The Electoral College as Seen from the Windows of the New York Times

It has been a long-standing joke that New Yorkers view most of the states that compose the United States as insignificant in relation to New York City. One of the famous images of this view was on the cover of the New Yorker in 1976. Well, it appears that the New York Times, in keeping with this myopic view of the USA, sees the Electoral College in an analogous way, leading it to conclude that the College is an anachronism – simply out of date and a less accurate representation of opinion that the national vote tally. steinberg_view_9th_ave_03291976

The editors seem to see the popular vote and the electoral vote as two indicators of the people’s will, with the electoral vote being less representative due to the weighting of state electoral votes by representation in Congress. They argue that the College is a vestige of slavery, but – news flash – the South did not win the war. And the editors worry that the College focuses attention on contests in ‘battleground states’, which are states in which the two major parties are most competitive. It is a shame (for the Times) that the lion’s share of the advertising dollars go to the media in the battleground states, but other than advertising revenues, winning the popular vote in states is the object of American Presidential elections.

The most basic point about the Electoral College is that it is anchored in the fact in these post-truth times that the United States is a federal system. The Electoral College is designed to support the principle of a federal system of government in which each state counts. So the rules are that the candidate that wins the popular vote in a state wins the electoral votes. This winner-take-all, state-by-state game punishes third parties, by not being a perfect reflection of the statewide popular vote, and ensuring that each state matters in the end, thus adhering to the federalist structure of the USA, where candidates should have an incentive to garner the support of all states. Our system rewards catch-all parties that cast a wide net and seek to appeal to voters across all states.

In my opinion, the New York Times doesn’t seem to understand the structure of American government, and the principles that underpin it. Instead, it takes a very utilitarian perspective based on the outcome of elections they did not like to argue that it is in every individual’s best interest to have a nationwide popular vote count to select the President and Vice President. That would certainly be in the interest of New York, California, and Texas, but not in the interest of most other states of our union. So the Times really does want to enshrine its myopic view of the United States into the rules of the most important game in America, the Presidential elections.

Rather than fighting the last election, it is important to keep more enduring principles in mind such as maintaining the decentralized and federal structure of the country. When you try to predict the electoral consequences of changing the rules of the game, such as would be the case with doing away with the Electoral College, you are inviting unintended and unanticipated consequences that unfold from changing a complex interdependent system. Most recently, urging Electors to vote their conscience a la Larry Lessig, led to more Electors defecting from Hillary Clinton than from Donald Trump. Not expected. So on the basis of principle and the inability to project the consequences of such changes in the electoral system, New Yorkers should not mess with the Electoral College.

Comments are most welcome