END THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

Below is my column today in USA Today. We are now just a month away from the presidential election and our continued inexplicable use of the Electoral College. I have previously discussed steps that we can take to reform our political system. However, the starting point should be the elimination of the electoral college and the requirement that our presidents be elected by a direct and majority vote. As with other leading countries, we should allow for a runoff to guarantee that every president enters office with the support of over half of the voters.

Vladimir Putin had one in Russia. This week, Hugo Chavez had one in Venezuela. Last spring, Nicholas Sarkozy lost one in France.

In each case, the outcome was decided by the majority of voters in their country. Such direct democracy is a foreign concept in the USA, where we require neither direct voting nor a majority to lead our nation. The reason is an arcane institution: the Electoral College.

In the U.S., presidents are not elected by the people but by 538 “electors” who award blocks of votes on a state-by-state basis. The result is that presidents can be — and have been — elected with fewer votes than their opponents. Indeed, various presidents have taken office with less than 50% of the vote. The question is whether a president should be elected by a majority of voters of at least one free country before he can call himself the leader of the free world.

The Electoral College is a relic of a time when the Framers believed that average people could not be trusted with selecting a president, at least not entirely. This was consistent with a general view of the dangers of direct voting systems. Until 1913, U.S. senators were elected not by their constituents but by the state legislators. When we finally got rid of that provision with the 17th Amendment, we failed to change its sister provision in Article II on the indirect election of presidents.

Slavery’s legacy

Notably, while James Madison agreed that direct election of the president would be superior, there was one primary obstacle to pursuing this option in the Constitutional Convention: slavery. Madison noted that the North-South divide presented an obstacle of a “serious nature” to direct democracy. He concluded that the use of electors that gave each state a set number of votes “seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.” Now slavery is gone, yet the Electoral College remains.

We have retained this dysfunctional institution even after the calamity of the 2000 election, in which a few “hanging chads” in Florida determined the outcome. Not only did the college effectively negate half of the votes in Florida by giving all the electoral votes to George W. Bush, but it also delivered the entire election to him despite his loss in the national popular vote. Direct elections lessen such controversies by counting the votes of all Americans equally and directly. Though such vote counting controversies could continue, the size of the nation usually guarantees that the popular vote is rarely in doubt. Even in that “close” election, Bush trailed by more than a half million votes.

Ignoring voters

The greatest irony of the Electoral College is that it does precisely the opposite of what the Framers intended: Rather than encouraging presidential candidates to take small states seriously, it results in turning most states into near total irrelevancies. With our two-party monopoly on power in the United States, candidates spend little time, if any, in states that are clearly going to go for the other party — or even for their own party. Thus, there is little reason for President Obama to go to Utah or for Mitt Romney to go to Vermont. The result is that elections are dominated by swing states while campaigns become dominated by the issues affecting those states.

Thus, while the majority of Americans support tougher immigration laws, both candidates this year are struggling to adopt new policies to capture swing states with large Latino populations. Whatever the merits of the immigration debate, the campaign looks as if it is for the United State of Florida as opposed to the country as a whole. The irony is palpable given the original desire of Madison to use the college to avoid the “mischiefs of faction.” He did not want presidents to be effectively captured by factional or insular interests. However, that is precisely what has occurred: The interests of the majority of country are subservient to the insular interests of key voting blocks in swing states.

The reason that the Electoral College is still with us is that it is a critical protection for the two-party monopoly on power in the USA. The Democrats and Republicans effectively keep presidential candidates of the opposing party out of their states — deterring the expenditure of time and money in organizing these states. Opposing candidates and parties face even greater obstacles because most voters view the result as irrelevant to the outcome of elections.

