Al Gore calls for an end to the Electoral College

Math is hard.

Well, of course he did. It’s the only thing standing in the way of a complete takeover of the Presidency by the Democratic Party.

The Electoral College is a reminder that the President of our country is not the President of the American people or the President of a supermajority of voters in some places, but rather the Presiding Officer of a Union of Several States in a federal organization.

He’s the President of the United States, chosen by the states, whose electors are chosen by the people. That’s part of living in a representative republic, rather than a direct democracy.

Gore and other liberals think the election should just go to whoever wins the most votes. In other words, Gore and his fellow Democrats are pissed that the Electoral College is working exactly the way it’s supposed to work, and preventing exactly the outcome he prefers (and one that would have made him President on the say-so of an extra half-million Californians, regardless of what the rest of us wanted).

A Florida elector

(Spare me the “stolen Florida” arguments about Gore, at least for now. The Supreme Court, despite popular myth, did not rule 5-4 on the constitutionality of the Florida vote, they ruled 7-2, in a large majority, that the Florida court was off the rails. The 5-4 vote was over what to do about it.)

The whole point of the Electoral College is to reinforce the idea that the United States is a federal nation, where power rests with the people in the individual states. Those people in the states, “in order to form a more perfect union,” according to a document most college kids have never read, banded together in a federation, and each four years agree on a Chief Magistrate, a Chief Executive, to represent those states at a national level.

No matter what you may have been told — and there are some really dumb civics teachers out there — it’s not a national popularity contest.

Now, the Democrats, whose power is heavily concentrated in the major cities (for various reasons, including minority voters, the poor, machine politics left from the 1900s, and others) would love to see the Electoral College go out the window. That way, the Presidency would be decided every year by supermajorities in the top 10 or 15 cities in America.

No President — or no candidate who wasn’t stupid — would ever bother again with suburbs, rural counties, small towns, or anyplace where he or she couldn’t just rack up a massive and lopsided win.

Take a look at Pennsylvania. It used to be a swing state, although it’s become more Democratic over time. You can see why:

All you have to do is win crushing majorities in Pittsburgh and Philly, and the rest of the state can go to hell.

Consider this: if you counted up the 2004 Presidential vote (Bush, of course, vs. Sen. John Kerry, a name Democrats have resurrected as the next Secretary of State at their convention), and did it by counties, you’d see a lopsided Bush victory. But if you just went by cities, you’d have a squeaker. Bush would still win, but not by much.

Here’s the map from 2004, again by county (from USA Today). Take a close look at places like Florida, Illinois, and California: big blue cities surrounded by oceans of red suburbs and rural counties. And the mountain states and the prairies can forget about ever getting a visit from a presidential candidate without an Electoral College: only a fool would campaign anyplace too far from the coasts:

Now, of course Republicans are completely in favor of the Electoral College, because it allows them to cobble together victories by winning a majority of electors and the vote of the states, and not just by raking in huge wins in California and New York.

Both sides have selfish reasons to do this. But if we heed the call to get rid of the Electoral College, then why not go all the way and just get rid of states?

That’s not a crazy idea: that’s pretty much how France and the UK operate, with local government basically just a vehicle for national policy. So why bother having a state-by-state contest at all?

Think of the savings: no more governors, no more pesky state legislatures. Just national bureaucrats working with local elected officials (mayors, city managers) to implement Washington’s mandates.

Like, say, health care.

Anyway, remember this much: proposals to dump the Electoral College are not just pleas for “fairness” or “majority rule,” they are a fundamental attack on the Constitution, American federalism, and the foundations of the American political order.

Ending the Electoral College won’t just wreck what’s left of U.S. federalism and leave Washington supreme, it will be a declaration of class warfare between urban and rural, rich and poor, coasts and heartland, far worse than we’re already experiencing.

Don’t reach for the Wite-Out just yet.

By all means, let legislators submit the bills for a constitutional amendment (since that’s what it would take), and then let’s have a national debate on directly electing the President. But when America becomes even more polarized, with the poverty-stricken and violent cities going to war every four years with the gated communities that surround  them — full of liberals as well as conservatives, make no mistake — no one should say they weren’t warned.

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13 comments

  1. Tom, I’m not at all a fan of the electoral college, I must admit. If I could offer some counterarguments, in the spirit and tenor of your excellent blog.

    The President is the President of the United States, meaning all Americans, not just the President of the swing states that happen to be in play in a particular election year. This, to my mind, is the huge problem with the current system. My brother in Iowa gets far more commercials beams at him than I do, because I live in Rhode Island and we know how Rhode Island is going to vote. This happens for many of the same states, year after year after year. Presidential candidates, well advised in advance, plan their campaigns around that fact.

