Bench Memos

The Perils of Debunking “Five Myths”

Elsewhere I have had occasion to comment before on the Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook feature on “Five Myths About,” in which a guest writer each week debunks five myths about something or other.  There is something terribly artificial and forced about the whole exercise.  Why “myths”?  Couldn’t you just tell us five interesting things about your subject?  And why five?  What if there are six or seven misconceptions about something, or you can only think of two or three?

There are two related dangers in the genre.  One is that you’ll wind up trying to convince people that something true is actually false, because you’ve got to have myths and you’ve got to have five.  Or you’ll take things people have good reason to believe, distort them into unrecognizable straw men in which no one actually believes, and then “debunk” those.

Last May Jonathan Rauch tackled “five myths” about same-sex marriage.  Trouble was, four were true and the fifth one nobody believed.  This weekend it’s the turn of presidential scholar George Edwards, who sets about the task of debunking “Five Myths About the Electoral College.”  By my count, he is right about only one of them, and it is the most trivial.  Here are his five:

“1. The framers created the electoral college to protect small states.”  Perhaps someone somewhere has actually made this argument, but in more than three decades of studying American politics I have not seen it.  As Edwards rightly notes, the protection of states’ interests (especially small states) was one of the purposes of the Senate.  The framers created the electoral college–wait for it now, this is big–to elect the president of the United States.  They did not think direct election was practicable, under late eighteenth-century circumstances, and they did not think it was desirable in any event.  But they wanted a method that would maintain the executive’s independence from Congress, while preserving the incumbent’s eligibility for reelection.  The tally of votes for each state was made equivalent to the total number of House members and senators each state had, without any debate that was recorded over that formula.  It captures each state’s proportion of the population less perfectly than giving each state only the votes corresponding to its House delegation, so there is some added weight given to smaller states.  But that was not considered a direct purpose of the arrangement.  Edwards, by the way, notes the great importance of the larger states as units to be won in the presidential contest, but he surely knows that this observation can tell us nothing about what the framers wanted (his ostensible subject at this point), because the practice of according each state’s votes as a unit came along decades later.

“2. The electoral college ensures the winner has broad support.”  This is true, unless you distort what people mean by it.  Edwards notes that candidates focus their campaigns on selected parts of the country, taking some states for granted, ignoring others that their opponent takes for granted, and fighting over the battleground states.  But regional strategies of emphasizing some places and neglecting others would take place under any system.  And Edwards himself notes that “[a]ny system of electing the president requires some version of broad support,” suggesting that the myth he is supposedly debunking is actually true, but the kind of true thing that is not distinctive or peculiar to the electoral college.  He immediately adds, “but the electoral college does little to promote that goal,” but his single example (of George W. Bush in 2000 winning white men but losing a bunch of other groups one can name) does not show that either.  No electoral system perfectly produces the phenomenon of “broad support” every time.  But what is true of the electoral college, and what Edwards does not even attempt to debunk, is that the winner-take-all rule of the electoral college usually (though not always) produces the appearance of much broader support than is reflected in the popular vote.  This helps presidents with the claim of a “mandate.”  Think of Ronald Reagan in 1984.  He got 58.8% of the popular vote, well up in “landslide” territory, but he got 97.5% of the electoral vote (49 states, 525 of 538 electoral votes).  That’s “broad support” in spades.

