Why We Must Abolish the Electoral College

Posted on 01 November 2012

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By David Dayen

Chris Hayes had the most thoughtful discussion of the National Popular Vote I've ever seen on cable television the other day. Every so often, it's worth pointing out that it's entirely unnatural to run a national political campaign through a handful of boroughs and counties in at most 9 out of the 50 states, which leads to highlighting a mish-mash of local issues as if they were the most vital and critical national issues.

The undemocratic Electoral College cements this, by essentially disenfranchising 80% of the country and forcing them to sit and watch to see who voters in Ohio and Virginia decide to become the next President. The states wisely did not adopt this process; California did not create an "electoral college" where San Francisco and San Jose and Los Angeles get a population-weighted percentage of the say in choosing a Governor, with the "swing counties" in the Central Valley the only ones likely to flip and therefore the only ones contested.

In fact, no country on our series of imperial adventures that we invaded or overthrew the government of ended up adopting the Election College as the means by which to choose their leaders. Funny how that works.

There's a way around this, as I've noted repeatedly, that does not involve passing a Constitutional amendment. The Constitution allows any state to decide the means by which they deliver their Electoral College votes. They can simply choose to award them to the winner of the national popular vote, in an interstate compact where they only begin this process once they have enough states totaling 270 electoral votes or more in on the bargain. So far, eight states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact, with a total of 132 electoral votes.

I've heard a lot of people estimating the effects of a national popular vote, and the right answer is "we don’t know." We don't know what strategies will succeed and then get copied by every successive campaign manager (like in sports, everything successful gets copied). Maybe campaigns would try to pump up their share of the vote in the big population centers. Maybe they would find votes in demographic ranges favorable to their positions in all pockets of the country. Maybe an underserved population will get a lot of attention: maybe Native American communities suddenly become important as a swing bloc, or retail workers, or the homeless. Maybe community organizing becomes super-important, to turn out volunteers to canvass their own neighborhoods and persuade their neighbors. Nobody has no idea. And that's a point in the National Popular Vote's favor. This electoral system needs to be shaken up. Relying on the I-40 corridor in Central Florida and the vote share in Cincinnati and Cleveland and the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia to choose a President, at the expense of the rest of the country, is madness.

The proper response to the second Electoral College/popular vote split in 12 years, should it come to pass, is to end the anti-democratic Electoral College. Maybe some Republicans will get the message on this if it hits them where they live.

Incidentally, this idea that Obama will lose Presidential legitimacy if he wins on a split vote between the Electoral College and the popular vote is insane. Where did this bit of psycho-analysis come from? I'm not sure the world exists where Obama wins by any margin and is seen as "legitimate" to vast portions of the right. He won 53-46 last time with 365 electoral votes and there were not only loud voices claiming that ACORN stole the election (as a means to get them wiped off the map, which worked), but a general antipathy to work with him on anything at all. How does this get WORSE in 2012? Republicans will already use the fact that he got less of the vote in 2012 than in 2008 as a reason to delegitimize, or some other stat they're churning out at AEI right now. Who cares?

Maybe it's just a sharp stick-in-the-eye of progressives who don't want to support Obama, but it's one of the dumber sticks I've seen in some time, to mix a metaphor.

David Dayen is a Santa Monica-based writer, speaker and political activist. He blogs at Firedoglake, where this article originally appeared.

If anyone likes to sign my petition abolish the electoral college, go to http://wh.gov/Rfey.