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Opinion

Bypass the Electoral College? Careful what you wish for.

The National Popular Vote movement to bypass the Electoral College would fracture American politics and undermine important safeguards of our individuals rights.

By Trent England / August 12, 2010



Olympia, Wash.

The greatest test of a political system is the transfer of power, and there is no greater transfer of political power than from one president of the United States to the next.

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The Electoral College – the two-step, state-based process for electing presidents and vice presidents – has served the United States well for more than two centuries. Nevertheless, Massachusetts has become the sixth state to adopt so-called National Popular Vote legislation. The law, which only takes effect if passed by enough states to control the outcome, pledges a state’s electoral votes to the winner of the most popular votes nationwide.

If successful, this manipulation would eliminate the benefits of the current Electoral College system – and undermine important safeguards of our individual rights.

An 'excellent' system

Alexander Hamilton wrote in “The Federalist” (No. 68) that, if the Electoral College is not perfect, “it is at least excellent.” The system probably works even better than the American Founders expected, considering the addition of 37 states and the development of two powerful political parties since Hamilton’s original judgment

The Electoral College is established by Article II of the Constitution, with a few modifications in the 12th Amendment. Each state gets as many electors as it has US representatives and senators – that is, the balance of power in the Electoral College is the same as in Congress. Each elector casts one electoral vote for president and another for vice president.

The Constitution grants power to state legislatures to decide how to select their state’s electors. This allows each state to represent its own political will in the Electoral College system.

Since early in the 19th century, most states have held popular elections. Today, 48 states and the District of Columbia use a “winner-take-all” method: the candidate receiving the most votes in a particular state wins all the electors and thus all the state’s electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska elect one elector in each of their congressional districts and the remaining two statewide.

Decentralizes elections and nationalizes politics

The process may be complicated, but the benefits are straightforward. The Electoral College decentralizes elections and nationalizes politics.

Because of the Electoral College, the United States has no national election bureaucracy – no presidential appointee in charge of presidential elections.

Instead, every state plus Washington, D.C., establishes and executes its own set of policies. State and local officials act based on a combination of their political culture and their appetite for policy innovation. These are the “laboratories of democracy” in action.

Containing elections within state lines also means containing election problems. The Electoral College turns the states into the equivalent of the watertight compartments on an ocean liner. Fraud or process failures can be isolated in the state where they occur and need not become national crises.

Ironically, by decentralizing presidential elections, the Electoral College nationalizes and moderates our politics. Filtering the elections through the states imposes a kind of geographic distribution requirement to win the presidency.

This also leads to the most common attack on the current system: It can produce a winner who did not receive the most popular votes. This happens when the candidate with the most popular votes has too many of those votes in too few states. This reality shapes the way presidential campaigns are conducted and national political parties are organized.

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