There has been a lot of discussion recently about a potential split between the popular vote and the electoral college this year. Obama is leading in the polls in several critical swing states while Romney has been holding a lead in the national polls (caveat: Nate Silver points out that the math doesn’t work out. If the state polls are accurate, Obama should have a national lead (and indeed, the RCP average is now tied or has Obama with a very slightly 0.1% lead). One set of polls is likely off. Come Tuesday, we’ll find out which ones).
I’d kind of like to see a split this year since it would weaken the President and create the glorious spectacle of every pundit arguing the precise reverse of what he said in 2000. While it does now appear unlikely, it remains possible. And given that we’ve had two such splits in our history, a third will likely happen at some point.
(There is a very tiny chance of an electoral tie as well, which would throw things to Congress, assuming we don’t have any faithless electors. That would, given the composition, result in a Romney-Biden administration; almost like the worst of both worlds.)
I’ve made it clear that I oppose switching to a national popular vote, but we’ve never really had a discussion. So I want to throw this open before Tuesday’s vote. Should we abolish the electoral college? Should we go to a popular vote?
One of the things that make me hesitate is this: to the best of my knowledge, we have never had a national vote. On anything. All three high offices — the House, Senate and the President — are elected at the state level. Amendements are passed by Congress and state legislatures. In fact, reading the Constitution, you can’t help but be struck by how the Founders went to great lengths to avoid anything approaching a plebiscite.
This wasn’t just because a national election would have been difficult in such a large nation in the 18th century. And it wasn’t just federalism speaking, either. They cleared regarded direct democracy as dangerous (as do I). The beauty of a Constitutional Republic is that the people do not always get what they want. Elections do not give us what we want; elections create accountability.
Because we have never had a national vote, creating one is a lot more complicated that just adding the tallies from the states. Different states have different voting laws and that will create some power disparities. States with stricter voting requirement will lose votes relative to more liberal ones. States that don’t worry too much about counting every single Presidential vote because of the huge margin (e.g., Utah) will have to be more strict. And how do you reconcile the widely varying laws on early voting, absentee voting and electronic voting? What happens if online voting becomes a thing?
No, we’re not just talking about having a popular vote. We are talking, in the end, about federalizing the vote. We are talking about creating uniform voting standards, uniform early voting and absentee policies and, most likely, a national voter registry and ID card. In fact, I can not see that national vote would possible be compliant with Bush v. Gore unless it created uniform standards.
Maybe that’s preferable to the 50-state patchwork we have now. But if so, make the case. Why should we abolish the electoral college? Why should we nationalize the vote?