Politically Uncorrected: Electoral College Roulette

In this most contentious election year, one proposition looms not at all contentious: few disagree that America faces a host of imposing challenges–both foreign and domestic.

But while we clearly recognize the formidable nature of those challenges, we utterly fail to understand that it is our flawed presidential electoral system that prevents us from solving them.

Rather than serve as a solution, our electoral system has become part of the problem. It has become America’s great game of Electoral College roulette.
Roulette is a fitting metaphor for the insidious presidential election system that has evolved in America over the past several decades. Like its notorious namesake “Russian roulette,” American roulette is reckless, risky and potentially fatal.

That system has transformed presidential campaigns into a series of state contests aimed at a small minority of voters rather than a bona fide national campaign. Consequently, nearly all presidential campaigning takes place in a handful of states with the remaining states largely ignored. In 2008 for example, more than 60 percent of the TV advertising dollars and candidate visits were concentrated in just five states, a practice continuing this year.

These pernicious practices undermine our ability to have a serious and honest debate about national problems during an election. Then after an election is over, these same practices leave a new president governing a still divided deeply polarized nation.

Let’s be clear. Not all of this is new. Persistent problems with the Electoral College itself are almost as old as the Republic. Since parties emerged, some states always mattered more than others because of the size of their electoral votes. In addition sectional and ethnic voting too often precluded truly national campaigns. The Electoral College has never been a really “good system,” but until recently it has been a “good enough” system.

No longer!

In fact, since about 1970, we have witnessed a slow, steady, almost invisible polarization of the electorate—exacerbated by decades of politicized congressional redistricting.

This congressional redistricting, motivated mostly by both parties desire to accumulate “safe” seats, has produced a nation more divided along ideological and party lines that perhaps anytime in modern  history. The result is a highly partisan, bitterly divisive and deeply polarized electorate.

Today most states, big and small, are safe for one party or the other before the election even begins. Consequently–and this is the critical problem–the real election is a contest for the five to 10 percent of the electorate not irreversibly divided among partisan or ideological lines.

The violence to democracy is only too clear. But even more important, it prevents the election from becoming a serious national dialogue on the challenges that confront us. Instead, campaigns deteriorate into a series of local races that focus on parochial, even trivial matters of marginal importance to the nation itself.

Over the remaining days of the 2012 campaign, for example, residents of a half dozen or so “swing states” will see over and over again presidential campaign entourages crisscrossing their respective states while the vast proportion of the nation will nary see a campaign ad, let alone a candidate.

Worse still, the ads seen will address issues that matter not nationally–but mainly in states like Nevada, Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin.

One consequence is that the day after the election, we will awake to find that the election has decided little. Our politicians will continue to pursue the same dysfunctional policies in the same dysfunctional way. And we will again realize that the nation has not moved forward to address its great problems. It hasn’t because presidential elections no longer address those compelling issues faced by the nation as a whole, pandering instead to a relatively small number of voters in a half dozen key states.

The failure of our presidential electoral system is not all bad news. The good news is that it is our flawed electoral system and not us that is inhibiting solution of our urgent problems. We really can solve the vexing economic political and social challenges that confront us.

What we lack is not a way to do it but the will to do it. And we lack that will, in substantial part, because our electoral system is failing us.

What we do about that failure may be the single most important challenge we face today. The electoral system is fixable–but unless we do fix it, our other problems will only worsen—and until we do fix it we are going to have difficulty fixing much else.

13 Responses

  1. The idea that recounts will be likely and messy with National Popular Vote is distracting.

    The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush’s lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore’s nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger). Given the miniscule number of votes that are changed by a typical statewide recount (averaging only 274 votes); no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

    Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state-by-state winner-take-all methods.

    The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

    The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system so frequently creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

    We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

    The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

    Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less likely with larger pools of votes.

    The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884 elections.

    No recount would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 56 previous presidential elections if the outcome had been based on the nationwide count.

    The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. With both the current system and the National Popular Vote, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a “final determination” prior to the meeting of the Electoral College. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the states are expected to make their “final determination” six days before the Electoral College meets.

  2. ooo, make that “(2016 instead of 2012 if it was passed now, or 2020 if it was passed in, say, 2014)”

  3. However many states we need a recount in!

    I’m not discounting the logistical issues our elections face – our voting infrastructure is moribund where it’s not blatantly partisan – we’d face plenty of issues, all of them needing to be dealt with, none of them important enough to stand as a credible roadblock to enfranchising millions of voters in the presidential election.

