Monday, November 5, 2012

Pondering the Electoral College

I was asked today about the electoral college [EC], and I am clearly a bit biased this week since if there is a popular vote/electoral college conflict, the EC will be favoring my preferred candidate.  But I do think that the EC, which had somewhat different aims and effects centuries ago, is not a bad thing. 

Why? Well, as a scholar of ethnic conflict, I am familiar with debates about electoral institutions and especially those that advocate vote-pooling--those that compel candidates to reach out beyond a narrow constituency.  Given the interaction of demographics and the electoral college, a candidate has to do amazingly well to win when appealing only to whites folks.  Over time, the popular vote may end up being the same way, but the electoral college combined with everything else means that states with significant diversity (Virginia, Florida, Colorado, etc) are key.  If it was just about the popular vote, then one could try to really run up the score in a few big states and ignore large swaths of the country.  Yes, there is a focus only on swing states this month, but we got these states defined as such by the interaction of demographics and the electoral college.  And these are mostly medium sized, fairly representative states, forcing the politicians to make broader, rather than narrower, appeals.  NC, Ohio, CO, Nevada, Florida are a good mix of places.  

Yes, it does have one bad effect--it makes the Secretaries of State of a few places very powerful and increases the temptation to engage in voter suppression, but I prefer the court cases to focus on a few states rather than on the entire country, which would be the case in a close popular vote, right?

Again, I am biased in this and not just because I strongly prefer Obama to Romney but also because I think appealing to a wider demographic base is better than appealing to just one group.  Better to assure the many than scare the fewer; better to be broadly representative than to be the white man's man. 

Tomorrow will be interesting, and not just about the Presidency.  The GOP may have gone so far to the right that it may have lost a shot at winning the Senate.  How cool would that be?  Very cool.  Of course, the next question will be what lessons to learn from this, and I am confident that in the short term the GOP will blame Romney, non-existent voterfraud, the media, Hurricane Sandy, but will not revisit its strategies and its appeal to a narrowing base.  Learning is not inevitable.  In a Darwinian survival of the fittest, adaptation does not have to happen.  The less fit (those with narrow appeal) can be marginalized, just as the Great Powers of the past may still exist but are no longer all that relevant (Sweden, Portugal, Spain, etc.).

1 comment:

ConCat said...

I agree. I would be curious to see how well swing states reflect national demographics (both individually and in aggregate). But, ultimately, I favor the EC -- with all its flaws -- because dismantling it will mean longer, even more brutal elections; more disenfranchisement; and even more difficulty in assessing "legitimacy." (Let's face it: the population boom makes comparing 19th and early 20th century elections to modern ones is not altogether helpful here.)

I grew up in Ohio. It's not pretty during election season, but that has more to do with the two-year campaign season and useless FEC. I no longer vote in a swing state and I'm fine with that -- I can contribute to the PV, at a minimum, and then focus on state and local issues. Moreover, the states that become "swing" -- and how they swing -- are one way of "containing" id.pol. chaos. If a majority (51%) minority-population vote elected a president (regardless of state lines), it would be difficult for the victor to claim a credible "win" due to Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better problems. When this happens tomorrow, the EC is the shatterproof core of victory, and unhappy white men can blame stupid people in "x" state.

Personally, I'm wondering if the EC will become a way of defining legitimacy/mandate over time. Since 2000, only Obama really "decisively" won the pop. vote, and that was a battle of wits with an unarmed man. If we come to expect 51/49 (or similar) outcomes in PV, I wonder if people won't start clinging to numbers like 330 as "HE WON BIG OKAY. SUCK IT UP AND DEAL."