The Electoral College and the Vote

This post is not about candidates or races. I’m not telling you how to vote or why. I’ve already done all I intend to do of that.

Instead, this is something relevant but more general, something to think about while we await results — and briefly, something to do once we know them, whatever they prove to be.

The Vote

Be sure to vote today, if you didn’t vote early – and not to, if you did. (The Chicago exception is noted.) Besides tending to moderate the outcomes, a high turnout among living, registered voters is one of the best ways to ensure that the living outvote the dead, the legal outvote the illegal, and the real outvote the fabricated – if you worry about those things at all.

I believe there is an implied, inalienable voter’s right to be reasonably confident that conscientious measures are in place (a) to facilitate voting by everyone who is eligible to vote and wishes to, and (b) to protect the integrity of the vote from various forms of fraud, intimidation, and other activities which would corrupt it.

This presidential race has seen accusations flying freely on these themes – some more ridiculous than others. Whatever their merits, when the dust settles, we should find some common ground, if there is any, on voter registration, voter identification, voter intimidation, and voter fraud – so that reckless claims that these exist will be less alarming and less plausible, and ardent convictions that they don’t will be less laughable and more realistic. Finding common ground will be difficult, because partisan advantage is often a greater priority on both sides than the integrity of the people’s vote . . . but maybe the worst features of our factions don’t always have to rule the day.

If you’re unsettled by Mr. Trump’s claims that the election is rigged, despite his explanations (which mostly prove that he doesn’t know what “rigged” means), or by scattered accounts of voter fraud, voter intimidation, and other inappropriate activities on both sides of the partisan aisle – some of which are probably credible – please take a moment to ponder the structural safeguards in our system of government.

Hanky-panky in Chicago or Virginia or Ohio has no effect whatsoever on most of the races on my ballot. It doesn’t affect local or state offices, of course, and it doesn’t help elect a particular member of Congress or senator from any other state. That’s obvious.

The Electoral College

The one race it could affect across state lines is the presidential race. But even here there is partial containment of the damage. Because the winner is not the candidate with the most votes, but rather the one who accumulates the majority of votes in the Electoral College, which are awarded by state, only a given state’s electoral votes are compromised by misconduct in that state. And only states where the margins of victory are relatively narrow are susceptible to this sort of corruption in a degree that might affect outcomes. Granted, a state or two can be enough to affect the election result, if it’s close. And some states have a lot more electoral votes than my own. No safeguard is perfect.

This safety feature is not the only positive effect of the Electoral College as an alternative to direct election. Our system also requires candidates to campaign in most states, rather than simply targeting the densest populations. They actually have to land in flyover country – over and over again. That’s a good thing.

It also gives the winner more credibility as the president of the entire nation. It is mathematically possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote in 49 states, but win by a large enough margin in one state to win the national popular vote. In our system, with the Electoral College, that result would not be just a defeat for the candidate who is preferred by a majority of voters in only one state. It would be a defeat of historic proportions – because 49 states preferred someone else. Depending on which state voted that way, the loser might be able to count his or her electoral votes on one hand. This is an extreme example to illustrate a point, but the point can also be observed in some years’ actual election results.

The Electoral College also tends to magnify the margin of victory in the popular vote, which probably makes it easier for the new president to govern, and for the nation to unite behind the victor. Here’s another extreme illustration. If a candidate won all 50 states by a single vote – we’ll assume that’s after the inevitable recounts, and again I’m ignoring entities other than states – his or her margin of victory would be 50 votes among millions. With the Electoral College, those same state results would produce a complete landslide, with every vote (or nearly so – another story) going to the winner. Ask yourself, which situation makes it easier to govern and be governed?

You may not like all of the Electoral College’s effects. For example, it’s been decades since even an unusually popular third-party candidate got a single electoral vote. (Just one is possible, even though no state has a total of one to give, but that’s another story too.) There’s a chance of a third candidate getting electoral votes in this election, thanks to Utah, and the political scientist in me will be fascinated to see the ripples if it happens. That said, I’m not enamored of the multiparty systems I’ve studied; governing coalitions tend to be led by the nose by their smallest, most radical party. But I understand if you think this makes the Electoral College system unfair to third parties.

I think the scheme is brilliant.

In any case, next time you wonder why we still have an Electoral College, and why we shouldn’t amend it out of existence, you’ve heard one guy’s views in its defense. There are other arguments for its benefits in less likely situations, but we’ll leave those for another day.

Final Thoughts

Three quick, final thoughts on this Election Day, while we wait.

First, it’s good to remember that getting to vote at all, however flawed the system or the particular choices, has not been a universal blessing among the people of the world.

Second, mail-in ballots just have to be postmarked in time. They have several more days to arrive and be counted. So close races may be too close to call for a while, even without recounts.

Third, when you know who they are, don’t forget to pray for the winners, if you’re a praying person. And for the nation – no matter who wins.

As always, thanks for reading.