Experts cast votes on Electoral College at Janus lecture

Sydney Ember // Published October 11, 2008 in The Brown Daily Herald
Eight years after Al Gore lost the presidential election despite winning the popular vote, two experts faced off on issues regarding the Electoral College in presidential elections.

A crowd of mostly students packed into MacMillan Hall last night to hear the speakers debate the current election process in a Janus Forum lecture called "Thinking Outside the Ballot Box: Is the Electoral College Good for America?" Tara Ross, author of "Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College," and George Edwards, political science professor at Texas A&M University and author of "Why the Electoral College is Bad for America," sparred over issues including the power of electoral minorities under the current system, the importance of federalism and the existence of swing states.

"I think that pure democracy is not a good thing ... and the founding generation agreed with me," Ross said. She urged the audience members to consider the logic behind the Electoral College regardless of their party affiliation.

"The fundamental aspects of human nature remain unchanged," she said. "You still need a government that protects you from that."

Ross went on to say that the Electoral College requires presidential candidates to seek the support of a diverse group of people who would not necessarily matter under a direct election process. She added that under a more direct process for presidential elections, candidates could "camp out" in areas with larger populations and ignore rural, less-populated areas.

The current system also decreases the impact of "extremist" third parties, she said.

Edwards argued that the Electoral College should be abolished. "At the heart of democracy is the view that all voters are equal and that minorities should not rule," he said.

Edwards said several aspects of the Electoral College contribute to violating both principles. The most important violation, he said, was that the current system awards votes on a "winner-take-all" basis, giving all votes to the plurality winner, not the majority winner.

He added that the potential disparity between the winners of the national vote and the electoral vote is one of the most "egregious violations of democratic principles."

Instead, Edwards said he advocated a direct election process.

"I suggest we hold an election ... and select the candidate who receives the most votes," he said. This system would encourage more party competition and increase participation in elections because people would feel their vote mattered more than under the current system, he said.

But Ross, who said the current system fosters moderation and compromise, said she still supports the Electoral College, though she acknowledged that it departs from the concept of direct democracy.

"It doesn't bother me that it isn't one person, one vote across the entire nation," Ross said.

"Stability and certainty result from our current system," she said, because electoral votes magnify the margin of victory. "On Election Day, you do have that feeling - we know who our president is." The 2000 election, she said, was "a rarity."

She added that the current system makes it more difficult to affect the election through fraud.

Ross said changing the current system would be difficult because it is a fundamental part of our constitution.

"Our government system is like the solar system. If you change the gravitational pull of the sun," she said, alluding to a quotation by President Kennedy, "it will set off a whole domino effect. In the same way, you cannot take the Electoral College out of our system."

After the lecture, some students still said they were unsure about the Electoral College system.

"I heard different arguments than I was expecting," said Reuben Henriques '12, though he added he wasn't sure the lecture had changed his previous stance on the issue.

"I think it was interesting to have two perspectives," said Inaki Arbeloa '12, "but I don't think either of them were that convincing."