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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.