“3. The electoral college preserves stability in our political system by discouraging third parties.”  This is absolutely true, one of the biggest, truest things about the electoral college (with, crucially, the winner-take-all rule in 48 states and D.C.).  Edwards can only “debunk” it by employing ridiculous arguments from supposed historic counterexamples.  But his examples prove the opposite of what he wants.  The Republican Party, he notes, began as a third party.  True, but it was insignificant until it became clear that it was on the rise to replace the collapsing Whig Party, by attracting ex-Whigs and Free Soil Democrats.  Next Edwards mentions Theodore Roosevelt’s run as a third-party candidate in 1912.  This case also proves the opposite of what Edwards thinks.  Between them Taft and Roosevelt (whose candidacy proved stronger than Taft’s, making his the real “second” party and Taft’s establishment GOP the “third”) got more than 50% of the vote to Wilson’s 42% (with Debs picking up 6%).  A unified Republican Party would have trounced Wilson, if it had been capable of appealing to an electorate with mixed feelings about Progressivism.  Divide a major party into two or more smaller parties, and you run huge risks of defeat (ask Harry Truman about 1948, when the splintering of his party almost did him in).  Lesson of the 1912 election?  Um, the electoral college discourages third parties . . .

Edwards next claims that in the electoral college, a close election could be thrown into the House of Representatives by a minor party candidate who wins enough states (as blocs of votes) to prevent one of the major candidates from getting a majority of electoral votes.  But there is a reason this has not happened since the advent of the winner-take-all in the Jacksonian era: voters generally aren’t stupid enough to throw their votes away on minor-party candidates.  The last time a third-party candidate got any electoral votes at all was 1968, when George Wallace’s regional protest candidacy took 46 electoral votes.  There are a lot of reasons why this is unlikely to happen again.

Edwards also claims that 2000 represents a case of third-party impact, because Ralph Nader may have taken enough votes from Gore to give Florida to Bush.  But the claim of those who make the case for the electoral college’s support of the two-party system is that no third party ever becomes competitive enough to threaten actually winning.  Nader was a flea that landed on Al Gore’s candidacy, and caused it to twitch just right in one place at one time.  This is not what people talk about when propounding what Edwards calls a “myth.”

Finally, Edwards claims: “Direct elections, especially those without a runoff, prevent such problems. Coming in third or fourth would gain a party no leverage in the selection of the president.”  Okay, so should we have a direct election without a runoff?  (The most common proposal for years has provided for a runoff if no candidate gets at least 40%, a fairly low threshold.)  Presumably that means that we would give the presidency to the winner of a plurality of popular votes, however low that plurality might be.  (I have a simple mind; perhaps Edwards has some complicated preference-scale method in mind.)  If so, then it is perfectly predictable that our two-party system would splinter into multiple parties, with perhaps a half dozen strong enough to contend for a plurality of the popular vote, and thus to win.  This, I’m afraid, is stunningly obvious.  The problem would not be “leverage” in a nonexistent runoff; it would be multiple truly competitive parties, the very thing sensible people would avoid.

“4. In direct elections, candidates would campaign only in large cities.”  Edwards thinks that “candidates would have an incentive to appeal to voters everywhere,” and he notes that ad buys, priced by the voter, would be about equally economical everywhere thanks to ratings-driven commercial rates.  But television advertising is not the only element in a campaign.  What about the “ground game” of get-out-the-vote?  Dense population centers would be valued more highly than small towns and outer-fringe suburbs, thanks to economies of scale.

One of the complaints made by electoral college critics is that “safe” states get neglected, both by those who will win them and those who will lose them.  True enough.  But notice that “swing states” change over time.  I can recall when California went Republican, Texas went Democratic, and Illinois was competitive.  This year’s map is markedly different from just four years ago.

“5. Electors must vote for the candidate who wins their state.”  Edwards is right that this is generally not true as a legal matter.  It is also entirely trivial.  No “faithless elector” has ever been determinative of an election, or thrown one into the House.  It simply isn’t worth worrying about.  But after all, Edwards needed a fifth “myth” . . .

On a final note, here’s a large truth about the electoral college that I mentioned in this space recently, and that Edwards does not even notice.  It confines recount crises to individual states, as in 2000, rather than metastasizing them to the entire country.  This was not a “purpose” the framers had in mind, by any means.  But it is a great good accomplished by the electoral college as it functions today.  Trashing what works for a system with obvious destabilizing effects would be a fool’s bargain.


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