Destination 270

SMU Students Analyze the 2012 Presidential Election

Possible Split Between the Electoral College Winner and Popular Winner: Can the Electoral College Actually Be Changed?

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In 2000, when Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore won roughly 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush, but at the same time lost the electoral college and the entire election, Democrats nationwide were infuriated, calling for an immediate end to the electoral college.  In the past decade, several prominent democrats including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), and even Barack Obama have supported eliminating the Electoral College.  On the other hand, prominent Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Mitch McConnell have come out in opposition of the eliminating the Electoral College.

Today, however, it seems as though the tides have turned.  With the most recent national polls indicating a looming possibility that Mitt Romney will win today’s popular vote yet fail to secure the presidency with 270 electoral votes, many Republican’s are now questioning the legitimacy of the electoral college as Democrats sit by silently.

Interesting how that works….

Despite the fluctuating partisan temperament it can bring about during election years, people on both sides of the aisle have expressed a bit of uncertainty regarding the merits of the Electoral College.  With the majority of states more or less stuck in their ways as far as overall partisanship goes, candidates—and subsequently the nation—are forced to focus all of their attention on the few ‘swing states.’

According to Fox News, this year alone, Romney and Obama spent 95% of their time and money in just 10 states.  Together, the two campaign teams have made 71 campaign visits to the state of Ohio alone.  On the other hand, states like Kansas, Alaska and North Dakota never saw either candidate in their state.

The reasoning is obvious: candidate’s don’t want to waste their time in a state where the outcome is already pretty much set in stone, or where they have nothing to gain. (Both candidates held fundraisers in the wealthy, yet hyper-partisan states of Texas, California and New York.)

The Electoral College also draws criticisms from the fact that relying on roughly ten states to determine the presidency ultimately eliminates at least four out of five Americans from the process of deciding whom their president should be.  This argument can be extended into the idea that the vote of a Republican from California or a Democrat from Texas means virtually nothing given the inherent outcome in those states.

However, despite the pitfalls of the Electoral College, the proposed alternatives really aren’t that much more logical.  As of right now, nine states have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  This is an agreement among the states that they would replace their enumerated electors for the candidate with the most popular votes in all fifty states.  The Compact will only go in to affect once the states involved in the compact reach a total combined 270 electors.  Right now, they only total 132.

A direct popular vote electoral system seems to be the most commonly suggested alternative to the Electoral College.  While theoretically this might seem like the most practical way to do it in a democracy, it would be a logistical nightmare. Not only would counting the votes nationwide, rather than state wide, be extremely difficult to keep track up, but in the event that a candidate did not win a clear majority (only the plurality), recounting would also be extremely difficult.  A clear winner may not be known for days.

A system like this could also give way to serious voter fraud and also the possibility that less popular candidates be enticed by the more popular ones for their support in exchange for political favors or positions within the new administration.  Furthermore, having a direct election could result in an unfair representation of one geographic region over another.  This would also greatly disadvantage the larger states and cities, as like minds tend to conglomerate in the cities rather than dispersed throughout the country.

The “Proportional Plan” for voting has also received some attention over the past decades, which, according to Stephen Wayne, has received support from notable figures like Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.  This plan would allocate the electors proportionately to each candidate in concordance with the popular vote rather than having them winner-take-all.  Many argue that this would delegitimize the presidency, as the outcomes would be much closer and thus there would be less perceived support for the newly elected president.  This would also have the potential to give rise to more third parties, ultimately resulting in problems similar to the direct popular vote plan.  With the presence of third parties, smaller states would again be left at a disadvantage because their electors would be split in to smaller values.

The “District Plan” is another plan that has been thrown around in the conversation of reforming the Electoral College system.  This method would keep the Electoral College, but the electoral votes would be distributed differently.  Two of the electoral votes (representative of the two Senators from that state) would be allocated based on who won the states popular vote, while the remaining votes would be allocated on the basis of the popular vote within the individual districts (representative of each member of the House from that state).  Currently, Maine and Nebraska do operate under such a system.

Ultimately, this would make the Electoral College more reflective of the partisan division within the states and therefore the nation as a whole.  However, this would leave the larger, more competitive states, and particularly the cohesive, geographically concentrated groups within those states, at a large disadvantage.  On the flip side, regionally based third parties would have an advantage, as would the small states.

Larry Sabato, the Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, has devoted a considerable amount of time and thought to the Electoral College and the potential of changing it.  He too, like many Americans are split on the decision of what to do.  While he recognizes that there are inherent flaws, he noted to Fox News, “This is the structure of our country.  It’s the rules we played by for 200 years.”

Needless to say, it’s going to be much harder to change the Electoral College than people think.


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