Political Animal


November 06, 2012 3:08 PM Whoever Wins, We Must Destroy the Electoral College

By Ryan Cooper

Let me assent to these posts by Tim Noah, David Dayen, and Paul Waldman. Even if President Obama gets another term by winning the electoral college and losing the popular vote, moving to a national popular vote system will still be the right policy. First, even if we grant that scenario, there is still a good case that Obama would have done better if this campaign had been run under a popular vote system. Huge states full of Democrats like California and New York have been mostly ignored in this election; the president would have been barnstorming all across those areas and cranking up his voter turnout machine.

Second, the deep blue Northeast is one of the worst regions of the country for early voting and voting by mail, which might seriously depress turnout in the event of, say, a hurricane. A national popular vote would give local Democrats (who control most of the relevant state legislatures) a big incentive to fix that system.

But most importantly, the electoral college is an anachronistic boondoggle that serves to disenfranchise most of the country when it comes to presidential elections. As Adam Liptak points out:

In the current election, the battleground has grown almost comically small. Just three states — Florida, Ohio and Virginia — have accounted for almost two-thirds of the recent campaign appearances by the presidential candidates and their running mates. The three are home to an eighth of the nation’s people.

If this keeps up, we may have only one state that decides the election, or even none. Imagine if all states became ideologically unbalanced enough that every one was reliably Democratic or Republican. It’s unlikely, but certainly possible. Would that be fair?

Finally, my parents live in a swing state (Colorado), and as they’ve been reminding me, living through the election there is not fun. It might be nice on some theoretical grounds to know that your vote for president actually matters, but being swamped with doomsaying ads—regularly every single ad during a commercial break will be political—and being called twenty times a day is deeply obnoxious.

Oh, and what happens if there is an electoral college tie is truly preposterous:

One person, one vote. Is that really so controversial?


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • schtick on November 06, 2012 3:19 PM:

    I imagine if it ended up with a dem the SCOTUS will be called on to correct it.

  • Mudge on November 06, 2012 3:24 PM:

    Remember that many Republicans want to repeal the 17th amendment and have state legislatures choose senators.

    One person, one vote?

  • Fess on November 06, 2012 3:29 PM:

    Jeez louise, Mudge! Our state legislature (CA) hasn't agreed on anything in years. I'm not sure they can agree on which day of the week this is. How could they possibly agree on a presidential choice? Bet there are some who could be bought though.

  • ribber on November 06, 2012 3:37 PM:

    Gotta say one thing in defense of the Electoral College system: it's a firewall on recounts. A close electoral college race means recounting a state or two. A close popular vote race means recounting all of them.

  • Tom Dibble on November 06, 2012 3:39 PM:

    I'm not so sure it's that simple, for exactly one reason: campaign financing.

    Imagine an election where 90% of your funds need to be spent swaying three states to your point of view. Once saturated, those three states won't benefit by having more advertising money thrown their way. Thus, the maximum cost of a relatively close election is effectively capped.

    Now, instead of those three states, imagine 50 states. The effective cap is still there, because you can and will necessarily carpet-bomb all 50 states to the same extent as those three original states, but the cap is much, much (16x as much) higher.

    Yes, that's "great" for the states who have wished they could get in on that sweet carpet-bombing action. But, it's not great for anyone who believes elections should be as cheap as possible so that the elected candidates are as much as possible unbeholden to their financiers. That's obviously not where we are today, but moving that much further away from that goal doesn't seem like a good thing.

    Again, the fundamental economics is this: if you spend $10/person, you will get a certain % of low-information voters going your way. If you spend $20/person, you will get less than twice that many low-information voters, and will not have increased your high-information voter pool at all. Thus, there is a clear law of diminishing returns in any one market.

    This is IMHO the main reason why Romney went to Pennsylvania et al. You can say it's because he thought it was in play; I think the real reason is that as remote the chance of it being in play was, a dollar spent there was more likely to gain him electoral advantage than another dollar spent in the already-over-exposed Ohio market.

    I definitely see the counter arguments. Having effectively no contest in California means that it really doesn't matter what my vote is, or the vote of about 20% of the state is; it would take more of the state than that to go batshit insane to swing our electoral representation to Romney. The converse is true in Texas. But think of how much more expensive a campaign which carpet-bombed California and Texas and New York and Massachusetts trying to eke out a few more million popular-election votes would be. And at least on one side of the aisle, there is ample money sitting around waiting for the chance to carpet-bomb nationally if that means it is likely to sway the election.

  • JCB on November 06, 2012 3:44 PM:

    If this keeps up, we may have only one state that decides the election, or even none.

