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.

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.

 

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

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer, specialising in foreign affairs, whose work has featured in The Atlantic, Slate, and The Forward.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.