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Debate: US electoral college

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Should the US adopt a different method of electing its President?

Background and context

The Electoral College is the name given to the process by which the American President is elected. Rather than a nationwide tally of votes being made, votes are counted state by state. States are allotted a certain number of ‘electors’ according to the size of their population. The candidate who wins the majority of votes in a particular state wins all the electors for that state with the candidate who has won over the most electors becoming President. This leads to the possibility of a situation arising where one candidate narrowly wins enough states to have a majority of the electoral college, while his opponent wins a majority of actual votes nationwide; this has occurred three times in US history. Recently, this system caused controversy in the 2000 US election, as Al Gore won a majority of votes nationwide, yet his opponent, George W. Bush, won the election. This has led to greater scrutiny and debate surrounding the elector college system.

See also Wikipedia's US electoral college article.

Contents

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Undemocratic? Is the electoral college undemocratic?

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Yes

  • The electoral college is undemocratic because it is not based on the popular vote: In any proper democracy, the winner of any election should be the person with the most votes. Yet, three times in America's history, a president has been elected that did not receive the popular vote. This means that every vote is not equal and that the popular voice of the people was not heard, which generally is undemocratic.
  • Electors are not obligated to vote according to public will. While it is tradition that all electors vote in favor of the candidate supported by the majority of voters in a state, electors are not obligated by law to do so. Electors can switch their vote, for example, under pressure from a losing candidate, which would be a highly undemocratic result.
  • The electoral college disenfranchises minority party voters. - In a predominantly Democratic state such as New York, there is little doubt that a Democratic nominee will win a majority vote and ensure that all 31 of the state's electoral votes will go to the democratic nominee. This means that the minority Republican population in New York has not electoral voice and is, therefore, in effect disenfranchised.



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No

  • The US electoral college is an appropriate federal-state-people power-sharing deal - The United States is not a pure, popular democracy. The US constitution limits power between various entities, including the people, the federal government, and state governments. The electoral college must be understood in the historical, constitutional context. While the United States is a democracy, a popular vote would only satisfy the interests of the federal government and the people; state-interests would be left out. The electoral college sufficiently incorporates the interests of states, while satisfactorily meeting the interests of the people and the federal government.
  • Rarely has the loser of the US popular vote won the electoral college - The fears of the electoral college surround instances in which the popular vote does not coincide with the electoral college results. But, these fears are exaggerated, principally because of the rarity of this occurring. This result has really only happened twice in American history, first in 1888 with Benjamin Harrison's victory of Grover Cleveland, and then with the election of President Bush in 2000. The 1824 and 1876 election results in which this occurred cannot fairly be counted against the Electoral College mainly because the results were directed by voter fraud and partisan factionalism. Because it is so rare that the electoral college does not reflect the popular vote, it is hard to say that the electoral college is generally unrepresentative.

The electoral college also over represents smaller states. Because the electoral college votes are biased on population and there can only be 435 seats in the house set by law. The larger populated states therfore are underepresented as seats are given to states that have far less of a population. For instance california has 53 seats in the house and wyoming has only 3. Baised on populaition Claifrnia should have much more seats but the other states have to be represented as well. This disenfranchises larger areas.



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Small states: Is the college unnecessary to protect small state interests?

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Yes

  • Protecting vote equality is more important than protecting small state interests - In a democracy, it is of utmost importance that each citizen has an equal voice and that their vote be counted equally. This is more important than protecting the interests of small states in the union, as it is a more fundamental principle in a democracy, where the highest authority is the individual citizen, not the state.



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No

  • The electoral college helps protect the interests of smaller states in the union The current system provides for the protection of the rights of all 50 states, because it forces candidates to appeal to the voters in all parts of America. It is important to remember that America is not a centralized state but a federation of states. A nationwide vote tally could provide an incentive for a candidate to focus only on the most populous areas of the country, such as California, New York, or Texas, and ignore other areas such as Alaska, Rhode Island, or Maine. The electoral college is a natural consequence of the devolved, state-based government that Americans have always supported.



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Campaigns: Does the electoral college distort campaigns?

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Yes

  • The electoral college's "winner-takes-all" system causes campaigning only to swing states: Parties know that certain states will always vote one way eg Alaska always votes Republican, Massachusetts usually votes Democrat. Both parties generally spend less resources on campaigning in these ‘safe’ states, and pay more attention to the needs of electors in ‘swing’ states, such as Michigan and Florida, which determine the outcome of elections. This can mean that elections become less competitive as resources are concentrated on a smaller geographical area and smaller section of society.



