I am a sucker for traditions. Especially quirky traditions. The running of the bulls, the green jacket in the Masters, that thing in Detroit where fans of the Red Wings throw octopuses—or is it octopi—on the ice during playoff games. Back where I grew up, in Massachusetts, there’s a group of old men who celebrate every New Year’s Day by putting on their bathing suits and jumping into the freezing Atlantic Ocean, because, well just because. And I think it’s great.
But in politics, there’s one quirky tradition I really, really don’t like: the Electoral College.
You know how it works. We don’t really have a national election for president. We have a bunch of individual state elections. Win the right combination of states and you can become president even if a majority of Americans actually voted for someone else.
This has happened before. Most recently in 2000, when more than half-a-million more voters chose Al Gore than George W. Bush, but Bush was installed as president anyway—thanks to 25 electoral votes from Florida. And 5 votes from the Supreme Court. It happened with Benjamin Harrison in 1888 too, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, John Quincy Adams in 1824 … and it actually may have happened in 1960 with John F. Kennedy—for more on that go read Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics, who told the whole, fascinating story this week.
And it’s looking more and more possible—if not likely—that it will happen again this year. Just look at the Real Clear Politics average—Mitt Romney’s pulled ahead, very slightly, in the national horse race. But he’s running behind in just about all of the most important swing states.
We’re supposed to be OK with this system because—supposedly—it protects the interests of states that would otherwise be ignored. Do away with the Electoral College, they say, and the candidates will camp out in the biggest media markets, ignore flyover country, and govern without the interests of any small states in mind.
Sorry, but that argument is—as Joe Biden might say—a bunch of stuff. For one thing, not many of the states that are part of the battleground are really that small—I mean, Ohio? Florida? Virginia? North Carolina? I think they’d get plenty of attention no matter what. But what about I don’t know —Nebraska, or Oklahoma, or Rhode Island, or Wyoming, or Utah or … well, you get the idea? No one in the media or in either campaign gives one lick about any of them right now.
And I don’t buy for a minute that the candidates would spend all their time in New York and L.A. if we just went with the popular vote. I mean, one small state in flyover country might not have that many people, but there are a lot of small and mid-size states in flyover territory. There’d be a powerful incentive for candidates to spend a lot of time in the heartland—just to show it matters. The only difference is that instead of only going to Ohio or Colorado, maybe now they’ll stop by Montana and Mississippi too. After all, arbitrary state borders wouldn’t matter anymore.
This is not an argument about legitimacy. Bush was a legitimate president even though he lost the popular vote, and Obama will be too if the same thing happens to him. The rules are the rules. But going forward, we can change the rules, and we should, to reflect a very simple idea: Whoever gets the most votes—the most real votes, not the most electoral votes—wins.