All electoral systems have their anomalies and eccentricities – which, in the case of the United States, means the Electoral College.
Without this throwback to the early years of the republic, presidential candidates would be all over the country, and certainly in the largest population centres. Instead, as the desperately close contest nears conclusion, they focus almost all of their personal campaigning time, advertising and political efforts on a handful of areas – the so-called battleground states.
You won’t see them in some of the largest states in the union – California, Illinois, Texas and New York. Indeed, you’ve seldom seen them in those states during the entire campaign, except to swoop in and raise money from millionaires at private fundraising events. And you won’t see much of them in 35 or so other states that are so Republican or Democratic that candidates don’t bother to go there or spend money advertising.
Before we dump on the weirdness of the U.S. Electoral College, let’s acknowledge that critics consider our own system to be bizarre, to the point of being anti-democratic. After all, the “first past the post” system Canada uses means majority governments can be formed with only 35 per cent to 40 per cent of the vote, which is how Jean Chrétien won three majorities and Stephen Harper won his in the last election. And, in fairness, Canada has its share of safe seats, mostly Conservative in rural and small-town constituencies and throughout Alberta, where other parties don’t spend much effort to court voters.
Big changes are occurring in Canada in criminal justice, fiscal policy, foreign affairs and other areas of our national life by a government that received 39 per cent of the popular vote in the last election.
The Electoral College is bizarre in a different way. In the early years of the republic – and this happens today but nobody pays attention – voters did their thing, then representatives or “electors” gathered to cast their state’s votes for president on the basis of which candidate had received the largest number of votes. Except in a few instances, the rule was: Win by at least one vote in the popular election, win all the Electoral College votes for the state. All or nothing, regardless of the size of majority.
No other country with a presidential system uses an electoral college. Elsewhere, the votes are counted for the entire country, and the candidate with the most votes wins. In the U.S., however, a candidate can win more votes but still lose, because his votes were poorly distributed. That’s how Al Gore failed to become president against George W. Bush, even though the Democrat had won more popular votes. Alas for Mr. Gore, he “wasted” too many votes winning some states with big majorities.
Without the Electoral College, candidates would be campaigning in vote-rich states they expected to lose because, if they could bump up their vote in those states by a few percentage points, it would help their national effort.
Mitt Romney, for example, might spend time in New York, a traditionally Democratic state, because a 5-per-cent gain for him there would count nationally whereas, under the Electoral College, a 5-per-cent gain would still leave the state on Barack Obama’s side. The same could be said for the President in Texas. Under the existing system, he can’t win the state; without the Electoral College, it would be worth trying to do better.
Perhaps voters in safe states should count their blessings. They’re largely spared the onslaught of negative television and radio advertising that saturates the airwaves in the “battleground states.” There, a perverse rule of campaigning applies: Since voters largely tune out the ads, campaigns have to run more of them in the hope that some message actually penetrates.
The advertising onslaught is partly a reflection of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that wiped out restraint in fundraising or spending, leading to the creation of Super PACS clearly favouring one side or the other with vast sums of money.
Changing that abominable situation will be as hard as scrapping the anachronism of the Electoral College.