Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Opinion

Five Electoral College myths

As the presidential race enters its final hours, the nation once again faces the possibility of electing a president who has lost the popular vote but won through the Electoral College, the unofficial name given to a complicated system authorized by the U.S. Constitution. • The Electoral College is, in effect, a formula through which each state is granted electors based on its total number of U.S. Senate and House seats, along with state laws that typically grant all their electors to one candidate. Four times, most recently in 2000, the winner of the popular vote has lost the presidency, thanks to the formula. • Defenders argue that the Electoral College still serves important purposes. It doesn't. Here are a few myths about the workings of the Electoral College.

Myth 1 The Electoral College serves purposes intended by the Constitution's framers.

The drafters of the Constitution in 1787 had two prominent reasons for an Electoral College — a distrust of direct democracy and the slave population. As for the first, framers touted a system in which property-owning citizens would vote for independent, thinking electors, who in turn would meet in their respective state capitals, debate and vote for a president. This attempt at indirect election was soon undermined, however, by the rise of political parties and state laws that award electors based on party pledges.

Electors today exercise no independent judgment; they are mere functionaries of the formula. A second reason for the system was to enable slave-holding states to get credit for their slaves (each of whom counted as three-fifths of a person in determining House seat allocations), even though the enslaved persons obviously had no popular vote.

Myth 2The Electoral College gives clout to big and populous states.

Because the Electoral College system doles out electors in state "chunks," it might make sense, at first blush, for candidates to concentrate on the most populous states. But ideology and history prove this to be wrong. The system encourages candidates to focus on "swing" states — places in which the outcome is still in doubt, regardless of size. This election, for example, we witness little campaigning in the most populous states, California and Texas, because they are not swing states.

Indeed, in the six closest presidential elections over the past century, the biggest state's vote has diverged from the college formula four times. If having candidates appeal to swing states gives them "clout," then clout was held in recent elections by Florida, Ohio and a handful of others.

Myth 3The Electoral College protects small states and rural voters.

This assertion is the heart of today's defense of the Electoral College. Because states with very small populations (which typically are more rural states) are awarded at least three electors, these states get a somewhat higher share of the electoral vote than they do of the popular vote. But the formula does not "protect" small states; unlike in the Senate, in which every state has equal clout, the dozen smallest states combined still have fewer electors than does California alone.

American presidential politics has never been about small versus big states; it has been about issues, such as slavery, war and the economy. States such as Rhode Island and Wyoming have no common interest simply because they are small in population.

Myth 4The Electoral College prevents a "regional" president.

The supposition here is that the Electoral College pushes candidates to appeal widely, not regionally. But the college system does the opposite. Because it does not help a candidate to lose a state by a slim margin any more than by a crushing defeat, candidates have no incentive to campaign in states they expect to lose.

Don't look for Romney in Maryland or Obama in Oklahoma. Indeed, the college formula enables a candidate to win without any support at all in some regions. The Republican Party had almost zero strength in the Southeast from 1880 through 1960, yet still won more than half of the presidential elections, because the South simply didn't matter to its electoral formula.

Myth 5The Electoral College bolsters the two- party system.

Because a third-party candidate is likely to have little support in the House of Representatives — which chooses the president if the college vote does not result in a majority — the college system makes it more difficult for third-party candidates, defenders argue. In fact, many of the framers assumed that a decision by the House would occur often, because they imagined that electors voting in separate states would often lead to fractured totals. But the rise of political parties made collecting electors nationwide quite easy. The House hasn't chosen the president since 1824. Meanwhile, third-party candidates can still affect the vote in swing states, as Ross Perot may have done in 1992.

If we chose our president through a popular vote — as we do governors and members of Congress — we would elect through a true expression of the people's desires, not through a haphazard, distorted formula with no good reason for retaining it.

Paul Boudreaux is a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport and Tampa. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Comments
Editorial: A court victory for protecting Florida’s environment

Editorial: A court victory for protecting Florida’s environment

A Tallahassee judge has affirmed the overwhelming intent of Florida voters by ruling that state lawmakers have failed to comply with a constitutional amendment that is supposed to provide a specific pot of money to buy and preserve endangered lands. ...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/20/18
Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Innocent children should not be used as political pawns. That is exactly what the Trump administration is doing by cruelly prying young children away from their parents as these desperate families cross the Mexican border in search of a safer, better...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/19/18

Editorial: ATF should get tougher on gun dealers who violate the law

Gun dealers who break the law by turning a blind eye to federal licensing rules are as dangerous to society as people who have no right to a possess a firearm in the first place. Yet a recent report shows that the federal agency responsible for polic...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/18/18
Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

The new grass-roots effort to put a transportation package before Hillsborough County voters in November faces a tough slog. Voters rejected a similar effort in 2010, and another in 2016 by elected officials never made it from the gate. But the lates...
Published: 06/15/18
Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Forty years ago today, Nelson Poynter died. He was the last individual to own this newspaper, and to keep the Times connected to this community, he did something remarkable. He gave it away.In his last years, Mr. Poynter recognized that sooner or lat...
Published: 06/15/18

There was no FBI anti-Trump conspiracy

The Justice Department released Thursday the highly anticipated report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and other sensitive issues in the 2016 election. It is not the report President Donald Trump wanted. But there is enough i...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Voter purge may be legal, but it’s also suppression

The Supreme Court’s ruling last Monday to allow Ohio’s purging of its voter rolls is difficult to dispute legally. While federal law prohibits removing citizens from voter rolls simply because they haven’t voted, Ohio’s purge is slightly different. T...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Editorial: Free rides will serve as a test of whether the streetcar is serious transportation

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to ride for free?This fall, the TECO Streetcar Line eliminates its $2.50-a-ride-fare, providing the best opportunity yet to see whether the system’s vintage streetcar replicas can serve as a legitimate transportation a...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

AT&T and the case for digital innovation

A good way to guarantee you’ll be wrong about something is to predict the future of technology. As in, "One day, we’ll all …" Experts can hazard guesses about artificial intelligence, driverless cars or the death of cable television, but technologica...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

The Florida Department of Children and Families has correctly set a quick deadline for Hillsborough County’s main child welfare provider to correct its foster care program. For too long the same story has played out, where troubled teens who need fos...
Published: 06/14/18