Sticking with the Electoral College system, but not yet plunging into the surprising too-little-discussed history of why the Framers put it in the Constitution, I want first to dash off a quick list of ten problems and potential problems with the Electoral College system:
Problem No. 1
It creates the possibility for the loser of the popular vote to win the electoral vote. This is more than a theoretical possibility. It has happened at least four times out of the 56 presidential elections, or more than 7 percent of the time, which is not such a small percentage, and it created a hideous mess every time. The most recent occurrence was 2000.
Problem No. 2
It distorts the presidential campaign, as alluded to yesterday, by incentivizing the parties to write off the more than 40 states (plus the District of Columbia) that they know they either can’t win or can’t lose. Among the states that, in recent history, don’t get campaign visits (other than for fundraising) or TV ads (which is most of what all that fundraising pays for and the main method by which the campaign and their “independent,” “uncoordinated” allies seek to persuade the persuadable voters in the persuadable states) are the three most populous states (California, Texas and New York, which among them make up more than 25 percent of the U.S. population), the geographically biggest state (Alaska) and the best state (Minnesota, which, despite missing out on the ads and the campaign visits, usually leads the nation in voter turnout anyway, so there).
Problem No. 3
The Electoral College system further distorts the presidential campaign by causing the candidates to grant extra weight to the parochial needs of the swing states. If you have to carry Florida to win, it elevates the already ever-present need candidates feel to pander to elderly voters, Cuban-Americans, orange-growers and any other group that can deliver a bloc of Floridians. The same thing with Iowa and ethanol subsidies and other agriculture-friendly policies, except even more so because Iowa is not only a swing state over recent cycles but has become since 1976 the key first state in the presidential nominating process. . (But that last bit about the nominating process, of course, is not rooted in the Constitution.)
Since the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running-mate, how many stories have you read that said Ryan’s controversial plan to change Medicare could be especially costly to the ticket because so many of the swing states have above-average portions of senior voters? Pandering to large groups of voters is not a pretty aspect of democracy, but pandering to groups just because they happen to be concentrated in “swing states” is even uglier. Who can explain how this can be a good thing?
Problem No. 4
For the same reason, it distorts governance. A first-term president who expects to have a tough reelection fight (as they all at least expect to) but who wanted to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba (broken in 1960) would have to consider the possibility that such a policy might cost him Florida and therefore a second term. Perhaps this helps explain why long after Washington normalized relations with the Soviet Union, China and other governments that formerly or presently call themselves Communists, Cuba remains on the do-not-call list.