    Why should the population of Iowa, every single presidential election, have such a disproportionate role in the process? A disproportionate impact? In your post, you express concern that “suburbs, rural counties, small towns” would be ignored if the electoral college went away. But why are you so content that California, Texas (usually), and New York states are ignored? TO put it provocatively, why are you willing to disenfranchise loyal Americans who happen to live in large cities near coasts?

    You offer a map of Pennsylvania. It’s mostly red, but with some blue. You must be offering this as a provocative example of how smaller parts of the state can dominate larger parts, because you say, if you just win a couple of big cities, “the rest of the state can go to hell.”

    Here’s the big mistake in this line of reasoning, which you see all the time in the media: government should not represent the _physical surface area of the United States_. Government should, instead represent the _people_ of the United States.

    Should Wyoming’s opinion on who should be president could for more than Manhattan’s? Or Chicago’s? Seriously. It makes no sense to look at the surface area of a state and say “Holy smokes, the larger surface area is being dominated by the smaller surface area.”

    You are correct to note the historical purpose and intention of the electoral college, of course. But the Constitution was written at a particular moment in time, in an effort to convince skeptical states to jump aboard a new institution. They don’t have that skepticism now. (I know we could point to a few folk who have made statements suggesting we should bail out of the Union, including a governor or two in an off moment, but you know what I mean.) This is why it is entirely reasonable to suggest a change.

    Nixon’s election in 1968 led to our last serious debate over the electoral college (he won the popular vote also, though, if I recall, but by a far slimmer margin than in the electoral college). By the way, it’s incorrect to state that it would take a Constitutional amendment to end the electoral college. There was a recent movement to have the non-swing states band together, and if an electoral college vote majority of them agreed, they would all cast their votes with whomever won the popular vote for president. Schwarzenegger voiced some support for the idea while he was governor, actually. If an electoral college majority of states agrees to such a compact, and it holds, that ends the electoral college right there. May I add I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it got some insignificant airplay a few years ago.

    When I worked as a lowly intern in DC, I was near the Lincoln Memorial and went there often. I found his words “Of the people, by the people, for the people” inspiring. He may have considered “Of the surface area, by the surface area, for the surface area” for all I know. If he considered but discarded those words, it must have been because they weren’t catchy … Abraham Lincoln was a politician, after all, you know.

  2. Andrew:

    I agree completely that a presidential election should not be a race to see how many squares on the physical map can be colored red or blue. But your argument that the election should be decided by the people skips over the whole federalism question again. It’s almost as if you and other critics of the EC want to undo the compromises made in 1787 between large and small states.

    I used the map of Pennsylvania purely by chance, since I was going to move there in 2005. I realized, looking at the voting in my future county, that the concentration of votes in Philly and Pittsburgh made voting functionally irrelevant in the rest of the state, unless you could mobilize every single person in every single county — meaning you’d have to have the same infrastructure and communications you have in the boonies as you do in downtown Philadelphia. That’s never going to happen, even if you had motor-voter or voting by Internet.

    In the end, the president has to win a victory that will give him or her claim to be the leader of the states, not of the urban elites. The way you phrase your question, in fact, just drips with condescension:

    “Should Wyoming’s opinion on who should be president [count] for more than Manhattan’s? Or Chicago’s? Seriously.”

    The answer is yes, seriously. If the other 49 states are deadlocked and it comes down to Wyoming, so be it. The whole reason that Wyoming is a separate state is so that the people there could have a say in how this nation gets run without getting shouted down by coastal elites acting out a majoritarian tyranny. The Electoral College is one of the last firewalls against mob rule, and while it would make it easier in the short term for the liberals in the cities to control the White House, there’s also a terrible danger that flight from those areas will create a massive ex-urban majority that will turn on those cities down the line.

    It may not be fair that “swing states” get undue attention, as you point out, but the nice thing is that “swing states” change. Vermont used to be solidly Republican; it’s now solidly Democratic. Pennsylvania and Virginia are in transition. Indiana and Wisconsin are new “swing” states. That’s as it should be. But just blowing it all up and saying “let the big cities decide” is a recipe for civil strife not seen since the 1860s.

    Look, either you believe in the notion of the United “States,” or you believe that the ranchers of Wyoming should shut up while Angelenos and New Yorkers tells us how to run our lives and spend our taxes.

