This year's U.S. presidential election has revitalized a moribund industry: Electoral College reform. Often criticized as an outdated, antiquated remnant of 18th century politics, the Electoral College is viewed by many as potentially thwarting the will of the American people. But before amending the Constitution to provide for a popular vote system, it would be wise to consider what might result.
Some have already examined the possible effects on electoral dynamics such an amendment could have, from the weakening of America's two-party system to a reduction in targeted campaigning. Depending on your point of view, these changes may or may not be a good thing. But there is one potential change a popular vote system could engender which no one wants: the never-ending election.
The closeness of the 2000 Bush-Gore race resulted in recounts and re-examinations in several key counties in Florida. And it easily could have led to more of the same in other counties or even a state-wide recount.
The Electoral College is an admittedly imperfect system that does occasionally yield arguably inequitable results.
Disruptive as that process was, imagine how chaotic it could become under a popular vote regime. If the national election is as close as in 2000, what would prevent the "loser" from challenging every close precinct in the country? Given the inevitable inefficiencies in the voting process, it's not hard to imagine that either candidate's nationwide total could vary by 200,000 votes or more if recounts were conducted in every close precinct.
If such a scenario resulted in a new "winner" or even just a significantly smaller margin of victory for the first-round leader, this would likely lead to more recounts and a thicket of cross-country legal challenges that would make 2000's legal wrangling look tame by comparison. And where would this stalemate lead us? No one knows. At least with the Electoral College, a procedure is laid out which eventually leads to a final result.
The Electoral College is an admittedly imperfect system that does occasionally yield arguably inequitable results. However, by cushioning the country from the inevitable inefficiencies of the voting process, it does prevent something worse: electoral chaos.
History shows that the defeat of a popular vote winner is rare. Apart from Al Gore's loss in 2000, it has been 128 years since the last such occasion (Harrison vs. Cleveland) and 140 years since such a result caused national turmoil (Hayes vs. Tilden).
With a popular vote system, the risk of electoral gridlock is real and not remote.
But a popular vote system would likely create electoral mayhem on a much more regular basis. Any time there is a close race (i.e. -- a 500,000 vote margin or less), there would be a clear risk of hundreds of recounts, challenges, lawsuits and even re-votes.
Look at the results of the last 60 years where there have been three races decided by a margin of roughly 500,000 votes or less. A tight presidential election race is far more likely to occur than the relatively rare incidence of the Electoral College winner losing the popular vote. Considering the potential for chaos in a popular vote system, acceptance of the occasional anomalous result using the current system is a small price to pay for relative electoral calm.
With a popular vote system, the risk of electoral gridlock is real and not remote. And attempts to fix such a system would likely just exacerbate the problem. After one or two disastrous elections, there would undoubtedly be a move to impose an automatic national recount if the winner's margin is less than one half of one percent of the total vote count. Based on vote totals in recent presidential elections, a margin of victory of 500,000 votes would trigger such a recount. Such a result happens often enough to give pause when considering a change to the status quo.
Oftentimes, obvious changes to apparently broken systems lead to unconsidered and unintended consequences. Better the Electoral College you know than the Popular Vote University you don't.
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