It is US Presidential Election day which sees an analysis of the candidates, of the results, and of the peculiarity of the system known as the “Electoral College”. Asked about this latter cursorily, 62% of Americans apparently call for its abolition – and the Washington Post agrees. But not so fast… it may actually be quite a good idea.
Firstly, the Electoral College has historical value, and that should never be wished away too quickly. It gives Americans a direct link to their history – to an era where distances prohibited each State from notifying its preference for President immediately. In other words, it is an American institution which was formed for good reason and has stood the test of time, given modern-day citizens a direct link to those who lived in the new republic at the end of the 18th century. It is never wise to throw away such linkages without good reason. But surely, the fact the system allows a President to be elected without even plurality support is good reason? Well, no…
Secondly, whatever the precise reasoning behind it at the beginning, the real modern purpose of the Electoral College is to reflect the fact of the nature of the country as evidenced by its very name – the United States. Each State is a separate unit of a federation, and each State rightly demands a say in who becomes their collective President. The College not only offers a direct (if largely symbolic) means of achieving this, but also contains an in-built numerical advantage to smaller States to ensure their interests are not marginalised. In a straight majority vote, it is highly unlikely Iowa or New Hampshire would get a look-in; as it is, sometimes small-town interests determine the winner, and, over a series of elections, for that to happen occasionally in such a vast country is no bad thing. In 2000 it was Florida; in 2004 Ohio; this time it may be Wisconsin; next time maybe Colorado or Missouri – instead of a focus every time on Greater New York City and California (as would be likely if merely an overall plurality were required – I disagree that it is as easy to reach 10,000 voters in Wyoming as it is in New York, it isn’t). In a diverse land, this is not necessarily a problem!
Finally, and perhaps decisively, there is no evidence that it does not work! If, out of over 100 million votes, two leading candidates are both within a few hundred thousand votes of each other, that is as good as a statistical tie. You could determine the winner by seeing which one just happens to have a razor-thin majority; or, in a diverse federation, you could determine the winner by seeing which one has the broadest range of States supporting. The latter, particularly in a Federation of States, may be the better option.
This is not to say that the current system is perfect: for example, perhaps assigning electors proportionately (or, at least, in part proportionately) rather than “winner-takes-all” would be a welcome (and yet still entirely constitutional) innovation; and the system in the event of no candidate receiving an outright majority is bizarre. However, I suspect the Electoral College is here to stay – and that may be no bad thing!