The Agenda

Brief Note on the Electoral College

In light of Dan Foster’s recent defense of the Electoral College, I thought I’d add a few quick points:

(1) Recently, Garett Jones argued that the Electoral College serves as a check on interregional tensions:

We rarely hear too much about regional issues in the U.S. other than farmers vs. everyone else.  But if the presidency was decided by majority rule, I’m sure we’d hear a lot more about regional differences.  Could a presidential candidate get 75% of the votes in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida by promising broad-based Gulf Coast subsidies and a few other goodies?  Could a candidate get 85% of California’s and New York’s votes partly by offering housing subsidies for people facing high housing costs?  

I don’t know: But if we got rid of the electoral college and had a popularly elected president we’d sure have a chance to find out. 

(2) Given the chaos that flowed from the extremely close and contested outcome in Florida in 2000, one wonders what might happen in a close national popular vote election. One of the implications of federalism is that we have a patchwork electoral system that varies across states, and in some cases across local jurisdictions. A national popular vote would, I suspect, drive centralization along this dimension, and perhaps along others as well.

(3) One of the chief arguments against a national popular vote has historically been that it would establish a plebiscitary presidency that, by virtue of its notionally superior democratic legitimacy, would tend to dominate the other branches of government. The main problem with this line of argument is that we are arguably already living under such a presidency, which runs roughshod over the legislative branch if not the judiciary. But rather than deepen and entrench the power of the executive, we might consider taking steps to curb it, e.g., by strengthening political parties.


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