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In Defense of the Electoral College

The Electoral College is like the old joke about the leaky roof: when it’s raining, you can’t go on the roof to fix it. But when it’s not raining, the roof doesn’t leak.

In 30 of the last 32 presidential elections, the Electoral College hasn’t leaked. But, like Al Gore backers 16 years ago, some Hillary Clinton supporters have responded to her popular vote victory/electoral vote loss by proposing the abolition of the Electoral College. Clinton’s popular-vote margin will be by far the largest among the five “winners” who still lost the presidency (though just the third-largest in percentage terms). But the size of that margin obscures the nightmare that would ensue if the election simply went to the popular vote victor. Take the trench warfare of hanging chads and Supreme Court appeals in Florida and multiply it by 50 states -- and endure it not every nine or 10 elections, but every single time the election’s close.

A pure popular-vote system would increase, not reduce, the chance of an oddball result. If a popular-vote win is all you need, why sweat out the slog of a primary? Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Evan McMullin, Kanye West: they could all run as independents, turn out their loyalists, and hope to get one of the two biggest slivers of the vote.

Indiana’s Birch Bayh co-authored the most serious attempt to abolish the Electoral College, and sought to address this problem by calling for a two-candidate runoff if no candidate managed 40% of the vote – much like Louisiana’s current system.  Much like the Electoral College, that system usually “works.” It also once sidelined a sitting governor in favor of a choice between the oft-indicted Edwin Edwards and the unspeakable David Duke. (At least that election gave us the greatest bumper sticker of all time: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”)

The Electoral College serves to magnify a president’s mandate. George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by a not-overwhelming seven points, but rolled up 426 electoral votes. Barack Obama’s two wins were by seven and four points, but he was well over 300 electoral votes both times.

Any law professor will tell you “hard cases make bad law.” Losing while outpolling the other guy by millions of votes is the political equivalent of a losing football team outgaining the winners by 250 yards: it just means some other part of your game was lacking.

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