Undemocratic relic

Ultimately, the Electoral College should be rescinded as a fundamentally undemocratic institution. John Quincy Adams was elected by just 32% of the popular vote. He is among the 15 presidents who have taken office with less than 50% of the vote:

James Polk
Zachary Taylor
James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Rutherford Hayes
James Garfield
Grover Cleveland (twice)
Benjamin Harrison
Woodrow Wilson (twice)
Harry Truman
John Kennedy
Richard Nixon
Bill Clinton (twice)
George W. Bush.
Some presidents like Bush were elected not only by less than a majority but also with fewer votes than his opponent. For the many Americans who are unhappy with this political system and want change, a key and obtainable reform is a constitutional amendment requiring the direct and majority election of presidents in either a general or, if necessary, a runoff election. A president represents all Americans, and he or she should be elected by the vote of citizens as Americans, as a whole.

It is time for the United States to embrace true democracy. It is time to kill the Electoral College.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

121 thoughts on “END THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE”

  1. s e. The point about CO losing importance is valid, but if every state did it at the same time, there would be no disadvantage except for those states who currently hold an unfair advantage.

  2. MikeS, I’ll see your Newk and raise you a Spahnie. Newk hit for a better avg. but Spahn had more power.

    Two books you would enjoy. The bio of Gil Hodges by Clavin and Pearry. I’m half way through it. What a good man. And, Loserville Wins, which gives a perspective of the Braves v NY[Dodgers, Giants, and Yanks] rivalry from “Looserville” which is what New Yawkers called Milwaukee. Even though the Dodger fans hated the Braves they liked Spahn.

    1. Nick,

      Spahn was a great hitter, for a pitcher, as was Bob Lemon, Dizzy Trout and more than a few Yankees. Thanks for the books recommendations, but not only did I live through that era, my hobby was Baseball statistics and at one point in the 80’s I was a member of the Society of Baseball Research (SABR). When the internet came about the extensive library I had of baseball books and encyclopedias became extraneous. Also in the steroidal 90’s baseball statistics became suspect and I’ve sort of tuned out. As for the Milwaukee Braves (1957-8 especially) I didn’t hate them at all and knew few others who did except for Yankee fans. That was a great team with Aaron, Matthews, Adcock, Logan, Crandall, Burdette and Buhl. Ah, but you’ve led me really OT by nudging my baseball memories.

      So I’ll get back to it by stating that the method of giving proportional EC representation based upon voting percentages is almost as flawed. Besides that though, as se@(oldgulph) pointed out, politicians would hate it because
      no state would want to go first and thus be disadvantaged politically.

  3. Bettykath:

    Any state that enacts the proportional approach on its own would reduce its own influence. This was the most telling argument that caused Colorado voters to agree with Republican Governor Owens and to reject this proposal in November 2004 by a two-to-one margin.

    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win. That’s what National Popular Vote guarantees.

    More than 2,110 state legislators (in 50 states) have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the National Popular Vote bill.

    Since it was first introduced in 2006, the National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    NationalPopularVote
    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  4. Zvyozdochka and MikeS,

    Z’s apiel reminds me of Catullus video of a real spielster on the Wait, Wait-thread.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=nMMxIAn_76g

    Of course, Iv’e already bought my ticket, applied for citizenship, and picked out a bride on internet and chosen the vineyard by the sea to run—–only they don’t have any vineyards by the sea. And worst of all, they have Murdoch. Z.? Do you have channels without Murdoch’s face?

    My main motivation is so-called “sunlight depression”. It gets bad around September 1st at these latitudes.
    Z, you say that you have that too, in Melbourne, only that’s no worse than Berlin. Berlin-Hitler or Melbourne-Murdoch. What a choice.

    Is there a place that is nevér colder than 10C and never warmer than 30C???? Falkland’s Islands? No thanks.

    Grass-strewn blowholes with sheep sheep and baa BAA. The BAA was from the humorless population.

  5. Bob, Barrister, Don’t get me wrong. I was a pitcher and I loved to hit, albeit not very well. My playing days predated the DH. However, I started coaching when the DH was “invented.” As a coach, for mostly practical reasons, it allowed me to have ten players in the game. Good politics w/ the parents. I love pitchers duels and often decide whether to see a game in Milwaukee or Chicago based on the pitching matchup. Regarding the strategy issue you discussed, there is one statistic that rebuts that. The winning team scores more runs in one inning than the losing teams scores in the entire game, 60% of the time. That is the core of the big inning/3 run homer philosophy. When I coached younger kids I was obligated to teach them to bunt and use it in games. But, when I coached Legion ball my attitude was swing away, go for the big inning. My statement about the DH probably going to the NL was not so much my desire, but my realism.

