The electoral college is still a poor system

Thomas Ash
10 November 2008

Last Tuesday, Barack Obama won clear majorities in both the electoral college and the popular vote. Their divergence in 2000 remains an aberration in American political history; remarkably, the parties' support in different states is distributed in such a way that the winner of the popular vote will tend to win the electoral college (with Democrats currently having only a slight structural advantage due to the more efficient distribution of their vote).

In that respect, things are better in the US than in the UK, where the first-past-the-post system has often put one or other of the major parties at a disadvantage (as well as denying the significant number of third-party voters proportionate impact). However, we should not let this obscure the fact that the electoral college system has a number of other drawbacks.

First, it gives voters in low-population states like Vermont and Wyoming over twice as much weight as those in high-population states like New York and Texas.

Second, it hampers the growth of third parties. Some will regard that as a good thing, on the grounds that it encourages stability and forces compromise, but I disagree.

Third, it allows states to disenfranchise voters without losing clout. Southern states originally supported it for just this reason, as it let them increase their electoral college votes by counting their slave population (albeit at a discounted rate, with each slave worth three fifths of a free man).

Fourth, states in which one party has a comfortable margin suffer decreased turnout, as their residents feel that their votes will not make a difference.

Fifth, these states get less attention from the candidates than large swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which force politicians to pander to their particular needs. For example, John McCain's defeat in Iowa was ensured by his (admirable) refusal to follow Barack Obama in supporting ethanol subsidies.

There are moves afoot to overturn this flawed system. One of the cleverest, which bypasses the need to pass a constutional ammendment,is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.This is an agreement which kicks in when joined by enough states to command a majority in the electoral college, at which point these states promise to award their votes to the winner of the national popular vote. It has already been joined by Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland,and New Jersey. Let's hope that more states recognise the flawed nature of the current system, and join in the effort to reform it.

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