Time to rethink the Electoral College

The presidential candidates of both parties are supporting the popular campaign theme of "change." But after the dust begins to settle in November, and not too long after we have a new president in January, maybe it’s time for both parties to consider and initiate a fundamental change in how we elect our presidents: the abolition of the Electoral College in favor of direct election.

This is, by no means, a new idea; it has been proposed in Congress many times. Furthermore, in opinion polls a significant majority of Americans favor this change. Many Americans find the peculiar constitutional provision for an Electoral College baffling; it’s much easier for them to imagine that they are voting for a known national candidate than for an anonymous elector who probably will support that candidate. In general, this quadrennial ballot-box bait-and-switch usually works out the way the voters intend, but not always.

Nevertheless, the Electoral College resides firmly in the Constitution, a document that is, quite properly, very difficult to amend. But maybe the time has finally come.

The work of George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University and a longtime proponent of the abolition of the Electoral College, inspired me to think along these lines. It’s also a case that he makes in his book, "Why the Electoral College is Bad for America." He recently visited the college where I work, and he construed his arguments eloquently and convincingly.

The original logic behind the Electoral College involved, theoretically, the protection of the interests of our nation’s smaller states. In reality, Edwards argues, the authors of the Constitution may have thought of the Electoral College as a temporary compromise that would allow the document’s completion while placating slaveholding states. After all, everyone knew that George Washington was going to be the first president, anyway; the Founders could afford to temporize for a while on the method of election.

But at a time when the populations of the original states varied by a factor of no more than six, the Founders would have had a difficult time imagining our situation: our largest state, population-wise, is California. It’s 70 times bigger than our smallest state, Wyoming. Since nearly all the states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, millions of voters who support a losing candidate in a large state are essentially disenfranchised — their votes don’t count. And in three peculiar cases in our history the winner of the popular vote has lost the Electoral College election.

Even worse, Edwards argues, rather than directing the candidates’ attention toward the small states — which actually have few, or no, genuine small-state interests these days — the Electoral College shifts candidates’ focuses away from both small states and non-competitive large states. It doesn’t make good political sense for either Barack Obama or John McCain to spend time, energy or money in my state, Texas, since it’s considered to be solidly in the Republican camp. Better to ignore the many Democratic voters in Texas and spend those resources in states that can make a difference, even if they have fewer electoral votes.

There’s a lot more to Edwards’ argument, and it so overwhelms the few arguments that favor the Electoral College that one wonders why we still have it. One of the problems is that the party in power is usually reluctant to tinker with the process that put it there. Furthermore, we have a very healthy reluctance to second-guess the Founders’ thinking on how the holder of the highest office in the land should be chosen.

Most Americans share this reluctance to modify the Constitution — I certainly do — but Edwards points out that on the relatively few occasions when the Constitution has been amended, it’s nearly always been in the direction of broader enfranchisement, of blacks and women, for example. Abolishing the Electoral College in favor of direct election of the president would continue that healthy tradition by enfranchising Democrats in Texas and Republicans in California.

There are other issues that call for real change — our addiction to oil, our growing class inequality, our health-care system — but perhaps abolishing the Electoral College would be a good place to start.


(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)