The Right Coast

September 14, 2004
Does the Electoral College Make Sense? (Part II)
By Gail Heriot

On Saturday, I posted an item critiquing the arguments for the Electoral College made in an editorial entitled, “Electoral College Mischief: How to Make the 2000 Florida Brouhaha Look Like a Kerfuffle.” I continue to be unconvinced that the Electoral College is a good thing. I did, however, find's view on whether the Electoral College will in fact be abolished interesting and plausible.

“The effort to institute direct popular election of the President is also likely to go nowhere. That's because the Electoral College benefits two groups of states--sparsely populated ones, whose representation in the College is disproportionately high relative to their populations, and closely divided "swing" states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where both parties have a decent shot at winning.

“Based on 2000 Census data and election results, only 11 states are both populous and politically monolithic enough that their influence would grow with popular election of the President: California, Texas, New Yo rk, Illinois, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana and Maryland. Amending the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College would require the assent of 38 state legislatures, so at least 27 of them would have to vote against the interests of their own states.”

I’m not sure that I agree with the point precisely, but it sounds close to right. Large swing states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania would indeed be acting against interest to give up the huge advantage they get in securing promises of pork and other favors from candidates. But as to small states, the issue may be a bit more mixed–at least if short-run interests dominate the political calculations. My suspicion is that only small Republican states (e.g. Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming) would have clear reason to support the Electoral College. Small Democratic states (e.g. Vermont and Hawaii) may have their vote count disproportionately vis-a-vis larger states, but their advantage is cancelled out by the advantage gained by the more numerous small Republican states, so they might well be willing to give up their advantage. But if I’m right on that, then larger Republican states like Georgia, North Carolina and Georgia would likely see the retention of the Electoral College as in their interest. Either way, it’s hard to muster the 38 states necessary to amend the Constitution.

My hope, however, is that Republicans don’t convince themselves that the Electoral College is a good thing simply because it happens to give them a slight advantage given the current political landscape. As far as I can see, it isn’t. It’s just a historical oddity–nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to be enamored of either, particularly given its unattractive tendency to produce pork for swing states. The time may come one day when the right thing to do is let it go–perhaps in trade for something that is more important.