Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Every Vote Count in Presidential Elections

      As hard to believe as it may seem, the Framers of the Constitution took great pride in the method they devised for electing the president of the United States. Writing in Federalist No. 68, Alexander Hamilton went so far as to say that “if it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”
      Today, Americans are less than enamored of what has come to be called the Electoral College — a term that actually does not appear in the Constitution. Gallup polls dating back to the 1940s have consistently found majority support for direct popular election of the president. The most recent survey, in October 2011, found 62 percent of those responding in favor of direct popular election. Changing the system had majority support from Republicans (53 percent) for the first time since 2000 as well as stronger support from independents (61 percent) and Democrats (75 percent).
      Despite public sentiment, the Electoral College has proven stubbornly resistant to change. A constitutional amendment for direct popular election came tantalizingly close in Congress in 1970. But it failed in the Senate when small-state senators, Republicans and Democrats, filibustered it to death.
      Since then, there has been nothing by way of serious effort to change. But perhaps the 2012 campaign can give new life to the issue by demonstrating to Americans in a majority of states that Electoral College math makes them largely irrelevant in a presidential contest. Instead, the candidates focus their attention on a handful of “battleground” states — think Ohio — whose issues assume disproportionate importance in determining the outcome.
      The flaws of the Electoral College system could have been recognized from the start. Hamilton saw two main virtues in the system, but neither actually materialized. Hamilton reasoned that the electors would be “men [sic] most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation. . . .” In addition, the electors, barred from holding any other position in the national government, would be immune from “cabal, intrigue, or corruption.”
      The electors never deliberated as such. The Constitution prevented deliberation by requiring the electors to meet in their respective state capitals: thus, there never has been an Electoral College as such. Today, the electors are mere placeholders in a system that is in large part popular election. Presidential electors typically are not even listed on the ballot and cast their votes as pledged for their party’s candidate except for the very occasional “faithless” elector.
      The emergence of political parties rendered the Framers’ fear of intrigue by foreign powers irrelevant. Instead, it set the stage for the emergence over time of a political system susceptible to corruption of other kinds: the “spoils system” of Jacksonian politics and the dominant role of financial interests in paying for campaigns since the late 19th century.
      The emergence of political parties also quickly demonstrated the absurdity of the Framers’ idea of choosing the runner-up as vice president. The first contested election, in 1796, produced a Federalist president, John Adams, and his Anti-Federalist foe Thomas Jefferson as vice president. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, tied the two offices together. But the amendment left unchanged another original flaw: the decision to throw the election into the House of Representatives if no candidate received a majority of electoral votes.
      That system worked badly in 1800, the only time it has been used. If it were to be used today — say, in the mathematically possible result of a 269-269 electoral vote tie — the one-vote per state rule would give outsized influence to sparsely populated states that happen to be predominantly Republican. But the selection of a vice president would fall to the Senate, which happens to have a Democratic majority today. Thus, political reporters have conjured up the possibility of a President Romney and Vice President Biden — or, in the event of a deadlock in the House, President Biden!
      Apart from this unlikely scenario, the Electoral College seems inconsistent with modern democratic theory simply because it does not guarantee victory to the popular vote winner. Indeed, four men were elected president after losing the popular vote: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000). Tellingly, Adams, Hayes, and Harrison are not regarded as successful presidents; and Bush’s legacy seems likely to be clouded at best.
      Supporters of the Electoral College have a new answer to this issue. They argue that counting electoral votes by states “compartmentalizes” the risk of popular vote-counting fraud or mistakes. A few hundred or even thousand votes wrong here and there typically has no effect on a statewide outcome, they reason. But if every vote counts, bad vote-counting would matter everywhere. In effect, a Florida-style recount, with disputes over butterfly ballots and hanging chads, could be played out all across the country, and the final result lastingly subject to mathematical doubt.
      The notion that the United States cannot count votes accurately sells the country’s electoral system quite short. But, if true, it only underlines the need to reform the voting system, a need underscored by the wrenching debates over voter ID laws in the past few years. In that sense, replacing the Electoral College with direct popular election of the president could serve a valuable purpose by forcing the adoption of national standards to make more real the fundamental democratic premise of one person, one vote — and every vote counts.

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