It occurs to me that we are doing a lot of tinkering with the political system right now, without doing much thinking at all. The people of California voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 14, a reform that abolishes party primaries.
Proposition 14 would create a “top two” primary in which candidates of all party affiliations run on one primary ballot. The two candidates who win the most votes, regardless of party, would face off in the general election. The system would not apply to presidential primaries.
The new system is supposedly better because it is open to all voters. I suspect that it passed with strong support because Americans have always had a distaste for political parties. But no one really has any idea how this is going to work. Pass it, and then see what’s in it.
I am not sure it’s going to make a big difference, except that it will effectively shut out third parties. Under the current system, third parties could get a candidate on the ballot if they could register 100,000 voters. To be sure this rarely happens, and third party candidates almost never win. Under the “top two” system, they will have little hope of a place on the final ballot.
Another reform in the works is the National Popular Vote Initiative. The Electoral College makes it possible for a candidate to win fewer popular votes than another candidate, but still be elected President. That happened in 2000 and would have happened again in 2004 if Kerry had carried Ohio. A lot of people think this is a very bad thing. The NPVI is intended to correct it.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the states have exclusive and plenary (complete) power to allocate their electoral votes, and may change their state laws concerning the awarding of their electoral votes at any time. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).
This is very clever. Since it is very hard to amend the Constitution, but very easy to change the way states allocate their electoral votes, this would leave the Electoral College in place while rendering it powerless.
It is based, however, on a premise for which little argument is offered. The premise is that a majority of popular votes is more legitimate than a majority of electoral votes. There is no reason to think that this is so, under the Constitution.
The Constitution checks the power of popular majorities in several ways. A majority of votes in the Senate may represent a small majority of the nation’s citizens. That is a very effective way of protecting small states and less populous regions against “the tyranny of the majority.” If you think it’s a bad idea, ask the Canadians why they can’t get a constitution. The Supreme Court allows five of nine old people to overrule 309,865,000 American citizens, minus five. Ask the NPVI people if they are offended by that.
Moreover, majority rule is itself a compromise between moral principle and efficiency. If every single person is morally equal, why is the consent of one or a few to the next President or any policy of less weight than the consent of the many? Only because an insistence on unanimity would be unworkable.
There is nothing morally wrong with the Electoral College. Of late, however, it has been causing problems. It has been pretty easy to tell who won a majority of the national popular vote in Presidential elections, but not so easy to tell who won Florida or Ohio. That created a brief constitutional crisis in 2000, and a lot of leftist conspiracy theories in 2004. Maybe it’s time to consider something like the NPVI.
Before we do, we ought to note what we will lose. If George W. Bush had lost North and South Dakota in 2000, Gore would have won without Florida. If Bush had lost the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming in 2004, Kerry would have windsurfed into the White House. With the Electoral College functioning as it always has, candidates for President have to campaign in small states. Living in Aberdeen, I got to see Obama and shake hands with Bob Dole. George W. Bush and Ms. Clinton landed on our soil.
If we really go to a system of direct popular election (however indirectly) that is likely to change. No one will give a rat’s ass about the Dakotas. Of course the larger states don’t have to worry about that when they pass the NPVI. Maybe the Midwest should give that some thought.