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  • Will the Left Stop Complaining About the Electoral College?

    Over the coming months, we will witness one of the most remarkable aspects of American political life — the peaceful transfer of political authority from one administration to another. Because this is commonplace in America, we tend to overlook the novelty of this phenomenon. However, Americans from our founding generation understood the significance of this fact.

    Many people have observed, approvingly, that the election of 1800 was the first time in human history that power shifted from one party to another without violence and bloodshed. One woman wrote at the time that “The changes in administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder.”

    Our Electoral College is critical to the peaceful transfer of authority following presidential elections. It helps to ensure that the outcome is widely viewed to be legitimate. One of the great causes of instability in a nation is when the leaders of the government are viewed as illegitimate. This was all too evident in the last eight years.

    President-elect Barack Obama’s victory in the Electoral College was rather wide. It has been construed by many as a decisive victory, and Obama is viewed by the overwhelming majority of Americans as the legitimate winner. Yet his margin of victory in the popular vote was 53%-46%. He won the votes of a narrow majority (roughly the same percentage of the vote, in fact, as Proposition 8 received in California). Viewed from this perspective, one might say that Obama takes office in a precarious position, rather than having received a mandate.

    The point is this: the Electoral College is essential to assuring the legitimacy of presidential elections. Rather than receiving support from a very slim majority, or merely a plurality, the winner of the Electoral College is typically viewed as the legitimate winner of the office. Bill Clinton won a mere 43% of the popular vote in 1992. Similarly, John F. Kennedy won less than a majority of the vote in 1960. Yet most Americans considered these presidents to be legitimate.

    For those who treasure America’s success in ensuring the peaceful transfer of political authority, based on the legitimacy of government by consent rather than force, this is no small consideration. Although it’s certain that the spurious attacks on the Electoral College will continue, let’s not overlook how helpful it has been in allowing us to avoid the disorder and violence that has plagued political transition in other nations.  Perhaps this is something even the left can appreciate.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    13 Responses to Will the Left Stop Complaining About the Electoral College?

    1. Tom Bolt, Nederland, says:

      More importantly, the Electoral College is critical as it supports the Republic we have rather than a democracy. This approach gives voice to every part of the country; both urban and rural, large and small states. If we were a democracy, the urban areas (largely left) would rule all national elections and decisions for the country.

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    4. susan, ca says:

      It is questionable whether anyone in Congress or elsewhere is more deferential to an incoming President on those occasions when the current system gives him a larger percentage margin in the Electoral College than his margin in the nationwide popular vote. However, if anyone thinks that an exaggerated margin is desirable, the National Popular vote plan would do an even better job of creating this illusion than the current system.

      Under the National Popular vote bill, the nationwide winning candidate would generally receive an exaggerated margin (roughly 75%) of the votes in the Electoral College in any given presidential election. The reason is that the National Popular Vote bill guarantees that the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC) will receive at least 270 electoral votes (51%) coming from the states belonging to the compact. This bloc is what enables the compact to guarantee the election of the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). Then, in addition to this bloc of 270 or more electoral votes, the nationwide winning candidate would generally receive some additional electoral votes from whichever non-compacting states he happened to carry. Because the non-compacting states would likely be divided approximately equally, the nationwide winning candidate would generally receive an exaggerated margin (roughly 75%) of the votes in the Electoral College.

    5. susan, ca says:

      National Popular Vote has nothing to do with whether the country has a "republican" form of government or is a "democracy."

      A "republican" form of government means that the voters do not make laws themselves but, instead, delegate the job to periodically elected officials (Congressmen, Senators, and the President). The United States has a "republican" form of government regardless of whether popular votes for presidential electors are tallied at the state-level (as is currently the case in 48 states) or at district-level (as is currently the case in Maine and Nebraska) or at 50-state-level (as under the National Popular Vote bill).

      If a "republican" form of government means that the presidential electors exercise independent judgment (like the College of Cardinals that elects the Pope), we have had a "democratic" method of electing presidential electors since 1796 (the first contested presidential election). Ever since 1796, presidential candidates have been nominated by a central authority (originally congressional caucuses, and now party conventions) and electors are reliable rubberstamps for the voters of the district or state that elected them.

    6. susan, ca says:

      There have been four “wrong winner” elections out of the nation’s 55 presidential elections. This is a failure rate of 1 in 14 (7%).

      Also, half of American presidential elections are landslides (i.e., greater than 10% margin). Any system will produce the correct winner in a landslide. Thus, among the non-landslide elections, the failure rate is actually 1 in 7.

      We are currently in an era of close presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and apparently 2008). We should therefore not be surprised to already have had one “wrong winner” election in this recent string of close elections.

      Moreover, a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in five of the last 12 presidential elections (and, of course, did elect the second-place candidate in 2000). In 1976, for example, Jimmy Carter led Gerald Ford by 1,682,970 votes nationwide; however, a shift of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio would have elected Ford. In 2004, President George W. Bush was ahead by about 3,500,000 popular votes nationwide on election night; however, the outcome of the election remained in doubt until Wednesday morning because it was not clear which candidate was going to win Ohio’s 20 electoral votes. In the end, Bush received 118,785 more popular votes than Kerry in Ohio, thus winning all of the state’s 20 electoral votes and ensuring his reelection. However, if 59,393 voters in Ohio had switched in 2004, Kerry would have ended up with 272 electoral votes (two more than the 270 required to be elected to the Presidency). This would have nullified Bush’s lead of 3,500,000 popular votes nationwide.

      Given the current political environment (with five consecutive non-landslide elections since 1988, and another one expected in 2008), the prediction of “the coming debacle in the Electoral College” made by the 1992 book Wrong Winner should be taken seriously.

    7. susan, ca says:

      The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided "battleground" states. In 2004 two-thirds of the visits and money were focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money went to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states (small, medium, large, urban, and rural) and people were merely spectators to the presidential election. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule enacted by 48 states, under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

    8. Jason, NY says:

      if we get rid of the electoral college, we might as well get rid of the senate, too.

    9. Trent, WA says:

      Susan, please explain your premise. How can someone who wins the Electoral College ever be the "wrong winner"? Why would always picking the absolute top vote getter be better than the Electoral College system? Do you have some quasi-religious view of democracy, is 50%+1 some kind of magic?

      The Electoral College produces a number of second-order effects that stabilize and moderate our entire political system. It tends to prevent regionalism and promote moderation. Using the national popular vote would make regionalism much more likely and would allow and possibly encourage candidates to be more extreme. I understand that both of these may be the actual goals of some NPV supporters, but I'd like to know why they're good for the country as a whole?

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    11. David says:

      Electoral College is responsible for transfer of authority following presidential elections and all the other political regulations and if the winnner from Electoral College is failed to prove themself to become a great leader for the country this is not the fault of electoral college

    12. josaph says:

      Electoral College responsible for transfer authority following presidential elections and other political issues,it does’t mean that Electoral college is responsible for wrong winner.

    13. josaph says:

      Electoral College is not responsible for wrong winners it doen’t mean that Electoral College transfer authority following presidential elections it doen’t mean that Electoral College is not responsible for wrong winners .

      Wide circles

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