This month, five states announced that they are considering joining Maine and Nebraska in apportioning electoral votes in presidential elections by congressional district, rather than by the current winner-takes-all setup. If these changes had been made prior to November’s election, President Obama would have won by a margin of only 30 electoral votes rather than his actual 126. If all 50 states went by this “proportional” method, Mitt Romney would be our current president, having won the 2012 election 277 to 261. This doesn’t mean Romney had majority support behind him—he only managed an appropriate 47 percent of the popular vote. His hypothetical victory is a result of weirdly shaped gerrymandered districts synthesized by Republican legislatures to always go red. Only a handful of people seriously want to extend the horrors of gerrymandering to presidential elections (though this handful includes Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus) but this does raise the question: What national election process could best replace the Electoral College? This in turn raises a more apposite question: Why are we trying to get rid of the Electoral College in the first place?
America’s unique method of electing a president has had its share of opponents throughout the years, and it’s time we gave it a break. An overwhelming majority of criticisms of the system are invalid, and the ones that are valid are, well, not too terrible. Perhaps most importantly, a switch is politically infeasible, as the necessary constitutional amendment would undoubtedly be blocked by the smaller states. We should only be talking about reform if we find some incontrovertibly superior option, and the most popular alternative—the aptly named popular vote—has even more problems. All things considered, the Electoral College is okay.
A favorite complaint of reform proponents argues that the Electoral College doesn’t care who the most popular candidate is and elects a president that might not reflect the will of a plurality of U.S. citizens. This is admittedly true, in the same way that Congress can enact a law without popular support and the President can appoint a Cabinet member opposed by a majority of Americans. The Constitution outlines a representative democracy, so it’s not a failing of our elections if we don’t follow the rules of direct democracy—it’s a clear sign we’re doing something right.
Some of the College’s more inventive opponents like concocting outlandish hypotheticals to stress the irrelevance of public opinion in the system today. Yes, it’s possible for a candidate to become president with about 22 percent of the popular vote (by winning a collection of small states by one vote each and losing the rest unanimously). Yes, it’s possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election 535 to 3 (by winning Wyoming by 51 votes and losing every other state and D.C. by one vote). It’s also possible, and far more statistically likely, for a candidate to be fatally struck by a bale of cocaine falling from a drug-smuggling plane. So let’s stick to our empirical examples: In 53 out of 57 elections the Electoral College has elected the plurality’s favorite.
Another common criticism bemoans the focus on the select few swing states with the statistical potential to decide the election. But this doesn’t acknowledge that the focus on swing states is a good thing. No specific state is favored by this approach: Preference is only given to states with the greatest political diversity at the time of the election. This tempers the political dialogue between the two parties, forcing them to appeal to the center rather than play up fringe interests that would only get them more votes in already solid states. Under a popular vote scenario, candidates would have to cater toward big cities—not exactly bastions of centrism—and systematically disenfranchise suburban and rural voters.
A final notable objection to the Electoral College is that it marginalizes third-party candidates, who have very little hope of carrying even a single state, let alone winning the presidency. While this is true, people seem to think this means any position not currently taken by either party has no chance of ever becoming national policy. All it really means is that a stance has to be adopted by one of the two major parties to become an issue in an election, essentially needing the support of over a quarter of Americans (a crass estimate, for sure) to be seriously considered on a national stage. Under the popular vote, third-party candidates supporting fringe positions rejected by both parties would distract from the issues with more widespread appeal. Imagine a segregationist candidate running in a 21st century election, thus granting airtime and legitimacy to a now generally rejected position. This could be devastating to the political process. So can we drop this popular vote reform business and get angry about things that matter?
Milo B. Beckman ’15 is an applied mathematics concentrator in Eliot House.
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