Keeping the States Interested in the Electoral College
Everybody’s talking about the Electoral College and the national popular vote movement, ’round here. Ian’s on it in the Phoenix. Matt Sledge talks it up on RI Future (although he doesn’t think it pertinent to mention that he’s the executive director of FairVote RI). Most interesting, however, is Edward Fitzpatrick’s column, because the recent FairVote event that sparked the discussion apparently changed his mind, based on the arguments of senior editor and staff writer for The New Yorker (and FairVote board member) Hendrik Hertzberg:
If people such as Carcieri “think the Electoral College is such a good idea, why don’t they propose it on the state level?” Hertzberg asked. In most elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. “It’s pretty simple,” he said. “And that’s how your governor was elected.”
On his blog, Hertzberg noted the Constitution gives each state the power to pick electors “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct.” And he said the Founding Fathers did not establish “the current system,” in which states award all their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote in each state.
Hertzberg said the current system is “unjust” because “it can easily deprive the people of their preferred choice but also, and mainly, because it shuts the citizens of the 30 or more non-‘battleground’ states out of the game.”
In an interview, Carcieri said the Electoral College was meant to prevent smaller states from being “steamrolled” by larger states, and he said the system “has withstood the test of time.”
Hertzberg said, “To say that it has withstood the test of time is simply to say that it’s old.” And he said having a disproportionate share of electoral votes hasn’t kept Rhode Island from becoming a “spectator” state — all but ignored by presidential candidates. Of the 13 states with the smallest populations, only New Hampshire has avoided “spectator” status, he said.
The only thing more disheartening than the realization that a senior editor for a major cultural publication would make these arguments is that they have such wide currency. Firstly, it isn’t difficult to comprehend the differences between the nation and its political divisions (states), on one hand, and a state and its political divisions (municipalities), on the other: The geographic, economic, and cultural dispersion among municipalities is not nearly as dramatic as among states, and the federal government behaves beyond the scope of states in a different way than states do municipalities. (There isn’t really a state-level analog to the nation’s interaction with the world community.)
That point is minuscule, however, in the shadow of the notion that Rhode Island would somehow become more important during campaign season under a national popular vote scheme. Under the Electoral College system, Rhode Island accounts for 0.75% of the available votes. In terms of population, the state holds 0.36% of the national total. In other words, our vote value on a per capita basis would be equivalent to having only two Electoral College votes (with the national total remaining the same).
The specific National Popular Vote proposal currently on the table would actually reduce Rhode Island’s significance further. Given Constitutional difficulties, the way the proposal actually functions is by having state legislatures give their Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins the popular vote, but only when enough states have signed on to guarantee victory — that is, when the signatory states account for over half of Electoral College votes.
What that means is that politicians would have our four-EC votes of incentive to campaign in cities and states with higher populations and less homogeneous voting patterns. One-hundred and thirty cities have larger populations than Providence’s, and 42 states have larger populations than Rhode Island’s. And the state-by-state component of campaign strategies would account for a smaller amount of the total effort, because the National Popular Vote would effectively make the voter audience a national one, thereby increasing the importance of advertisements on a national scale.
I haven’t had a chance to research extensively why leftists, in particular, are so keen for the popular vote, but I don’t believe that it’s residual bitterness over the Bush/Gore race. It could have to do with the fact that Democrats dominate in urban areas, so the math would therefore leave them with a greater advantage, particularly in organizing. Their investment in identity groups may also be a factor, given that geography dilutes such cuts of society.
The advantage of that dilution is perhaps the strongest argument for the Electoral College: It preserves our nation as the United States of America, not the United Interests of America. In a similar vein, it stands as a final safeguard against a populist tyranny — giving small states an allowance against large ones, and political minorities protection against a zeitgeist.