  3. I used Wyoming solely as an example of a state with a large surface area but a modest population, a little over 500,000. Both the cities I mentioned have populations in multiples of that, so I was trying (and probably should have been more explicit what I meant) to offer that as an example where you can look at a map, see at lot of red, and ask Why aren’t those people being represented? I still think your original post hinted at this, since you use the PA map and refer to “big blue cities surrounded by oceans of red suburbs and rural counties.” You and I live next to one, so we both know that “oceans” means really big.

    I never wrote anything that implied that certain individual voters should not be allowed to decide elections (though I see there was some small room to misinterpret my Wyoming comment, but I think you were being a shade unfair). There’s no democratic system that I’m aware of – not the electoral college, not a pure national majority vote – that does not implicitly endorse the idea that one individual could potentially decide the election. Could be Wyoming, Illinois, Texas, who knows … and we both know the causal complexities of determining who was The Guy who determined the election.

    Why not undo the compromises of 1787? Why not? Why should we me immobilized into the views of individuals who lived over two centuries ago? Can you point to anything the founders said which states “Yes, verily, there shall be seven Swing States and only They shall matter”? Again, they were trying to create a union that would induce even small states to come aboard. Rhode Island, where we live, didn’t participate in the Constitutional Convention, because they thought it was a conspiracy … but RI signed later on. Aren’t we allowed to change our minds, since the leaders of RI did, and in short order?

    After all, we’re not talking about the _values_ in the Constitution, but rather how governance is numerically determined. There are values in the Constitution that I personally consider immortal (but one or two that are not, in the original version at least, and I’ll bet you agree). But the representation system the founders came up with is one they fumbled with for four months.

    Since you mention condescension, may I respectfully submit that you seem particularly dismissive of those who live in cities:

    “In the end, the president has to win a victory that will give him or her claim to be the leader of the states, not of the urban elites.”

    And …!

    “how this nation gets run without getting shouted down by coastal elites acting out a majoritarian tyranny.”

    Not the worst sort of tyranny, could we agree? Please? Must we disdain the majority? And, as you know there are a _hell_ of a lot of people in Manhattan who vote Democratic whom no one would consider among the elite, BTW.

    And you express fear about “letting the big cities decide.” What do you have against urban elites? Is it just how they vote? Even though you commented after I talked about the “surface area vs. people” issue, you seem to still steer things in that direction. It’s hard for me to read what you write on this and not think that you are biased against urban elites, just as you deride (and perhaps correctly so) Al Gore’s effort to undercut the EC as politically motivated and in favor of advantage to the Democratic Party. It may be political advantage, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right, or even – dare I say – good for the country.

    The list of swing states does change on occasion, which is why I added a caveat about Texas in my original post – they had a Democratic governor not too long ago. They could “swing” in the not too distant future, given demographic shifts. But the overall list doesn’t change much. The same states should not have the same unusual influence, again and again.

  4. A survey of Wyoming voters showed 69% overall support for the idea that the President of the United States should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states.

    Voters were asked “How do you think we should elect the President: Should it be the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current electoral college system?”

    By political affiliation, support for a national popular vote was 66% among Republicans, 77% among Democrats, and 72% among others.
    By gender, support was 76% among women and 62% among men.
    By age, support was 70% among 18-29 year olds, 68% among 30-45 year olds, 70% among 46-65 year olds, and 70% for those older than 65.

    NationalPopularVote

    • I don’t doubt the polls. Largely, they reflect the fact that average Americans no longer have any understanding of how their own government works. The first time there’s an election that’s carried by a bi-coastal popular vote, the same folks you’re citing would be the first to cry foul — because they don’t understand the Electoral College to begin with.

      Remember: polls also show that many Americans support the idea of national missile defenses — because they think we already have one. The idea of “just elect the guy with the most votes” sounds fair and simple, and there’s a natural attraction to it. Which is why the Founders didn’t allow for it. (We didn’t even popularly elect Senators until 1913, so let’s not get too carried away with whether the Founders were populists. They weren’t.)

  5. With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.

    With National Popular Vote, every vote would be equal. Candidates would reallocate the money they raise to no longer ignore more than 2/3rds of the states and voters.

    The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States. Suburbs and exurbs often vote Republican.

    Any candidate who ignored, for example, the 16% of Americans who live in rural areas in favor of a “big city” approach would not likely win the national popular vote.

    If big cities controlled the outcome of elections, the governors and U.S. Senators would be Democratic in virtually every state with a significant city.

    A nationwide presidential campaign, with every vote equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida.

    The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every vote is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.

    With National Popular Vote, when every vote is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren’t so well liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to try it in Wyoming or Vermont.

