homepage logo

Omdahl: Archaic Electoral College still picks presidents

By Staff | Dec 2, 2016

U. S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has introduced a resolution calling for replacement of the Electoral College with a direct popular vote.

Since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and lost in the Electoral College, the resolution looks more like sour grapes than serious reform. It has politicized discussion of the question.

The Electoral College has been under siege from the very beginning. In fact, it was a committee compromise to end the last contentious fight in the Constitutional Convention.

Several other options had been considered and dismissed, including election by Congress, by state legislatures, and by popular vote. The election of multiple executives was even considered. So let’s not pretend that the Electoral College resulted from an objective search for the best voting system.

Partisan arguments aside, it was inevitable that we eventually would get to the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. After all, we have seen a 200-year drift toward democratization of our political institutions.

We started with a popular vote for the electors in the early 1800s, then went to direct election of U. S. Senators. Next, the Supreme Court forced recalcitrant state legislatures to apply a strict 1-person, 1-vote principle to the creation of legislative districts.

It is true that the Electoral College is undemocratic but it gets that characteristic from including senators in the formula for allocating electors. If we abolished the Electoral College, we would be hard pressed to justify continuance of the U. S. Senate.

Another undemocratic feature of the Electoral College is that it gives states their assigned electoral votes regardless of turnout. Minnesota produces over 300,000 votes per elector while Alabama produces only 200,000.

The Electoral College is vulnerable to exploitation by minorities. Third party single-issue candidates can skim off enough voters to throw an election. Ralph Nader did this in 2000.

Then there is the George Wallace option. Riding the wave of regional bigotry in 1968, he carried five states and won 46 electoral votes. In a close election, this could be enough to bargain with the two major parties for his votes.

If Donald Trump had lost, his followers were so loyal that he could win 3-way races in 2020 as an independent, collect a significant number of electors, and become broker-in-chief. I suspect he had that in mind when it looked like he would lose .

Several defenses of the Electoral Colleges have been anemic.

First off, campaigns would not gravitate as claimed to the two coasts at the expense of the heartland. The political strategist’s bible advises candidates to campaign where they already have strong support.

Then there is the concern over recounts. Even in a nationwide popular vote, elections would be conducted in precincts just as they are now. If the number of voters didn’t match the number of votes, the problem would be discovered and corrected at the precinct level.

If a very close vote warranted a nationwide recount, that would take place one voting precinct at a time.

In spite of all this academic speculation, the Electoral College will not be abolished.

Most important, amending the Constitution requires near unanimity in Congress and among the states. That will not happen because the Electoral College is too complicated to win consensus.

Second, identification of winners and losers in public policy is not clear. In the debate after the Wallace threat, conservatives offered a persuasive argument that the College forces presidential candidates to the left in order to win the minority vote in urban states.

If those conservative arguments are still valid and the Electoral College is forcing candidates to the left, liberal Nancy Pelosi is on the wrong side of the issue.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

Please Enter Your Facebook App ID. Required for FB Comments. Click here for FB Comments Settings page