  6. @Mike Spindell and @rcampbell

    I’d invite you to see how we do things in Australia.

    Thanks to our preferenial compulsory voting we have active third and fourth parties. There are plenty of other parties, including mad Christians, The Shooters Party (guns, not alcoholic shots) and various others. Sadly we no longer have a wing of the Monster Raving Looney Party.

    Our third party (The Greens – socialists) have effective balance of power in our upper house (also a Senate). The fourth party (The Nationals – medieval agrarians) are in coalition with the second party (Liberals – small ‘el’ really, bit left of the Democrats) and our major party (Labor – massively left) is in power thanks to The Greens and some independants.

    As a parliament they’ve been remarkably active in reform which you wouldn’t guess from our Murdoch-dominated media.

    Sensible amendments are put and voting is on the merits mostly. There is obstruction for differential effect, but co-operation on matters of substance, mostly.

    The beaches are superb and the beer is fantastic. Pop down when you can.

    1. Zvyozdochka,

      I would love to “pop” down your way. I’ve heard Australia is a fascinating country. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to, since you’re a long way off. Financial circumstances have kept me from traveling the world as I would like, but I try to keep up my knowledge of the world I’ll never visit to broaden my perspective.

      Your parliamentary system seems effective, yet as you say much of the news from Australia comes to us via the “Murdochian” sources and so the picture appears skewed right.

  7. Am not sure that the Reader’s Digest version would be easier to understand.

  8. Why do old systems are so hard to fix? Because there are no spare parts to buy.

    If we go sllghtly ore bizarre, then one may propose that to mmet the demands of future non-EC campaigns, that mother who would produce Presddents must have identical twin. You can guess why, but I will explain anyway—-

    Two will be required to win the first campaign, of which one is the designated candidate. In the period the non-presidential twin will be employed in improving the “base” and advising the Prez on conduct of the Presidency. During the re-election cycle, both will be engaged in fixing votes, with occasional performance of Presidential duties as is done now.

    So for those who have ambitions, pick a lady/husband from genetic lines that have produced many identical twins

  9. The possibility of changing the distribution of a state’s electoral college votes has been tried. Politics seems to have intervened.

    http://archive.fairvote.org/articles/denverpost.htm

    Colorado proposes Proportional Representation

    Denver Post
    “Group Pushes for Vote Switch”

    June 15, 2004: A well-financed ballot measure would change Colorado’s winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes to one allocated by proportional representation.

    The wealthy president of a Brazilian university is bankrolling an initiative to end Colorado’s winner-take-all presidential electoral system.

    J. Jorge Klor de Alva is the major donor to The People’s Choice for President – a nonprofit group seeking voters’ permission to award Colorado’s Electoral College votes proportionally as a percentage of the statewide popular vote.

    For example, a candidate who wins 60 percent at the polls could snag five of the state’s nine electoral votes, leaving the remaining four to a candidate who wins 40 percent on Election Day.

    The group has begun to collect signatures; it needs 67,799 to get the measure on the ballot.

    If approved Nov. 2, the constitutional amendment would affect this year’s choice for president by immediately permitting the division of Colorado electoral votes. And it would mark the most ambitious Electoral College reform yet in the nation.

    Proponents say it would help avoid outcomes such as the 2000 election, when the popular vote-winner, Democrat Al Gore, lost the Electoral College vote count to Republican George W. Bush.

    “What we are proposing to do, at least in Colorado, is to come much closer to the notion of one man, one vote,” said Rick Ridder, the Denver-based Democratic political consultant running the campaign. Klor de Alva, who Ridder says is an American citizen, and a group of other unnamed donors have given $150,250 and pledged at least $150,000 more, to the campaign for Colorado electoral change.

