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The Electoral College

By       (Page 1 of 1 pages)   1 comment, In Series: Balanced Voting
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In the very early days of the United States, before there were telephones, trains or even a reliable postal service probably the notion of a nation-wide popular vote, if even considered, would have seemed utterly impractical. The notion of creating an Electoral College for deciding on who would serve in high federal positions must have seemed ingenious and workable, even for a geographically large nation like this. As a bonus, it was an innovation that made it possible for the founders to avoid spelling out details for popular elections in the Constitution. Instead they could defer such details for the states to handle.

Little in our early Constitution even mentiones voting. Voting within the Electoral College comes up Article II and later in Amendment 12, but until the Amendment 14 was ratified in 1868, the only other mentions of voting in the Constitution were in Article I, concerning voting within the two bodies of Congress. Article IV does state that the individual states would have a Republican Form of Government, so we can infer that they expected there to be elections within the states, but details were left entirely up to the states.

Today we tend to think of our country as a democracy happens to be divided into states of manageable size and not so much as a confederation of independent states. But now, after several recent elections with the Electoral College vote conflicting with the overall popular vote, there are calls for doing away with the Electoral College as a remedy. But an unintended consequence of such a Constitutional Amendment might well be to put control of elections into the hands of the federal government and this would likely diminish the chances for states to experiment with improving voting methods.

Although the Electoral College benefits us by allowing such experiments, it also presents complications for the adoption, for presidential elections, of alternative voting systems. A primary virtue of balanced voting is that these systems undermine the polarized two-party control of government. Perversely, the intervention in presidential elections of the Electoral College would seem to frustrate that advantage. Through balanced voting, Electors would often be pledged to candidates with negligible chance of winning in the Electoral College by plurality voting still enforcing a two-party advantage.

Perhaps some clever solution to this problem could be found, but even absent that, at the very least there is nothing to prevent the adoption of balanced voting for primary elections. With a voting system for primaries that takes into account popular opposition and not only support, the two parties of a duopoly might feel compelled to nominate candidates who are less widely unpopular.

Our polarized two-party political system is pretty clearly not what the founders of the country envisioned. They set up a clever system of checks and balances to avoid any of the three branches of government from exercising excessive power and they expected these different branches to battle with each-other in the field of ideas and values. Unfortunately though, the use of PV has forged a polarized two-party system of politics that does much to undermine that plan.

Our federal government has become realigned along party lines generally with one or even both of the other branches subservient to that president and important decisions being made by one or the other party. To the extent there remains check on power it rests in the battle between these two parties rather than among three branches of government. But even these two parties often seem at times to work in concert, if only to maintain their joint hold on power. Between the two parties there is an expensive public relations battle that puts both parties at the service of those who can afford to fund that battle.

Fortunately, we have many other elections than just for the office of president. We have direct popular elections for the Senate and for the House, not to mention important elections for state and local government offices. Balanced voting methods can be adopted for these elections and for primaries.

In a bottom-up manner, this would strengthen the system of checks and balances as political diversity gradually grows in the Senate and in the House. With widespread abandonment of the two-party dominance in its membership, Congress might well reclaim its role as a dominant force in the federal government. In time, even the hold on presidential elections by these two parties would naturally diminish, even without reform for the Electoral College. That would be a good time to formally move the Electoral College into its well deserved status as merely an historical curiosity.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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