Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ask the Neo-Con, Part VIII

UPDATE: below

Reacting to Thursday's cartoon, the commenter who declines to share his name went off-topic:
[i]f you still believe in DEMOCRACY, we could have a direct election and do away with the Electoral College for starters. We can make a legal system that focuses on truth and justice, instead of winning. There are many positive things we can do to make life better and better for everyone. Let's do it.....quickly.
I'm surprised I've not explainind the neo-con view on the electoral college before:
  • It's the law: Selecting the President and VP via the electoral college isn't a whim--it's in the Constitution: Article II, Section I, clause 2 and Amendment 12 (plus various statutes). As a result--and Anony doesn't address this--killing the Electoral College would require approval by two thirds of the House and Senate and legislatures of three fourths of the states. These provisions have been in place since 1804, and the process hasn't changed significantly since 1887. So radical change by Constitutional Amendment would be, at best, take decades, and may not even pass, as even the National Archives recognized:
    To be ratified and become effective, a constitutional amendment must also be approved by the legislatures of 39 out of the 50 states. By design, the Electoral College system grants the states the power to elect the president of the United States. How likely is it that 39 states are going to vote to give up that power? Moreover, 12 states control 53 percent of the votes in the Electoral College, leaving only 38 states that might even consider ratification.
    Though agitation persists and bills to amend the Constitution are introduced at the start of each Congress, the last serious attempt at change died in the early 1970s. Which is as it should be--changing the Constitution should be slow and strenuous.

  • There were reasons: The Founders favored the Electoral College over direct election for a reason: "to discourage "regionalism" (meaning multiple, but only regional, parties)." In other words, the Constitution's framers were trying to forestall fights between a few "favorite sons," which might produce perpetual plurality presidencies, lacking a popular majority. See Martin Diamond, The Electoral College and the American Idea of Democracy (1977), at 4. This was Hamilton's point in Federalist No. 68, and Madison's in Federalist No. 39--that a President could best govern where his support was distributed throughout the nation. And this reason remains relevant, as Richard Dunham wrote in a November 2000 Business Week:
    If the Electoral College were abolished, candidates would have little incentive to visit less populated states. Nominees would concentrate on big cities and population states, mainly in the Northeast and California. "Their time would be better spent in places like Brooklyn," says Senator Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). As a result, the college "keeps us from having a regional Presidency," says Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.).
    For these reasons, Cato's John Samples concludes that "The filtering of the popular will through the Electoral College is an affirmation, rather than a betrayal, of the American republic."

  • Be careful what you wish for: The electoral college reflects the Constitution's underlying Federalist approach. It's also a compromise, just like the Framer's most famous compromise: representation in the Senate by state rather than by population as is the House. If the electoral college is undemocratic, so is the Senate. But neither Anony nor bloggers nor mainstream writers suggest re-configuring the latter. See Diamond, at 9-10 (should "we regard the discrepancy with horror in the one case and practically ignore it in the other?"). In sum, the electoral college was one of a number of compromises essential to securing the adoption of the Constitution. Leveling one single plank would likely require further and unpredictable trade-offs, with possible unintended consequences. That's too risky for our governance.

  • If it ain't broke: What, exactly, is wrong with the current system? Apart from a conclusionary reference to "democracy," Anony doesn't say. But America is a representative republic, not a pure democracy, so that alone isn't sufficient (as even libertarian Ron Paul concludes). There might be some urgency were the popular and electoral vote often at odds--but that happened only three times:
    1876: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, with 4,036,298 popular votes won 185 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote with 4,300,590 votes, but won only 184 electoral votes.

    1888: Republican Benjamin Harrison, with 5,439,853 popular votes won 233 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, won the popular vote with 5,540,309 votes, but won only 168 electoral votes.

    2000: Republican George Bush, with 50,456,062 popular votes won 271 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Al Gore, won the popular vote with 50,996,582, but won only 266 electoral votes.
    Three close cases, each resolved, isn't enough ammunition. Especially given the advantages of the current approach. In fact, Lawrence Reed says the electoral college enhances election stability, even when the outcome is contested:
    Even on the three previous occasions when a split decision between the popular and electoral votes occurred, the Electoral College was the mechanism for a decisive conclusion to an election and a certain transition to a final winner. If popular votes alone determined the outcome, a dozen presidential elections would have been close enough for the result to be contested without end, or at least without an end that most Americans could see as fair and honest. What dragged out the contest between Bush and Gore were the partisan lawsuits and the tortuous methods employed to recount votes or decipher voter "intent."

    Indeed, the closeness of the 2000 election in so many places--multiple states as well as the nation as a whole--suggests that we should thank our lucky stars the Framers gave us the system we have.

    It is precisely because of the Electoral College that the recounting of votes focused on one state instead of many. If the popular vote decided the winner, we would still be bogged down in questionable recounts in dozens, if not hundreds, of counties across the country. The potential for mistakes and abuse would have been enormously compounded, and the cloud over the eventual winner would have been all the more dark and ominous.
    Is that really the result Anony wants? Indeed, the current approach likely reduces the incentives and opportunity for fraud: in a direct election, parties that can run-up votes in a "controlled" jurisdiction might be tempted, whereas the electoral college "eliminates any reason to run up the vote" because the added ballot in a non-swing state is meaningless.
Conclusion: I doubt Anony's thought this through. As politics prof Gerard Fitzpatrick observed, "Before scrapping the Electoral College, we should reflect upon the nature of our democracy and the consequences that such "reform" would have on it." And we should remember, as I've said, perfection is impossible: "One can debate voting systems endlessly, but Ken Arrow won a Nobel demonstrating that every voting system is flawed." So, think carefully first.

The design Anony attacks is familiar, logical and tested. In assessing the scheme, Hamilton concluded in Federalist No. 68 that, "if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent." That's good enough for neo-cons like me.


On National Review's Bench Memos, Matthew Franck takes on Jonathan Soros's (son of George) Wall Street Journal piece advocating statutory elimination of the Electoral College.


OBloodyHell said...

I still suspect I want Heinlein's system.

Any law that 1/3rd of the populace really doesn't like probably should not be The Law.

Hell, the whole concept of Jury Nullification is to reject laws which have only a 12% disapproval rating.

lelia said...

Yeah, I can see all that. But all my emotions wish that just once my vote for president would mean something.
I live in Washington state.

Carl said...

Heck, Lielia, I'm one of no more than 10,000 Republicans in in the District of Columbia--my vote never counts.

Anonymous said...

We could do away with the electoral college and standardize the voting process across the nation to improve accuracy. Some people still believe in DEMOCRACY and want HONEST ELECTIONS. Let's do it. (Or do you think "the people" are too dumb and we need Supreme Court Justices to select our Presidents?)