The Electoral College Experts Audience Dialogue (Part 5)

moderator: Arnold I. Barnett, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Judith Best, State University of New York College at Cortland
author: Robert Hardaway, Sturm College of Law, University of Denver
author: Robert Bennett, Northwestern University School of Law
author: Paul Schumaker, Department of Political Science, The University of Kansas
author: Akhil Amar, Yale Law School
author: John Fortier, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
author: Alan Natapoff, UCLA Anderson School of Management
author: Alexander S. Belenky, Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Vikram Amar, UC Davis School of Law
author: Alexander Keyssar, John F. Kennedy School of Government
published: June 4, 2013,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 2957

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Audience members take the floor in this last of five sessions debating whether to retain or discard the Electoral College system. Through question, answer and general discussion, the panelists further elucidate their positions on the main conference topic.

The following is a short list of discussion areas raised by audience questions:

Panelists engage around how a national popular vote system would impact minority groups. Judith Best and Robert Hardaway believe that minorities in swing states have an advantage in our current system, and a change would mean losing that leverage. Robert Bennett, Paul Schumaker, and Akhil Amar dispute this.

John Fortier, Schumaker, Alan Natapoff, and Vikram and Akhil Amar discuss whether a national popular vote would have the effect of mobilizing voter organization and participation at a community level. Fortier doesn’t see a panacea in the popular election, while Schumaker sees very positive consequences. Akhil Amar believes there will be “more close elections in the future than in the past,” due to 24/7 polling made possible by new technologies. Natapoff declares that “simple national voting creates pernicious incentives to play off one group against another.”

An audience member comments on the “denigration of third parties” during the conference and wonders how a change in election systems might affect the emergence of viable, elect-able third party candidates. Alexander Keyssar notes that the U.S. is the only country in the world where no new political party has come to power in the 20th century. “It’s possible that’s because our two political parties are so magnificent…” he says. Other panelists point out the dangers of multiparty elections, and the possibility of elections being thrown into the House of Representatives. Some suggest adopting instant runoff elections. Akhil Amar cites a law of political science that “when you have one office up for grabs, you’re generally going to have two parties vying for it in long-term equilibrium.”

One audience member wonders what foreign nations might offer the U.S. in terms of election process. Natapoff claims that our current system is essentially parliamentary, and Akhil Amar retorts “our system is so far from parliamentary as to be staggering.” Keyssar adds that our Electoral College, while like a parliament, is not an ongoing body. Amar believes that while we have much to learn from other systems, they won’t be adopted at the federal level unless “they’re road-tested in the states and proved to be workable.”

If the U.S. generally produces only two viable candidates, and the Electoral College handles this kind of election well, why move to a popular vote? Alexander Belenky responds that with the EC, just 11 states can elect a president. “If in those states the turnout is low and the rest of the country’s turnout is high, it may be that a small percentage of the popular vote will elect the president.”

The panelists devote additional time to discussing each other’s suggestions for modifying the Electoral College and other changes to the voting system, and discuss in detail how runoff voting works.

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