In Defense of the Electoral College

Our perennial disgust with the Electoral College is underway. In every presidential election but three, the popular vote and state electors have named the same winner. Yet that hasn’t stopped Americans from grousing that the Electoral College is complicated, unfair, and responsible for George W. Bush’s presidency.

Right now, there’s a very plausible chance that Mitt Romney, with huge majorities in the South, will win the popular vote while not necessarily making it over the 270 electoral vote finish-line for a national win. Should that happen, I’ll be disappointed, yet I’ll defend the Electoral College just the same.

Residing in the Swarthmore dorms offers many of us the distinction of living in a “swing state,” with Obama’s lead over Romney in the Keystone State now nail-bitingly narrow. I’m still voting in Connecticut, partly because of our close Senate race between Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy, but mostly out of an inexplicable loyalty to New England. Am I throwing away my vote in one of the nation’s bluest states? Probably. Do I still defend the Electoral College? Absolutely.

The Federal Register records 700 futile attempts at doing-away with the Electoral College over the course of our nation’s history. A change in how we determine our president would require a Constitutional amendment — a purposely tricky undertaking. Formally editing the Constitution calls for three-fourths of the states to ratify. Smaller states, though, wield a disproportionate sway through the Electoral College and are unwilling to alter the procedure.

Some Republicans, who have suddenly awoken to the inequities of the Electoral College, are proposing the “National Popular Vote” Bill to salvage what they interpret as a conservative popularity edge. Unfortunately, initiatives like these betray our underlying Constitutional principles in favor of a particular election. Genuine conservatives ought to pay heed to James Madison, who warned of majoritarian tyranny and outlined his vision for a combination of popular and state-based government in Federalist No. 39.

In an environment in which citizens increasingly project their political discontents onto the Feds, the Electoral College reminds us that states and localities matter, because it’s the states, and sometimes specific counties, who cast the final die. All too often, we look to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to solve our problems because we don’t trust the people down the street.

Highlighting this collapse in engagement, the influential 1950’s sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote, “We continue to ring changes on themes handed down from the eighteenth century without realizing that the power of the bells to stir consciousness is always limited by what already lies within consciousness. When this has become altered, no amount of frenzied change-ringing will suffice. For the symbols of liberalism, like the bells of the church, depend on the prejudgments and social tradition.” Complaining about the Electoral College amounts to misunderstanding a political symbol because we’re close to losing the local, social fact of American life.

Nisbet loved localism — meaning small towns, schools, churches, civic clubs and trade unions. If this sounds reminiscent of Robert Putnam, prominent political scientist and Swarthmore alum, you’re right. Putnam’s studies are essentially a contemporary expansion of the Nisbet thesis. We haven’t witnessed the total demolition of World War II that Nisbet did, yet we risk being just as atomized and disillusioned as Nisbet’s neighbors because we’ve abandoned community and localism.  Instead of reviving our little Burkean platoons, we turn on cable news to see what’s happening on the 24-hour national stage.

Occupy Wall Street didn’t take its grievances to City Hall — it demanded federal redistribution, federal student loans, federal bank-crackdowns. This faith in national intervention falsely romanticizes movements like the French Revolution, in which the mass wields unfiltered power. I’m not saying one-man-one-vote automatically spells radical Jacobinism, but it does risk the sway and prejudices of a fickle citizenry. Better to have an ordered republic that absorbs citizen opinion and directs those opinions toward stable electoral institutions. Institutions like the Electoral College force politicians back toward state engagement, reaffirming the fact that we are a nation of states and not just people. If this means voters in Ohio receive a disproportionate amount of the spotlight, so be it. The Electoral College, in short, resists federal know-it-alls and returns to state and local concerns. We’re forced to talk about things like coal mines, ethanol and the Navy because these are important matters in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Virginia.

After Sandy’s mayhem along the East coast, professional pundits like CNN’s Andrea Mitchell took to the screen to question (or was it to kindly suggest?) whether Washington might delay Election Day because of the hurricane. Never mind the fact that the United States carried on with elections during the Civil War. Election rules are not designed or tweaked based on presidential whim. They depend on the procedure of state legislatures. To assume otherwise undermines our remaining examples of federalism and the Constitution’s careful delegation of shared authority. What’s more, clamoring for a federal rain-check funnels an undue level of confidence into the national executive, encouraging the kind of  pretentiously “imperial” presidencies we’ve watched under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This brings us back to the current swing-states, which have received an ungodly level of news attention. Sure, watching candidates in flannel traipsing around a pumpkin patch in Iowa is hokey and contrived. But this appeal to a rugged, classic American spirit is far preferable to the Washington Beltway. The Electoral College has its quirks, yet it gets politicians out of DC and into real, lively communities. And it probably sells more apple cider.

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