    I think the best reason for the logistical difficulties of a national, accurate presidential election not outweighing the benefits of such a change is that mustering the political momentum behind creating a national election infrastructure is not going to exist until the need for it is created.
    Why would anyone spend the time, money, and political capital necessary to create a national electoral system when everything is currently on the statewide level?
    Change the system, and the groundwork will follow. Since any sensible implementation of instituting the popular election of the president would make the presidential election after the next one (2016 instead of 2012, or 2020 if it was passed in, say, 2018) the starting point for national popular elections, the government would have 4+ years to prepare the way.

  4. So direct popular vote — and the day-after margin is, say, 3?
    How many recounts in how many states?
    A runoff election in two weeks between the top two vote-getters is probably in order. But we need some mechanism for deciding a popular vote at less than the statistical probability of error.

  5. I think you may be reading too much into the reasons for changing our current method of electing Presidents
    . I don’t think that we should scrap the electoral college because it will civilize political debate or moderate the candidates we select. I don’t think it will. That’s not why I want to get rid of it.
    I want presidents to be elected by the popular vote because that would better reflect the will of the people. As things stand, most of this country’s voters do not have a decisive say in who our country’s president will be. The president is not elected by the country, he or she is elected by Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, and a few other states.
    Are you a Republican in Vermont? Sorry, you’ll have to move to New Hampshire if you want your vote to mean something in the presidential this year.
    Are you a Democrat in Arizona? Too bad. Better luck in 2016, when the Hispanic vote’s larger.
    That’s not what representative government should be. That Democrat in Arizona should be able to affect the election of the president, as should that Republican in Vermont and any other voter that’s currently disenfranchised under the Electoral College system.
    Linking this to campaign finance reform, fair redistricting or any other issue is a fallacy. They’re not related, because the reason for making the President popularly elected is not to elect moderates or help everyone get along, or reduce negative advertising, or anything so minor. It is to reverse voter suppression on a massive scale. It is to ensure that every voter in the country has a say in electing their country’s leader. Under the electoral college millions of voters have no effect on that national decision. Electing the President through a simple popular vote instead of through a byzantine and undemocratic shell game rights this wrong. That in itself is all the reason I need to support it.

  6. The point about redistricting is that the process of reapportionment has created Congressional Districts in which the primary election is “the” election, because one or the other of the two parties dominates that district. And because primary elections attract largely the hard core voters of each party, they have pushed the two parties farther apart. Yes we do reapportion districts because of population changes, but the consequence of reapportionment has historically been to create safe districts, particularly for the dominant parties in the legislature. The Congressional maps are less a reflection of communities of interest or compact regions, and much more clearly the result of trying to create safe districts. This pattern has been broken periodically because of demographic shifts that have occurred between reapportionment cycles. Hence the shift of seats from Democrat to Republican in the early 80’s in Southwestern Pennsylvania and the shift from Republican to Democrat in Southeastern Pennsylvania that some would argue continues still. Historically, but not always, this had meant that legislators tend to the extremes of their parties and the executive has to move to the middle. Not always the case, but true enough.

    There is a reason some of the same people responsible for drawing the Congressional maps wanted to apportion electoral votes based on the majorities in each Congressional district.

    This polarization has been further exacerbated by the collapse of the mainstream media and “common sources of news.” Today you don’t have to listen or read a news source that you don’t already agree with.

    I think there are two flaws in Mike and Terry’s argument. One is that the swing states by definition are ones where both parties are competitive. So one could make the argument that in fact they should decide the election, because, at least in theory, they would drive the debate to the center.

    The other flaw is that abandoning the electoral college and perhaps moving to a national popular vote will foster consensus, dialogue and perhaps compromise and problem solving. But as long as we continue to largely safe legislative districts where the primary is more important than the general election, it is likely that we will to continue to have stalemate and acrimony.

    Linking electoral college reform to fair reapportionment, campaign finance limits and measures to encourage rather than discourage voter participation–a full package of reforms–is what is needed.

  7. The essay’s main points are that the electoral college regionalizes what should be a national election, and disenfranchises voters in all but a dozen or so states. Which is a direct effect of the Electoral College.

    Redistricting is mentioned as a possible cause of this (I don’t think it is, redistricting reflects demographic shifts, it doesn’t cause them), but that’s presented as being tangential to the main point.

