Direct election of President has tradeoffs
Because I trashed the Electoral College recently, I was challenged to write a few honest words about the most commonly touted alternative – direct election.
The whole discussion about the current method of choosing the president is akin to the problem in the 1787 Constitutional Convention when the delegates changed their minds every other day on the best method.
A major difference today is 200 years of experience with the system so all of the warts are known. Over those 200 years, the political impulses became more and more democratic in that the people assumed a greater role in governance – electing Electors, lowering voting qualifications, extending the vote to African-Americans and women, equal protection clause and direct election of Senators.
Direct Election a Next Step?
In the context of this democratization, the public philosophy is suggesting that the next step should be direct election of the president in which every person’s vote would be equal. Direct election would put equality ahead of political and geographic advantage.
So the first critical question is this: how important is equality? If it is very important, states must be willing to forego political advantages. North Dakotans believe that the state has an advantage in the Electoral College that we would lose in direct election. We are willing to trade equality for this advantage.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to evaluate and compare the Electoral College with direct election because we have experience with only the Electoral College but none with direct election. That means the use of assumptions which may never be a real part of direct election. To say the least, it becomes quite complicated.
Electoral College Violates Equality
To reaffirm, the Electoral College violates equality in two major ways: the formula for allocating Electors and the variations by state in the number of votes cast per Elector.
While I favored retention of the Electors in 1970 for ideological reasons, my recent studies of inequality in Christian churches have magnified to me the importance of equality for all human beings.
Direct election would require national rules for the whole country on voter eligibility and conduct of elections. Administration would still be done by the system of precincts, counties and states now in place. But the nationalization of anything runs counter to North Dakota affinities.
Campaigns would be nationalized. Under the present system, only a fraction of the states are in the game. The Electoral College focuses on a few swing states, discounting all of the voters in other states.
Take California, a state that is so Democratic that Republican candidates know it is futile to spend any time or money there. Republican voters would better spend their time fishing or surfing. The Democrats from North Dakota can join them.
But there are portions of California that are conservative. In a direct election system, their votes would count. As a consequence, conservative candidates would spend time and money in the parts of California in which they can snag votes.
Advocates of direct election claim that it would increase the importance of the presidential elections for everyone and spur greater voter turnout, especially of the minority parties in most states. Maybe.
Direct election would very likely result in splinter parties. The Electoral College is rigged against third parties because to survive third parties must have electoral success. In direct election, they wouldn’t need to win any Electors for bargaining purposes but if they got 15% of the vote they would have something with which to deal. That means coalition governments become a possibility.
Some worry needlessly about recounts in a national election. If a recount is necessary, it will be done through the counties and states just as we would do recounts for state offices. So that is not really a problem.
So which is best? Depends on our value system.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.