Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Why an Electoral College?

The Electoral College system exists as it is simply and purely because of historical contigency: it was the architecture necessary to reach compromise among the states and ratify the Constitution. But let us float above those messy details, and look at the wider picture. I've written in this space before about the difficulty of reaching consensus. Consider the Electoral College (EC) as a system for reaching consensus.

First, "consensus" doesn't mean that everyone agrees, and it doesn't even mean it's the decision of the majority. The post-2000 firestorm of criticism against the EC was based on the fact that Gore received more votes than Bush, in an absolute sense. The unspoken logical step was that the receiver of the most votes (although Gore did not, in fact, receive a majority of all votes cast) most deserves to be President. It was this very scenario that had people calling the EC a "ticking time bomb" or similar overblown metaphor. Aside from the fact that, despite some very angry Democrats, the nation was not plunged into another civil war, this misses the point. The EC functioned exactly as it was designed to do.

The EC basically performs two functions: it overweights the contributions of small states, and it makes it far more difficult for regional candidates to win. Both of these are important functions when attempting to reach consensus among a diverse set of actors that differ in power.

However, the EC also has some problems. It discourages voter turnout, it marginalizes the political minority in each state, and it marginalizes the issues of most states.

Moving to a new system, such as a general election, would solve some of these problems but create new ones, as well as losing the advantages of the EC system.