The Electoral College is Bad For You

Ezra and Brian Buetler had a quick discussion about the Electoral College this week, and it reminded me how downright fascinated I am with the arguments around the system by which we elect a President. It’s the illogic of it mostly, there’s really no reason (other than the outcome of the 2000 election) for Republicans to support the Electoral College while Democrats want to change it, nor is there any particular rationale for similar opposition to opposing systems. In the past 10 national votes, Republicans have won the popular vote 6 times to 4 for the Democrats. So it’s not like the popular vote inately favors Democrats. For that matter, the electoral college mostly trails the popular vote, with 2000 representing the only time the two definitively split. In 1824, Jackson actually won a plurality of electoral votes before losing the Presidency in the House of Representatives, and, Hayes-Tilden Compromise notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that the Southerner Samuel Tilden lost South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. So in essence, our current understanding of the electoral college is based around a once in a quater millenia happening.

Ezra and Buetler are mostly framing their objections around the policy implications of the electoral college, and they don’t really leave much unsaid, so I want to take a second to remark on the electoral harm it does. Engage any talk radio listener about it, and the standard answer your likely to hear is that the electoral college protects the interests of small rural states (i.e. white Republicans) against larger, more urban, states (minoritieis and Democrats). But, in practice, this doesn’t really make any sense. Yes, smaller states get a disproportionate weight to their votes, but that doesn’t mean their interests are looked after. I mean, when’s the last time a Presidential nominee invested heavy resources in Wyoming or Utah? What the electoral college really benefits is swing states, because that’s where the winner will be decided. California and Texas are equally as irrelevant as Utah and Rhode Island, because the winner is generally known in advance. Size/denisty is a secondary concern to competitiveness.

Of course, once competitiveness is established, size does become a concern, and larger states benefit greatly. Iowa and Colorado may be solid swing states, but they’re nothing compared to Florida or Ohio. Presidential campaigns know that taking 3 states from the Ohio-Florida-Michigan-Pennsylvania quartet almost guarantees a win, so that’s where the election takes place. So, if you live in one of those 4 states, the electoral college is the greatest thing ever. If you live in any of the other 46 states, large or small, your interests are demonstratably harmed by the electoral college.