    Isaac Asimov had a solution to the problem, back in 1955:


  • Nancy Cadet on November 06, 2012 3:45 PM:

    I was thinking, again, of why the Electoral College should be abolished, as I waited for almost two hours to vote in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in an area that did not flood or lose power due to hurricane Sandy. some in the line were going to vote by affidavit since they were in a local shelter, or their poll site was not functioning.

    A national popular vote, with Federal voting standards, would be a great improvement, and other voting changes have been put in place since the "Founders'" days, ie. Votes for women, non property owners, enfranchisement of African and native Americans.

    Of course with the obstructional politics/tactics of the GOP such a "radical" change , which does not promote more disenfranchisement, would be ferociously opposed. it should have been done in 1950!

    IMHO a two hour line to vote is a form of voter suppression, and it shows the enthusiasm of Obama supporters in my nabe, and also the slow and poor organization of the poll workers, and the cumbersome system adopted

  • joeff on November 06, 2012 3:54 PM:

    Abolishing the EC is a non-solution unless it's accompanied by: 1)federal government-run elections with nationwide standards for voter eligibility; and 2) overturning of Citizens United.

  • MBunge on November 06, 2012 3:56 PM:

    I'm almost ready to give up. The anti-Electoral College jihad is entirely about coastal elites pissed off that any place except the Northeast and California have any say in national politics. They don't care about the cost of a national popular vote. They don't care about the total impossiblity of a national recount. They don't care about the effect on our politics (Hint: Under a national popular vote for President, the GOP could remain the White People Party and still be Presidentially viable for a long time to come). They just seethe at anyone besides them deciding things for the country.


  • Robert Nagle on November 06, 2012 4:18 PM:

    One side effect of the EC is this horrible polarization. Texas has a lot of liberals and reasonably thoughtful people, but they exist in a vacuum where donors view the state as a "lost cause" and so one party has an almost suffocating dominance. National Popular Vote might have a moderating influence on such states. Also, while the potential for fraud and abuse is high in one state where the vote could come down to a 1000 votes or less, the national vote would have a lot higher margin of error. That is a really good point though about recounts. My answer is simply: any state election system should be prepared for a recount and for presidents it would be hard to imagine a difference in votes less than 50,000. Even in 2000, the difference in popular vote was 500,000.

    Robert Nagle, http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/

  • golack on November 06, 2012 4:21 PM:

    Now, now, the Electoral college is very useful--but reforms are needed. The "winner takes all" approach in almost all states does not work. Modify it. The winner of each state gets 2 votes, with the rest divided up proportionally depending on the vote count in that state. Note, NOT by district (way too much gerrymandering). Disputes go to the winner of the national vote count.

  • KadeKo on November 06, 2012 4:37 PM:

    I will repeat myself:

    Most of those states on the NPV are urban, suburban-purple, or solid Democratic prizes.

    I'll come out for the bipartisan NPV idea when all the third-wayers convince Republican leges in:


    the Solid South

    and the sparsely populated, EV-overendowed states between the West Coast and the Mississippi River

    do it.

    For once in our fcking lives, let's let the GOP do some bipartisan crap first.

    Until then, screw it.

  • vickijean on November 06, 2012 4:39 PM:

    That would still disenfranchise small states. Seems like states like Mississippi will be disenfranchised regardless. Without electoral college they would just need to campaign in population centers: the major cities, Texas and Florida.

  • PEA on November 06, 2012 4:40 PM:

    JOEFF is right -- we need several reforms. Between evidence and suspicion (which de-legitimizes any outcome and govt in general), time has come for big change. Voting for president (registration, voting mechanism, paper trace, access, schedule, etc) does not need to (and probably should not) be tied to states at all. Of course we need this by 2014 but it's unlikely...

  • beejeez on November 06, 2012 5:13 PM:

    All due respect, vickijean, the people who are disenfranchised right now are the residents of large states. You know. The ones with lots of Americans living in them.

  • FredW on November 06, 2012 5:55 PM:

    What I'd like to see is all states do things like Nebraska and Maine -- districute EVs by district, with the PV winner in the state getting the bonus two.

    That would force candidates to campaign in more states and plus in a close race we have recounds in a limited number of places.

    Can you image what went on in Florida in 2000 on a nationwide basis? It might takes years to figure out who won.

    Of course, I don't what this to happen in California until Texas goes along as well :)

  • FredW on November 06, 2012 5:57 PM:

    What I'd like to see is all states do things like Nebraska and Maine -- districute EVs by district, with the PV winner in the state getting the bonus two.

    That would force candidates to campaign in more states and plus in a close race we have recounds in a limited number of places.

    Can you image what went on in Florida in 2000 on a nationwide basis? It might takes years to figure out who won.

    Of course, I don't what this to happen in California until Texas goes along as well :)

  • a kastberg on November 06, 2012 6:27 PM:

    If you do away with the electoral college, how will you standardize the state voting regulations to prevent local officials from vote suppression?