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  • Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America
  • Brian J. Gaines
Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America. By George C. Edwards III. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004; pp xvii + 198. $26.00.

In advance of the 1996 and 2000 elections, Yale University Press published primers on the Electoral College by Lawrence Longley and Neal Peirce, long-time foes of the institution. Each book opened with an amusing "fantasy," portraying chaos in the aftermath of the upcoming election as a consequence of the workings of the College. Reality upped the ante in 2000, and then Longley passed away in 2001, bringing the short series to a close. However, just on time for the 2004 contest, George Edwards stepped in to keep up the assault on America's system of electing presidents. What's wrong with the Electoral College? Edwards's main complaints are (1) unfairness, because individuals' votes are not equally weighted; (2) complexity, by contrast with a contest in which the winner is whoever gets the most votes nationwide; and (3) risk, of the election being thrown to the House in the event that no candidate receives a majority of the electoral vote.

The appeal of votes "counting equally" is somewhat illusory. Political scientists know, even if laymen often fail to appreciate, that in large-scale elections, all votes are exceedingly unlikely to matter, in the sense of making or breaking a tie. Moreover, in quoting Reynolds v. Sims on political equality, Edwards implicitly concedes that this principle is of comparatively recent vintage. Electoral rules that accommodate slight variations in individual voting power are the norm worldwide and were common in U.S. history before the Supreme Court parachuted into the political thicket with Reynolds and related cases (and, since not even the Warren Court could find the U.S. Senate unconstitutional, the United States still has one other electoral venue in which exact representation-by-population is not slavishly maintained).

It has been 181 years since the House chose a president, but Edwards highlights the near-misses, elections in which the Electoral College could have failed [End Page 699] to pick a winner had a few thousand voters chosen differently. There is little doubt that most Americans would be aghast to see a presidential election resolved by the U.S. House, but it is hard to know just how seriously to take these counterfactual histories Edwards and others regard as so alarming. Meanwhile, deadlock is bad news in a major election, but the Electoral College is not uniquely prone to chaos. Florida in 2000 revealed that poisonous pandemonium can ensue when an election is so extremely close that the fuzziness inherent in large-scale public votes, normally safely out of sight, takes front and center. In a national direct election, if the margin were sufficiently close, there would be no limit to the domain of the conflict: we could easily see Florida-style recounts and court fights in multiple states (all of them, conceivably).

Still, Edwards scores plenty of points in his bout with Electoral College enthusiasts. In a chapter on its historical origins, he punctures the myth that it was carefully designed according to an explicit theory of federalism—rather, it was a messy compromise, and some of the assumptions about how it would work (for example, that electors should exercise independent judgment) quickly fell by the wayside. He also reviews recent work on campaign tactics, advertising strategy, and candidate movements to challenge the claim that the present system protects small states from being ignored, or otherwise assists minorities. The conclusion that most of the action in presidential campaigns occurs in close states, some of which are small and some large, is surely not very surprising, but it does knock down a commonly made argument in favor of the status quo.

While Edwards usually tackles Electoral College defenders head-on, he is surprisingly silent about an unusual and interesting experiment. In 2002, Paul Schumaker and Burdett Loomis assembled a team of 37 scholars to engage in a sort of elite deliberative poll. Teams of specialists wrote analyses of nine different aspects of presidential elections, comparing the status quo to alternative election mechanisms. After...


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pp. 699-701
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