I've always been a rather staunch small-'c' conservative when it comes to the federal constitution. The fact that we now have a 27th amendment covering the weighty and statecraft-worthy issue of how congress can raise its salary strikes me as close to a secular sacrilege. But I'm starting to warm to the idea of abolishing the electoral college.
My problem with it isn't that it's undemocratic, at least not in the sense that the winner of the popular vote can lose the election. That's a very big problem, certainly; but I think it will continue to be a relatively rare occurrence. The problem is that it makes the votes of too many Americans into an irrelevancy or a mere exercise in symbolism.
Folks in DC experience this reality more than anyone. But if you're living in Texas or New York or California or Alabama, national elections are really just a spectator sport. It's all about a half dozen or so swing-states and recently it all comes down to Florida and Ohio. If you really want to get involved you travel to a swing state to knock on the doors of those privileged few whose votes actually matter.
That's a bad state of affairs for all sorts of reasons. So maybe it's time to change it.
I know arguments for the electoral college. And though I'm constitutionally averse to mucking around with the pillars and cross-beams of the state, they don't seem to amount to much in comparison to its shortcomings.
The antique rationale of giving added weight to the votes of Americans who live in tiny states seems wholly unjustifiable today -- especially since the ratio of population difference between the largest and the smallest states is vastly greater than it was when the system was created. Besides, isn't it enough that they're already so overrpresented in the Senate?
The best contemporary argument for maintaining the EC is that it forces a lot of retail politicking and compels candidates to mount campaigns that do justice to the country's state and regional particularism. Without the EC, there'd never be any reason to go to the smaller states or even get out and do any barnstorming at all. National elections could become a vaster version of elections in California (my home state) where campaigns are waged entirely by 30 second ad.
The small state argument is obviously defunct since most of the small states aren't swing states and no candidates ever go to them. Did you see the candidates a lot in Wyoming? Idaho? Were you at that big rally in Alaska? I didn't think so.
New Hampshire is the exception. But no one goes there because it's small. They go there because it's teetering on the edge of Blue-state-dom. And as it continues to trend Blue, as I believe it will, candidates won't show up there anymore either.
The other argument -- that it forces candidates to focus in on individual political communities like South Florida or Wisconsin or Western Pennsylvania -- doesn't really hold up either, I don't think. Why do they get all the attention? What about California and Chicago or Upstate New York? Why do they get cut out of the action?
Had this last election been a truly national election, both candidates would have spent a good deal of their time trying to churn up enthusiasm and turnout in their core regions, not just begging and pleading in regions where their support is marginal.
Why is it, for instance, that Bush supporters in Upstate New York or Southern Illinois can't make their voices heard? Or Kerry supporters in New Orleans or South Texas?
I'm not doctrinaire on this issue. In fact, I'd say I've only recently come to this position. So I'd be eager to hear what others think and perhaps I'll change my mind. I'm sure there would be various unimagined consequences to the change, for good or ill, that are difficult to foresee. So I'm putting this out less in the mode of advocacy than to generate a discussion.
But for the moment why should there not be a movement to place the electoral college on the ballot in states that allow referenda? This couldn't be done directly, of course. But in most states that allow initiatives and referenda there could at least be ballot measures instructing their state legislatures to go on the record endorsing the abolition of the electoral college.
It would have no direct effect. An amendment to the constitution must first be approved by two-thirds majorities in the both the House and the Senate before states can ratify the amendment and write it into the constitution. But it would put states on record, informally at least, as supporting the change. And doing so would inject the question into the national political debate.