  8. This article seems more pointed at the polarization of our nation as caused by the redistricting process, NOT the electoral college. This is a shoddy essay about the negative nature of our political discourse that seems to randomly tie the problem to the electoral college.

  9. Sorry to belabor the point, Bill and John, but the Constitution is not the problem here, nor is even the Electoral College itself the problem: the problem is what states have chosen to do with the power the Constitution gives them to allocate their electors. All the Constitution prescribes is the number of electors each state has, it says no more about how or for whom they should be cast. It is because the states have chosen the present system that we effectively elect a President of the Swing States of America, rather than the United States. But the states could choose a different system – they could choose to award their electors to the winner of the National Popular Vote, and so make every vote, in Ohio and California, Florida and Texas, equal.


  10. They’re cheated because presidential contenders don’t need to worry about their interests. Because their votes in the Electoral College are almost certain to go to either the Republicans or the Democrats.

    Because the Electoral college awards 100% of a state’s electors to the candidate who secures a plurality of the state’s votes, states that are politically slanted one way or the other are “in the bag” for the party their population’s ideology corresponds with. Presidential candidates therefore do not need to worry about the interests of states whose population ideologically corresponds with their party. For this reason, Barack Obama does not need to care about California’s needs when crafting his message, nor does Mitt Romney need to worry about the interests of voters in Texas.

    I don’t know about you, but I find the fact that two of the country’s most populous states are politically unimportant to the people who aspire to run for the country’s highest office to be a rather telling indication of the Electoral College’s inability to represent the country’s interests. To be fair, the Electoral College was *meant* to be undemocratic – the real question is whether or not we as a country still feels that democracy is inherently dangerous. Given the trend towards greater democracy in our country’s history – changing the constitution to give minorities and women the vote and changing the constitution to allow for the direct election of U.S. Senators being two examples – it would seem that we would view a more democratic way of electing our Presidents to be a good thing.

    The author probably did not explicitly give an alternative because the alternative is as straightforward as it is obvious: direct election of the President.
    Take all the votes for the President from all 50 states, whichever candidate has a plurality of votes wins. In other words, what we already do, but don’t count as a binding result.

    As an aside, if we elected the President directly, no one state would be bombarded with negative ads. Because every state would matter. So they would be spread more or less evenly. If I was living in, say, North Dakota, I’d feel that a couple of negative ads were a small price to pay in order to have my vote for president matter.

  11. So the problem is our Constitution, the guiding document of our republic and the world’s longest-lasting constitution? Madonna and Young put forth the same liberal drivel that’s been preached for years: our Constitution is outdated, an ancient relic that needs to be dismantled piece-by-piece for the sake of modernity. They don’t like the Electoral College but offer NO alternative. They just whine.
    As scholars, they know in the good ole days it was bad form for presidential candidates to even publicly acknowledge they wanted to be president, let alone vigorously debate the issues.
    Modern campaigns with access to rapid travel and a 24/7 media complex, now more than ever talk to the entire electorate about their positions and policies. It is utterly bewildering for them to suggest there is not a national dialogue of important issues. What world are they living in?
    The presence of the 24/7 news media cycle and the plethora of internet websites, blogs and social media devoted not just to the candidates, but party platforms, ideologies and hot-button issues are overwhelming and pervasive.
    Read the headlines from national news organizations. They deal with each candidate’s message on the economy, foreign affairs, jobs, our national debt, government spending, etc. Not one of those is a local issue.
    Candidates focus ad spending to a few key states, but their daily messages are available to all via the media and address key national issues. And really, do you honestly feel the electorate in non-competitive states are cheated by not being exposed to shrill, distorted and negative ads from both camps?

  12. Kudos to Terry and Michael for this article, unfortunately when they write that “the electoral system is fixable” they forget to tell us how to do so! Some erroneously think reforming the electoral college requires a constitutional amendment, but in fact, there exists a vital and active movement to enact a National Popular Vote by interstate compact (http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/) which is already 50% of the way to success.

    The Constitution grants the states plenary power in choosing the method by which to allocate electors – the problem is not the Electoral College per se but the ‘unit rule’ enacted by 48 of the 50 states, which holds that all the electors of each state go to the plurality winner in that state. States only have to choose a different system of allocating their electors, namely, to award them to the winner of the national popular vote!

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