Electoral College Fail: More balance needed in EAC summary

by Matt Sledge // Published July 2, 2009
Seems like someone, somewhere, within the depths of the Federal bureaucracy committed an Electoral College fail--and I'm not talking about the "wrong winner" elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000.

The federal agency the Election Assistance Commission has an Overview of the Electoral College available for download on its website. You might expect an unexceptionable, just-the-facts-ma'am explanation, but you'd be wrong. Instead, the document has some questionable assertions and omissions.

Where to begin? Maybe with the final sentence, which gives us this strikingly "Whig" interpretation of history: "The Electoral College may have been a system the founding fathers regarded as imperfect, but it remains likely the only way Americans will continue to elect their president." Well, it will with that attitude, but.... Americans widely dislike the Electoral College, with about 75% preferring a direct election, so there's plenty of public appetite for a better system. Luckily, there's a reform effort on the table, the National Popular Vote, that's already been enacted by five states with 61 of the 270 electoral votes needed for us to attain "one person, one vote."

To be fair, the EAC document, dated October 2008, does mention the National Popular Vote effort, albeit without noting the string of successes it has had since its introduction in 2006. But there are a few other oversights in the Overview. Such as...

--No Mention of Slavery. Anywhere. You don't need to be a cynic to recognize that some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had a, shall we say, peculiar objection to direct democracy. Here's what James Madison -- a private backer of a national popular vote himself -- had to say about why the convention wasn't going to establish a direct election to pick the president:

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.
New Yorker senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg has much more on this issue. Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised that the document also neglects to mention the current Electoral College system's disproportionate adverse impact on African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority populations that are under-represented in the current swing states.

--Uncritically Adopting the "Small State" Myth. The document claims that "one of the central reasons for adopting the Electoral College-to ensure more populace [sic] states do not have an unfair advantage-still applies today." That would come as news to residents of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, and DC...12 of the 13 smallest-population states. But don't worry, neither California nor New York has an "unfair advantage" today--in fact, the two largest population states have almost no influence during the general election campaign. That seems odd...there must be some place...somewhere...with that unfair advantage...

--Forgetting about Swing States and Safe States. Red, blue, swing, safe. All of these terms, juvenile as they may be, are items in our common political glossary. All of us are too well aware of the unbelievably concentrated attention that 15 or 16 "battleground" states receive every four years. All of us except for this EAC analyst, it seems--when the document was produced in October 2008, its authors must have been living in a cave without cable TV.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, told Portfolio magazine after the election that his team "viewed the campaign as essentially 16 different campaigns"--one for every battleground state. Not one campaign for every one of the 50 states, or one for all of America, but a collection of swing state contests, and even more specifically, fights over swing voters in those swing states.

The facts from 2008 are staggering:

* More than 98% of all campaign events and more than 98% of all campaign spending took place in only 15 states representing 36.6% of the nation's eligible voter population, effectively sidelining nearly two-thirds of all Americans.

* Voter turnout in those 15 contested states was 67%, while turnout in the remaining states was 61%. Voter turnout declined in more a third of  states despite the public's high level of interest in the nation's first open-seat presidential election in half a century.

It's a bit surprising that none of these widely-known flaws in the current system made it into the brief section called "Weaknesses of the Electoral College." But then again, maybe it's best that we not talk about what's wrong with the Electoral College, since "it remains likely the only way Americans will continue to elect their president." Let's hope not--maybe we can do something about it.