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The case for eliminating the US electoral college

It would help do away with the repulsive, petty, and hysterical localism of this cycle's campaigns.

Joint session of Congress counts Electoral College votes from the 2008 election
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election. Photograph: Getty Images

It would appear a consensus of a kind has been reached and that, as such, this particular US election cycle is indeed the dirtiest and most debauched in decades. Dan Balz in The Washington Post bemoaned that there has been “no check on rhetoric” from either campaign – “the guardrails have disappeared and there is no incentive for anyone to hold back”. Chuck Todd of NBC complained of “third-grade insults”, while long-time observer Brit Hume on FOX summed it all up when he said: “This is about as ugly as I’ve seen it get”.

Obviously, as an act of historical comparison, this feeling does not pair well with fact. Every campaign is the filthiest ever witnessed, as the American people are tortured by some new awful electoral tactic: Willie Horton in 1988; Medi-scare in 1996; and swiftboating in 2004. Crude politicking has been integral to campaigning since the very birth of the republic, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams attacked each other vociferously for their closeness to the French Revolution on the one hand, and monarchist tendencies on the other.

This despondent national mood, however, does point towards a more significant truth: that the electoral process itself has become corrupted. Much has been made of the impact of Super PACs, but more noteworthy than their outrageous ads is where they are being aired. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that $350m has been spent on ads thus far in only nine states, including Ohio and Florida.

The sort of national dialogue columnists like Tom Friedman have been hankering for cannot flower because the electoral system allows campaigns to burn all their resources in a handful of swing districts, ignoring vast “safe” swathes of the country, including essential states like Texas, California, and New York. The solution to elevating the discourse, then, is the elimination of the US's electoral college.

The original sin of the electoral college is that it was intended to discourage democratic mass participation, leaving critical decision-making powers in the hands of a few. The effect of applying this antiquated model outside the thirteen colonies has been the emergence of a two-party system where presidential elections have been won without capturing the popular vote (George W Bush in 2000 being the most recent example) and the share of the electoral college gained fails to match the share of the national vote (as when Ronald Reagan won 51 per cent of the vote but 91 per cent of the college in 1980).

This state-centric model has also created an ugly swath of Republican and Democratic fiefdoms. In 2004, George W. Bush took 71 per cent of the vote in Utah, while John Kerry captured 90 per cent of votes in the District of Columbia. Vast areas of the United States suffer from wasted vote syndrome as a consequence, a condition best expressed by a recent letter in USA Today which asked: “In red-state Utah, if one doesn't vote Republican, why bother?”

As such, the absence of a national discourse can be directly attributed to the electoral college, for the selection of the president is not decided by the country at-large but by 916,643 so-called undecided voters in six swing states. Hence, shows research conducted by National Journal, both camps have invested the majority of their resources in only three venues: $67m in Florida, $63m in Ohio, and $45m in Virginia. In North Carolina – which fell into the Democratic column in 2008 and is very much in-play this time around – Republicans have outspent Democrats by almost exactly a two-to-one ratio. The unscrupulous tone of the advertisements and the coarsening of the discourse more widely is merely a reflection of the desperation both campaigns feel regarding the need to win over these voters.

The total elimination of the electoral college would go some way towards ridding campaigning of this sort of repulsive, petty, and hysterical localism which is stunting the growth of a national conversation, and hindering broader political developments which might be good for the country if bad for certain constituencies. It is at present nigh-on impossible to discuss the need to rid the budget of costly and counter-productive farm subsidies in order to reduce the deficit, since any candidate who does so would fear throwing away a swing state like Iowa.

And then there’s Medicare and Social Security, which remain third rails in American politics because neither Democrats nor Republicans would want to endanger their chances of capturing the 29 electoral votes Florida has to offer. Thus the country wastes away while voters in Miami-Dade are reduced to watching mendacious adverts from the Romney campaign which accuse President Obama of plundering $716bn from Medicare in order to pay for Obamacare.

The punditocracy very much wants a cleaner, more intellectual campaign but as far has not presented a workable solution which might help tidy things up. Ending the electoral college cannot rid American politics entirely of dirty tricks, but it would be a pretty good start.