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Monday, October 11, 2004

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, some people in the 2000 Bush campaign thought that they might win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College vote. Some campaign operatives made noises about attempting to woo Gore electors to “allow the will of the people to triumph”. Had they attempted to court the electoral vote after winning the popular vote but not the election, they would have been wrong.

Of course, what actually happened was that Gore, not Bush, won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College vote. In one of the (very) few positions he took which I admire, Mr. Gore did not follow advice similar to that received by Bush received after the election. That candidate Bush may have taken such a position (by proxy, since I don’t recall him ever making the statements himself) does not make the argument that the Electoral College serves a valid and enduring purpose any weaker. Nor does the fact that in approximately one of twenty five elections (once every hundred years or so) a candidate wins the popular vote and loses the election.

Why does the Electoral College exist? Primarily, to prevent the domination of the executive branch of the US government by a few populous states to the detriment of a large number of sparsely populated states. And it has some additional beneficial effects, over and above requiring that national candidates campaign beyond the borders of New York, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Florida.

There are, at present, two ways that electoral votes are allocated to candidates. In most states, the candidate with the largest number of popular (no majority required) votes wins all of that state's electoral votes. In Maine (and possibly Nebraska), two electoral votes are allocated to the overall vote winner in the state and one electoral vote is allocated to the vote winner in each Congressional District. Now Colorado is considering a third method: allocation of electoral votes based solely on the statewide popular vote totals.

The thing I noticed about the Electoral College during the 2000 election was that the winner take all system makes stealing an election through fraudulent votes extremely difficult. The same is still true, but to a lesser degree, under the apportioned system now in effect in Maine. Unfortunately, the proposed system in Colorado does not provide the same anti-fraud protection, and, of course, neither would eliminating the Electoral College altogether.

Elections are human enterprises. We have to expect that they will not be perfect and that the participants will always attempt to “game” the system. There is absolutely nothing wrong with tailoring your campaign strategy to account for the effects of the Electoral College. It exists for very purpose of encouraging candidates to do so. On the other hand, since humans are involved, we should also expect some people to attempt to subvert the system. All we can do is make the system harder subvert and make it easier to discover and either prevent or correct the subversion. I think the Electoral College achieves both of those objectives, to a greater degree under the predominant winner take all system and to a lesser degree under the Maine district by district method.

Imagine the huge incentive to fraud that exists when you give each candidate’s supporters the incentive to stuff any ballot box anywhere under a direct popular election. In a close election I don’t think we would have a president until the midterm elections rolled around. It is a given that most modern elections are quite close (a couple of percentage points difference) in terms of the popular vote. It is far too much to expect every partisan political operative in every election from now till kingdom come to refrain from enhancing their candidate's chances by putting a few extra pieces of paper, appropriately marked, in a box in some backwater polling place. The difficulty in proving that ballots for the other guy were fraudulently produced and/or that ballots for your guy were wrongfully excluded from the count on a nationwide basis (a few here, a few there) is immense.

The post election contest in Florida in 2000 was bad enough, and that only took about six weeks and about thirty trips to various courthouses. Fortunately, such a closely contested election only seems to happen once every one hundred years or so. Imagine, if you will, the same nightmare re-re-recount scenario occurring in all fifty states after literally every nationwide election, under the Maine scheme or in the complete absence of the Electoral College.

The primary effect of the Electoral College is to force candidates to campaign outside of the main population centers of the nation. For more than two hundred years, it has performed as advertised. In addition, the Electoral College completely eliminates the incentive to cheat in the state or states where the candidate is strongest. But please note that this is precisely where cheating would be easiest and least detectable, and therefore most likely. But your guy is going to win there anyway and get all the state’s electoral votes, so it makes no sense whatever to cheat and risk being caught. This would not be the case in the absence of the Electoral College or under the Maine scheme.

Finally, under the winner take all system which is in effect throughout most of the nation, the ballot box stuffers in closer states must operate on a large scale to influence statewide results. This makes detection easier and therefore more likely. The same effect is not achieved under the Maine district by district scheme, since a series of districts could be swung with widely scattered efforts involving fewer fraudulent votes.

Colorado is currently considering apportioning its electoral votes between the candidates based on the popular vote in the state. This is a bit different than the Maine scheme, but its effects will be similar.

The Founders were proud of the Electoral College. They had reason to be. It ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.
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