Although a presidential election is the sole election in which all citizens cast votes for a federal office, presidential campaigns are increasingly narrowly tailored and no longer national, critics contend. In the recent presidential election, President Obama and Governor Romney concentrated on a handful of states, e.g., Florida, Ohio, Virginia, necessary to win Electoral College majority.
The Electoral College distorts governing, analyst point out. Ten years ago, President George W. Bush pushed for Medicare prescription drug subsidies and tax breaks in part to increase his chances of carrying Florida, rich with retirees, in the 2004 presidential election.
The disproportionate Electoral College influence of less populated states remains its gravest longstanding objection. For instance, Vermont with a population just over 625,000 casts one Electoral College vote for every 208,300 Vermonters, 625,000/3 for its two senators and one U.S. Representative. California with a population of 37,692,000 casts one Electoral College vote for every 685,300 Californians, 37,692,000/55 and two senators and 53 representatives. It offends norms of fairness that one Vermont Electoral College vote carries three times the weight of one California Electoral College vote.
Nonetheless, few faster roads to continued, and perhaps, greater dysfunction could likely challenge America than abolishing the Electoral College.
The Electoral College yields the patina of majority rule when citizens express plurality preferences.
This occurs frequently throughout American history. Presidents Polk, Taylor, Buchanan, Lincoln, Garfield, Cleveland, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton all win popular vote pluralities and Electoral College majorities. Cleveland, Wilson and Clinton, all Democrats, share the distinction of doing so twice, and Benjamin Harrison squeaks in between Cleveland’s two administrations by an Electoral College majority. Bush 43rd, like Rutherford B. Hayes before him, is, in fact, selected by intervening Court and Commission with neither popular vote nor Electoral College majority. Kennedy won an Electoral College majority despite unpledged electors casting 15 Electoral College votes for segregationist Senator Harry F. Byrd.
In such plurality outcomes, the Electoral College process enables the presidential system to function. The founders quite intentionally established the President as sole national office for which all citizens may vote with a defined four year term, so the system could self-correct. A winner knows he won election narrowly and must accommodate significant portions of the public, who oppose his policies. Losers acknowledge the winner played by the rules, lick their wounds and plan for four years ahead.
Commerce continues largely undisturbed by political impasse, because in instances of rival pluralities the Electoral College invariably resolves the electoral outcome, enabling citizens to go back to work knowing they will have another shot in a subsequent election. Transitions of executive authority are invariably peaceful: no riots, mobs or insurrections, as a rule, mark inaugurations.
Government and economy adjust to the creative destruction of American capitalism more smoothly due to the Electoral College. For instance, disruptive technological innovation and transformative regulation of capital accumulation characterize the Wilson and Clinton Presidencies, and both men win popular pluralities and Electoral College majorities. Wilson creates regulation for twentieth century industrial capitalism and depoliticizes the money supply with the Federal Reserve System. Clinton enjoyed the great, good fortune of having his administrations coincide with the end of the productivity paradox. All the investments in computers and information technology since the fifties finally began reaping stunning productivity gains in the early nineties with transformative effects across all economic sectors. Amid these stunning changes, Americans could not reach majority consensus, and the Electoral College provided a path to governing.
More consequentially, the Electoral College suppresses factions, a keystone concern of the Founders. Should America begin deciding the presidency on total national vote, any candidate with the largest plurality could claim victory despite a majority of citizens preferring other rivals. Hence, in all probability, greater dysfunction governing with a majority opposed to a plurality president commanding the slimmest claim on legitimacy and lacking any patina of majority.
Donahue is an adjunct professor in the History Department at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey.