What (if Anything) Should Be Done About Improving the System of Electing a President? (Part 2)

author: Akhil Amar, Yale Law School
author: Vikram Amar, UC Davis School of Law
author: Robert Bennett, Northwestern University School of Law
author: Alexander Keyssar, John F. Kennedy School of Government
author: Paul Schumaker, Department of Political Science, The University of Kansas
published: June 4, 2013,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 2801

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The Electoral College emphatically does not represent the best of all possible worlds, say these panelists, providing often scathing and nuanced responses to the EC advocates who precede them in this conference.

Akhil Amar favors the direct national election because it “best expresses the idea of one person, one vote.” One argument in favor of the EC, though: inertia, which essentially expresses that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” He takes issue with those who would preserve the EC because it exclusively sustains federalism. Direct national elections, he says, wouldn’t eliminate the Senate or the need for federal oversight of voting. Why fear a direct vote, he asks, when plenty of big states like California and Texas directly elect an executive “who looks like a mini-president…and it works just fine.”

The “origins of the Electoral College are quite tainted and not really that understood,” says Vikram Amar, and the more he listens to arguments for retaining the institution, “the more laughable some of them are.” The EC doesn’t really promote “the deepest vision of federalism,” as its proponents suggest, nor does it defeat regionalism, since as few as 11 states could dictate the outcome of an election. He also derides advocates who support the EC because it can “exaggerate the margin of victory to create legitimacy.”

Robert Bennett favors a nationwide popular vote, because he’s “concerned about the incentives we have for campaigning and promising by candidates.” Under the current system, candidates hit swing states hard and “ignore the others.” Voters in California or New York don’t hear from candidates except around money raising. Bennett believes that a popular vote “would lead to reaching out to a broader swath of the population.” Other incentives to switch systems: the minority party would need “to get its act together” and we would be “less likely to have terribly close (elections). “

Alexander Keyssar says many of the empirical claims in favor of the Electoral College “are demonstrably false,” and describes the current system as “deformed.” It’s “surely the most unpopular political institution the Founding Fathers have created.” Many attempts to abolish the system failed, owing in large part to the issue of race. “Had there been a national popular vote, the political power of the white racist South would have been dramatically diminished.” Another reason for the preservation of the EC has been the perception of short-term partisan advantage. Keyssar approves the decentralized efforts by the National Popular Vote Initiative to abolish the Electoral College.

Paul Schumaker has written a book breaking down the pros and cons of the existing election system. He recommends going beyond thinking “just in terms of a popular system,” and looking at elections based on popular plurality, popular majority and instant runoff (his personal favorite). He examines all of these in light of such qualities as simplicity, equality, neutrality, participation, legitimacy and stability. Ultimately, “I don’t think there’s an ideal system, says Schumaker. But “can we do better? Yes.”

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