Bench Memos

Richard Cohen Bemoans His Irrelevance

Electorally speaking, that is. Living in New York, Cohen laments that the electoral college makes his vote meaningless, because his state’s 29 electoral votes are presumptively in the bag for Obama, and so neither candidate is paying the state any attention. Of course, another way to look at it is that New York’s meaningfulness is huge for Obama; it’s just that it’s in the background, where he needn’t think about it, unlike Ohio and Colorado.

Cohen’s opposition to the electoral college trots out the tired old trope that the system is “like some creaky old machine, just waiting to break down,” when it is Cohen’s argument that is wheezing and collapsing. Yes, a candidate could win by getting “just” eleven states–but look at what those states are: California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15) and New Jersey (14). Obama won all of them but Texas and Georgia in 2008, and yet he also took more than fifteen other states besides. Romney, in my opinion, bids fair to win this year by taking 34 states (some other time I’ll say which ones), and will probably get only six of these eleven.

Yes, we might get a tie in the electoral college–though it hasn’t happened since 1800, and could be a fun time in Washington! And yes, we might also get another election “won by the loser of the popular vote,” which Cohen is sure “will do incalculable damage to the public’s faith in democracy.”

Well, we had this situation in 2000, in what was essentially a “tie” in the entire country, so far as the popular vote could be determined. Cohen notes that “Al Gore got precisely 543,895 more votes than did George W. Bush.” But that adverb “precisely” is a joke. As the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has recently reported, in 2000 “approximately 2 percent of the ballots cast nationwide for president went uncounted.” (This has improved more recently to around 1 percent.) Since about 105 million votes were cast that year in the presidential election, that means somewhere in excess of 2 million votes were not counted, or four times the alleged margin of Gore’s putative popular-vote victory.

I’m not saying that Gore didn’t “win” in the popular vote that year. I’m saying we just don’t know. And the beauty of the electoral college, as it currently functions with the winner-take-all rule in 48 states, is that we don’t have to care. In what was essentially a tied election, we didn’t have to worry about who won the national popular vote. We only had to worry about who won Florida, because our (imperfect) ballot counts had already sorted out the other 49 states and D.C. to each candidate. Imagine if we had to be really sure about the final tally in every precinct of the country, because an election was that close. A nightmare! Florida in December 2000 was bad enough. But when it was all settled, the entire country (but for the left-wing faculties of the law schools, still smarting to this day) accepted the verdict of Florida, as declared by its officials under the rubric of a sensible Supreme Court “game over” ruling. No “damage to the public’s faith in democracy” appears to have happened at all.

Cohen, I’m sure, has never thought about this crisis-containment feature of the electoral college, but it’s very real. I suspect he is just feeling a little neglected because he lives in a state that is (now) not very contested in presidential races. But candidates have limited resources. If the electoral college were abolished, they’d be in Cohen’s neighborhood, all right, and in every other compact urban population where a campaign dollar goes pretty far. And they’d be neglecting flyover country. Rural America would get the shaft. Perhaps that suits Richard Cohen, but not me.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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