Defending The Electoral College
November 1st, 2012 - D. Stone
In the US, the electoral college has been criticized since its very creation. Those who have expressed dissatisfaction with the system include supreme court judges, senators, and even Barack Obama. The notion of having a president elected by a series of delegates or electorates from each individual state, as opposed to the popular vote, was put in place to ensure that each state had a fair stake in federal politics. Since then, the electoral college has come under fire for being too confusing and out-dated. Despite the confusion, the electoral college is not very different from Canada's parliamentary system, which elects members of parliament individually, per constituency. It is through this process that the Prime Minister is elected. Often, the country's Prime Minister is elected without support from the majority of the population.
During nearly every election cycle, newspapers, experts, and pundits take turns either blaming or criticizing the electoral college for their preferred candidate's loss. In the infamous 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush failed to acquire the popular vote by a very slim margin, losing it to Al Gore. To the dismay of Democrats, Bush won the electoral college, surpassing the required 270 electoral votes. Amid protests, Bush was inaugurated and became the 43rd president in January of 2001.
For those unfamiliar with the electoral college, it can be summarized as a group of delegates who are selected by voters from every state. These delegates then convene on a given date to officially cast their votes for their candidate. All US presidents throughout history have been chosen by the electoral college.
Just like every election before it, the 2012 presidential race has been unable to escape much of the same arguments, even before November 6th. This is largely because more Americans continue to find themselves confused by the system. In a Gallup poll conducted in October, a surprising majority of Americans showed support for reforming or getting rid of the electoral college all together. 62% of those asked were in favour of scrapping the electoral college for the popular vote.
One of the concerns prior to the November 6th vote was that the two candidates would tie in the electoral college. Such a tie would be nearly impossible using only the popular vote down to the decimal point.
Arguments for reform can only be brought into a Canadian perspective by arguing that Canadian Prime Ministers should be elected by popular vote, rather than by how many MPs their party can elect. In such a case, with two major opposition leaders, Stephen Harper would still be our Prime Minister. Despite seeming complicated, like the electoral college, our parliamentary system has served and represented Canadians well by seating local representatives from constituencies across the country in the House Of Commons. Although the electoral college serves no other purpose after the election, the process of electing the executive branch is similar to a parliamentary system.
In the US, heavily populated states like California and New York are given a larger portion of the electoral college, while smaller states like New Hampshire and Hawaii are given less. This rationing is meant to offset the effects of large, populated areas on elections by limiting the power of a single state. Turnout in California could be 90% and only 10% in Hawaii, but with a designated number of electoral votes, lower or higher turnouts fail to effect the final result of an election, giving each state a fair advantage and influence based on their size. Such is also the case in Canada when MPs are elected by their constituents.
Another important reason for the electoral college, as described by its founders, was to prevent a tyrant or dictator from seducing portions of the population. At a time in US history when there were more than two mainstream political parties and far more factions, this logic seemed more valid than it might today. To this day, there is no law or policy in place to prevent an elected delegate in the electoral college from changing his/her vote, even though the delegate was chosen by the supporters of one particular candidate. The benefit of this comes into effect during a circumstance in which a candidate is exposed (after election day) as corrupt, ill-willed, or incompetent.
Arguments about the electoral college being unfair seem to be more misguided than not. About it being confusing, well, it really isn't. Most parliamentary democracies are similar and the purpose of the electoral college is well intentioned and well applied, despite the fact that a majority of Americans would rather do away with it.
There is no doubt that arguments and criticisms will carry on through future election cycles. A confusing electoral system may perhaps be more valuable than an over simplified popular vote. Perhaps the fact that most Americans would rather opt for a more simplified and dumbed down democratic system offers more reason to keep the electoral college in place.