The Electoral College Angst

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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As we hurtle toward the 2020 election, some 15 states have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. They would use in a new way the constitutional system in which each state chooses in November electors to meet in December to decide who will be president. Had the compact been in effect in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have been president — though 30 of the 50 states reckoned she was less fit for it.

This is not an occasion for panic. The states that have joined the popular vote compact account for only 190 electoral votes. The compact doesn’t go into effect until it has enough states with the 270 electoral votes needed to decide the presidency. All it would take now, though, is a few red states turning blue enough to join the compact, and — presto — we’d elect our presidents by the national popular vote.

The New York Sun is against it. We’re “republican” with a lowercase r, as we like to say — meaning we worry about populism as much as we worry about monarchies or the consarned socialism. We recognize, though, that the popular vote scheme is backed by a lot of thoughtful newspapermen, the best of them being President Carter’s one-time chief speech writer, Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker.

We’ve tipped our editorial fedora to Mr. Hertzberg several times in these columns, including in “The Next Revolution.” That editorial was issued in April 2014, when New York became the 10th state to ink the compact. Once enough states join the compact, New York would be bound. Had the compact obtained in 2004, say, New York’s electoral delegates would have had to vote to re-elect George W. Bush.

Never mind that New Yorkers actually voted for Senator John Kerry by a margin of 16 points. Their electoral votes would have gone to Mr. Bush. This wasn’t mentioned by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when, the other day, the congresswoman launched a jeremiad on the electoral college. Nor was it mentioned by the New York Times when, on Friday, it issued an editorial called “Fix the Electoral College — Or Scrap It.”

The Times seems to recognize that its preference — a proper constitutional amendment ending the electoral college — isn’t going to happen. Nor is an amendment to end the practice in most states, where the winner of the state popular vote takes all the state’s electors. The Times reckons that is what encourages campaigns to focus on “closely divided battleground states,” as if doing so is illogical or a fault.

What the Times concludes is that the electoral college exists “not because it makes sense, but because one party or the other has believed it gives them an advantage.” That “may be smart politics,” the Times trembles, but it’s “terrible for a democracy.” The problem with that line of argument, though, is that the national popular vote solution is favored by mostly such states as tend to vote Democratic.

Even if enough states ratify the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, it could face a constitutional problem. That’s because the Constitution absolutely prohibits interstate compacts of any kind — absent the approval of Congress. It’s hard to imagine a Republican Congress approving the National Popular Popular Vote compact. It’s not hard to imagine a Democratic Congress doing so.

The big argument in favor of the electoral college, in the view of the Sun, is that it produced all of our greatest presidents — Washington, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, and, of course, Lincoln, not to mention McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, plus your great post-war presidents, Eisenhower and Reagan. Not a bad batting average, even in politics.


Image: Drawing by Elliott Banfield, courtesy of the artist.

Correction: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the correct spelling of the congresswoman’s name, which was given incorrectly in an earlier edition of this editorial

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