoral College. This is not a new issue, inasmuch as the Electoral College long ago ceased to work as intended and has become increasingly awkward to defend. In the past, I have argued, here and elsewhere, for the retention of the Electoral College; but my commitment to that view has been eroding somewhat. In a Burkean kind of way, I tend to be wary of altering archaic institutions, even if - especially even if - they no longer work the way they were intended to work, but do in fact work in a way we have all become predictably used to. 

On the other hand, two of our three 21st-century presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, have been elected by winning electoral majorities while losing the popular vote. This is not a desirable outcome in a society which requires some significant element of democratic legitimacy. Winning an electoral college majority while losing the popular vote is an outcome which we successfully avoided between the elections of 1888 and 2000 but which, having happened in 2000, happened again in 2016 and may be more likely to happen again in the future given the closeness of contemporary elections and the apparent disinclination of contemporary candidates to broaden their support  beyond their narrow base. So, if there are authentic advantages to the electoral college which remain real, its disadvantages certainly seem to have increased.

On the other hand, every change has its unintended consequences, an argument at minimum for very careful consideration of as many ramifications as possible. Moreover, there are at least two well known "unintended consequences," which can clearly be anticipated, and about which we should be seriously concerned.

The first concerns the closeness of recent elections and the many possibilities - in our chaotic and decentralized electoral system - for legal challenges. Whatever its flaws, the electoral college does give us a way to settle the election definitively. At some point (usually in early January), Congress must count the electoral votes and declare a winner. However flawed that process, it seems better than a multitude of court challenges which may go on indefinitely.  In the 2000 case - calamitously - Congress failed to fulfill its constitutional role and instead let the Supreme Court decide the election - in effect permitting the Court's Republican majority to appoint their candidate as president. In a closely divided country, a purely popular vote system could easily produce contested elections on a regular basis. Do we really want any future contested presidential election ever again to be decided by the Supreme Court - an overtly partisan body that is unelected and unaccountable? 

To address this problem, any constitutional amendment abolishing the electoral college would have to make effective provision for nationally (not state) administered elections and for adequate mechanisms to resolve challenges in a way which gives the result real legitimacy. Otherwise we will be much worse off than we are now when it comes to democratic legitimacy.

The second consequence we should be concerned about is the effect upon the two-party monopoly. While 3rd-parties and independent candidates have done plenty of mischief (e.g., in 2000 and 2016), the electoral college usually functions as a practical barrier limiting the power of 3rd parties and independent candidates, which in turn maintains our two-party system. Of course,there is nothing morally or politically superior about a two-party system. Indeed, I have always believed a European-style multi-party parliamentary system would be better. However, just like single-member districts on the local level, the single-member presidency pushes us in a two-party direction. In a European-style multi-party parliamentary system, governing coalitions can be formed after the election. In the U.S. that clearly cannot happen. Historically this has led to coalitions being formed before the election in the form of two parties which have themselves incorporated diverse interests. At minimum, the possibility which direct popular election offers of more than two seriously competitive candidates increases the likelihood of no one candidate winning a majority. That would likely require either a second-round vote or some sort of ranked choice voting system. These are not bad options. Indeed, the latter especially might be a very good option. My point is only that these problems need to be considered before any constitutional change is made, and the mechanism for resolving them needs to be incorporated into the change.

Abolishing the electoral college in favor of a system where every vote counts wherever cast would clearly have other effects as well in terms of how campaigns are conducted, etc. Every 20th-century reform to "democratize" our electoral process has weakened our political parties and increased the power of what would otherwise have been extreme ideological fringes at the expense of the center. Anyone proposing to abolish the electoral college should also be aware of and have thought about all these effects and their long-term political impact.

Amending the constitution can be done, but it is cumbersome and time-consuming and only works when there is a real consensus. We are nowhere near there as yet, for all the noise the subject has generated. Even so, if this is to be debated seriously (which would be a good thing), then the many side-effects and how to address them also need to be part of that debate. Otherwise we shall either end up with no change at all or with a change we are not adequately prepared happily to adapt to.

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