    Even in California state-wide elections, candidates for governor or U.S. Senate don’t campaign just in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and those places don’t control the outcome (otherwise California wouldn’t have recently had Republican governors Reagan, Dukemejian, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger). A vote in rural Alpine county is just an important as a vote in Los Angeles. If Los Angeles cannot control statewide elections in California, it can hardly control a nationwide election.

    In fact, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland together cannot control a statewide election in California.

    Similarly, Republicans dominate Texas politics without carrying big cities such as Dallas and Houston.

    There are numerous other examples of Republicans who won races for governor and U.S. Senator in other states that have big cities (e.g., New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) without ever carrying the big cities of their respective states.

    Candidates would need to build a winning coalition across demographics. Any candidate who ignored, for example, the 16% of Americans who live in rural areas in favor of a “big city” approach would not likely win the national popular vote. Candidates would have to appeal to a broad range of demographics, and perhaps even more so, because the election wouldn’t be capable of coming down to just one demographic, such as soccer mom voters in Ohio.

  6. The normal process of effecting change in the method of electing the President is specified in the U.S. Constitution, namely action by the state legislatures. This is how the current system was created, and this is the built-in method that the Constitution provides for making changes. The abnormal process is to go outside the Constitution, and amend it.

    The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists, who vote as rubberstamps for presidential candidates. In the current presidential election system, 48 states award all of their electors to the winners of their state. This is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

    The Founding Fathers in the Constitution did not require states to allow their citizens to vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the vote of their citizens.

    The presidential election system we have today is not in the Constitution, and enacting National Popular Vote would not need an amendment. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, were eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Now our current system can be changed by state laws again.

    Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    The constitution does not prohibit any of the methods that were debated and rejected. Indeed, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors using two of the rejected methods in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789 (i.e., appointment by the legislature and by the governor and his cabinet). Presidential electors were appointed by state legislatures for almost a century.

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

    The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state’s electoral votes.

    As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used by 48 of the 50 states. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Maine and Nebraska do not use the winner-take-all method– a reminder that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution is not required to change the way the President is elected.

    • The idea that only property-owning white males could vote in the 1789 elections is patently untrue. The property requirement allowed free blacks and widowed or independently wealthy women to vote. Universal white male suffrage in 1806 took their votes away while enfranchising anyone with the requisite pale body part, no matter how poor or uneducated he might be.

      And changing the way electoral votes are allocated is not the same as changing how presidents are elected. Any allocation of a state’s electoral votes falls to the individual state’s legislature. Any change to the electoral college itself (such as REPLACING it with a national popular vote as I believe Mr. Gore suggested…explicitly…) would require a constitutional amendment.

  7. Federalism concerns the allocation of power between state governments and the national government. The National Popular Vote bill concerns how votes are tallied, not how much power state governments possess relative to the national government. The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

    The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists who vote as rubberstamps for their party’s presidential candidate. That is not what the Founders intended.

    With the Electoral College and federalism, the Founding Fathers meant to empower the states to pursue their own interests within the confines of the Constitution. The National Popular Vote is an exercise of that power, not an attack upon it.

    The National Popular Vote bill preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College.

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state, ensures that the candidates, after the conventions, in 2012 will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been just spectators to the presidential elections. That’s more than 85 million voters.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    States have the responsibility and power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond.

    Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

  8. Methinks that in a National Popular Vote, the only gains made in “equality” would be that of vote fraud.

    Recounting votes was tough enough in Florida and Ohio (and lent to the “not my president” garbage this blog has rightfully castigated) – what happens if there’s a vote difference of ~1 million? I’m not so paranoid to think that our elections are as fraudulent as Nazarbayev getting 97% of the vote, but not so naive to think that it can’t/doesn’t effect the outcome – I’m still a little puzzled how Al Franken managed to pick up votes in every MN district (despite or because of the wildly varying methods of reassessing the voter’s intent).

    As an Ohioan by birth and a condescending egotist by god-given talent, I think the swing-state and voter weight discussion you guys are having is cute. Angelenos? Iowans? Ha! Clearly since WW2, ours are (or was in my case), the only votes necessary.

    And for the record it would take a constitutional amendment to end the electoral college, despite states being able to jerry-rig a popular allocation of their electoral votes. I’m waiting eagerly to see NJ’s reaction when a Republican wins the popular vote but loses (or would have lost) the electoral vote but for the decision to allocate theirs to the national popular vote winner.

  9. If that New Jersey scenario happens (which is possible), it will end all further discussion of eliminating the EC for the next 100 years. People are not good at math :)