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No

  • There is always a focus in politics on campaigning in the undecided portion of the electorate, irrespective of there being an electoral college system or not: As America is a large, diverse country, any system which encourages and rewards parties who appeal to a broad geographical range of areas is more likely to lead to a government which is in tune with the needs and values of most of society, as opposed to the UK, where very often the concerns of London and South-east England dominate parliament. The current system has encouraged administrations to ensure that representatives from many different states are included in the government. In any case, the shift of southern voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the past thirty years, and the movement of Californians in the opposite direction, shows that the system is not static and that states cannot be taken for granted.



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Republican advantage? Does the College favor Republicans?

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Yes

  • The electoral college favors the Republican party: Rural voters are more likely to vote Republican, while urban voters, obviously all grouped together in a small area are more likely to vote Democrat. Therefore, the Democrats can lay claim to fewer ‘safe’ states. This has meant that poor, inner-city electors are disproportionally disadvantaged.



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No

  • Because big states with cities get more electoral votes, city-based Democrats generally receive proportional representation. Because seats in the electoral college are allocated according to population, highly populated, urbanized states (with more Democrats) receive electoral votes (representation) proportional to their size. Democratic interests, in these states, are subsequently protected sufficiently.



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Party system: Is the electoral college system unfair to third parties?

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Yes

  • The electoral college disenfranchises third parties As a candidate only becomes important if he can amass enough votes in a particular state to threaten to win it, attention is only focused on those parties which have a big enough organization to become truly competitive in a given state. This punishes parties like the Green Party, who have a less well-funded party organisation, and whose support is thinly spread across the whole country. For this reason, there is no third party in America comparable to the Liberal Democrats in Britain.
  • The electoral college stands in the way of election reform Alternative election methods such as Approval voting, Condorcet voting, and even Instant Runoff Voting cannot be properly implemented at the Presidential level if the Electoral College remains in place. This is unfortunate, given that these methods are a marked improvement on the current systems.



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No

  • The electoral college favors a strong two-party system: This is good for the country. A multiplicity of parties would, like in Italy or The Netherlands, lead to unstable coalitions and a weak government. America’s important international role makes it imperative that this not happen.



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Demographic shifts: Does the electoral college fail to account for demographics?

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Yes

  • Demographic shifts are not well accounted for in the electoral college: With great movements of people from state to state every year, it is difficult to readjust the electoral vote totals to keep up with the changes in population distribution. This can lead to an even more inaccurate outcome.



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No

  • It is not difficult to adjust electoral votes according to demographic shifts. Redistributing seats, vote totals, and so on is a problem which occurs in any democracy, and is usually adequately carried out by impartial bodies. The system could be improved by specific reforms, but this is not an argument for abolishing the electoral college.



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Popular legitimacy: Does the College undermine leader legitimacy?

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Yes

  • Leaders are legitimized by winning a popular majority or plurality, but the electoral college undermines this: George Bush’s disputed victory in 2000 was unhealthy for democracy and for the authority of the President, since many people said that he had no right to govern, regardless of what the outcome of the electoral college was. If a President cannot command the respect and acceptance of his country, he will be a very ineffective leader.
  • Polls show that Americans would prefer a popular vote over an electoral college. A Washington Post poll found in 2000 after the Bush victory that 6 out of 10 would prefer a popular vote system.[1]



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No

  • Americans support the electoral college system because they see it as a guarantor of their rights. Most Americans were prepared to accept George Bush as President following the Supreme Court’s decision on the Florida recount issue. His high levels of support post-September 11th shows that the country was prepared to rally around him as a legitimate commander-in-chief in a crisis.
  • Minority interests must be protected against majority support for popular vote The electoral college is specifically designed to protect minority interests in the United States. The fact that the majority of Americans support a popular vote should not, therefore, be considered against the electoral college. The system exists precisely to counter a tyranny of the majority.


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Recount concerns: Could a popular vote avoid a recount crisis?

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Yes

  • The electoral college creates a crisis of legitimacy. The electoral college inherently creates a crisis of legitimacy in instances in which an elected president does not win the popular vote. Therefore, while there is the potential that a popular vote recount could delay an election or engender a crisis of legitimacy, this denies the fact that the Electoral College also holds the significant risk of a crisis of legitimacy when it does not reflect the popular will. It is also clear that the election results within any given state can be contested in the Electoral College, as was the case in 2000, which can create a crisis of legitimacy on par with the the fears surrounding a popular vote.



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No


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Pro/con resources

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Yes




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No



External links

Books:

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