The Right Coast

September 11, 2004
Does the Electoral College Make Sense?
By Gail Heriot

In a Wednesday editorial entitled "Electoral College Mischief: How to Make the 2000 Florida Brouhaha Look Like a Kerfuffle", argued, among other things, that the Electoral College is a protection aganst voter fraud:

"Direct popular election would ... vastly increase the risk of corruption and electoral disputes. With every vote competing directly against every other vote, dishonest politicians everywhere would have an incentive to engage in fraud on behalf of their parties. And a close race would make the Florida brouhaha look like a kerfuffle."

I'm unconvinced. It seems to me that what the Electoral College does is increase the incentive to cheat in the so-called battleground states, since one can win the whole state by manufacturing just a few votes, while decreasing the incentive to cheat in the states that either party has a lock on, since it would take a huge number of manufactured votes to swing the state to the other party. The more votes that have to be manufactured, the more likely the fraud will be uncovered. By abolishing the Electoral College, we would decrease the massive incentive to cheat that currently exists in the battleground states while increasing the incentive in the locked-up states. The incentive would be uniform across the country but greatly reduced from what it was in Florida in 2000, where it appeared that the entire election could turn on the votes of Bob, Susie and Ethel. It's unclear which system is better; it may depend upon the circumstances of the particular election.

The voter fraud argument is another is a long line of arguments I've heard from conservatives since the Electoral College came under scrutiny following the 2000 election. So far, none has convinced me that the system is worth retaining, although I'm still open to new arguments. I am not saying this as someone whose knee always jerks in favor of direct elections. For example, I believe that something was lost when the Seventeenth Amendment replaced the system under which United States Senators were appointed by the states with a system under which they are elected by popular vote. Up to that point, in 1913, Senators acted as the guardians of state interests in matters of federalism. After that, federal power exploded. I don't think for a second that there's any going back at this point, but it's worth understanding that the consequences have not been entirely positive.

I am not certain, however, that the Electoral College serves any such good purpose, especially as practiced today with electors more or less being required to cast their ballots for the candidate who received the most popular votes in their state. In theory, it's a system that favors small states, since each state gets votes equal to the number of its congresional districts plus two. That's probably why Republicans tend to favor it now. There are more small safe states for Republican Presidential candidates (e.g., Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming) than there are small states safe for Democratic Presidential candidates (e.g., Hawaii, Vermont). Among the disfavored large states, two are considered safe for Democrats (California, New York), while one is safe for Repubicans (Texas). Other large states are battlegrounds (Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio). It's easy to see why Republicans would regard the Electoral College as an asset to the party--at least under current political circumstances.

But that doesn't make it an asset to the nation. Rather than forcing Presidential candidates to pay more attention to small states, in practice it causes them to focus 98% of their attention on large battleground states. The Electoral College has become a pork-producing machine for those states. When George W. Bush realized he would need Pennsylvania to win re-election, what did he do? He threw them steel tariffs--great for Pennsylvania steelworkers, terrible for the nation. What about Florida? Bush realized that he needed more votes from the Florida geriatric set, so he threw then the new Medicare expansion in a conscious effort to win them over--again great for Florida retirees, terrible for the nation.

I found the editorial more persuasive on the issue of whether a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College is likely to pass. More on that later.