    Republicans decry the measure as a Democratic scheme to dilute GOP votes.

    “I don’t know if it verges on dirty tricks, but it certainly has a bad odor,” said state Republican chairman Ted Halaby.

    The U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the power to choose the method of selecting presidential electors. Most states, including Colorado, have a winner-take-all system. Two states – Maine and Nebraska – have passed measures giving only two electoral votes to the overall winner of the state; the rest are awarded individually based on the winner of the popular vote in each of those states’ congressional districts.

    Klor de Alva’s group picked Colorado to launch a proportional system because state case law broadly defines the state legislature to include citizens participating in a ballot referendum – thereby, in the proponents’ view, fulfilling the U.S. Constitution’s requirement. It helps, backers say, that it’s far easier to float ballot issues here.

    Another reason is the state’s voter registration – 36 percent Republican, 30 percent Democratic and 32 percent independent. The slight GOP lean could mean a likely win for Bush under Colorado’s current system of picking electors. But Democrat John Kerry could grab several of the state’s nine electoral votes if the reform measure passes.

    Republicans oppose the effort.

    “They don’t feel their candidate is going to be able to win it outright, and they just want whatever piece of the pie they can get on a pro-rata basis,” Halaby said. “It’s part and parcel of this plan by the Democrats to mislead the public and play games with the political process.”

    Ridder said Halaby “misses the heart of the matter, which is that the system needs some tweaking.”

    Ridder said Klor de Alva – who could not be reached for comment Monday – lives in California but serves as president of the Faculdade Pitagoras, a university in Brazil.

    He formerly served as president of the University of Phoenix, which touts itself as the largest private, accredited university in the U.S.

    Ridder and Mahoney would not disclose the names of the group’s other contributors, who they said have been involved in several political issues, including the movement to legalize marijuana use for medical reasons.

    Experts on all sides agree that the Electoral College is one of the least understood institutions in American politics. State Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, a high school government teacher, said ninth-graders, like many adults, have trouble accepting an electoral process that picked Bush in 2000 despite the fact that Gore won more votes.

    “People can’t understand why we have this kind of system that seems so outdated and hasn’t been reformed in 200 years,” said Tupa, who tried unsuccessfully in the 2001 legislature to change Colorado’s electoral system.

    Tupa supports the ballot initiative on grounds that it would be “more fair” and “put Colorado on the map for both political parties.”

    Critics counter that the measure would render Colorado irrelevant in a presidential campaign because of the state’s narrow margins in voter registration. A close election could mean the winner takes only one more electoral vote than the loser.

    “For the first state to do this unilaterally, we go way down in importance,” said Dave Kopel, research director at the conservative Independence Institute in Golden. “Because there’s not much to gain … a candidate would be nuts to spend time in Colorado.”

  10. bob k

    didn’t mean to sound terse. that was suppost to be the readers digest condensed version of what se(@) said.

  11. Bob, Esq.,

    Did you hijack this thread? Get back to the Scrabble game before I designate a hit on you!

  12. nick spinelli,

    My childhood heroes were the 77 and 78 Yankees. But now you can’t watch the Yankees play without them relying completely on the home run.

    That’s incredibly boring.

    It seems to me that without the DH there’s more anticipation and strategy involved.

    Want to make a running race more interesting, throw hurdles in front of the runners and watch them navigate their way through.

    The game of baseball, like any sport, is about anticipation. If the only thing you’re anticipating is a home run then the sport just isn’t as interesting anymore.

  13. What about the upper peninsula. They seem to have an attitude problem. They seem to think they should be part of Michigan.

  14. Wow, what a great piece and it cuts through the BS that supporters of the electoral college always uses. The supporters of the EC always state that without the EC candidates will visit only a few big states, which they do now!! Turley states that is what clearly happens now.

  15. Dredd:

    thanks for pointing out that Nixon was a republican. I knew that but those wage and price controls throw me for a loop.

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