Shapiro: Electoral College’s bad rap is undeserved
By Robert E. Shapiro Guest Commentary December 14, 2012 7:06PM
Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago and a practicing trial lawyer.
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:29AM
About 10:15 p.m. on Election Night, major U.S. news organizations began predicting that President Obama would be re-elected.
A few hours later, Mitt Romney conceded, and President Obama claimed victory.
The popular vote totals were far from complete, and the official tabulation would not be known for several days.
What allowed for the early decision on the victor? The much-maligned Electoral College.
Even if Romney were able to squeak out a victory in the popular vote, which he didn’t come close to doing, Obama had collected the minimum 270 votes in the Electoral College to be assured of victory.
Early knowledge about the winner of a presidential contest is far from the only virtue of our Electoral College.
The peculiar math governing that institution and its 538 votes has made it impossible for any candidate to win without broad support across many different regions of the country.
Each state’s Electoral College votes equal its representatives in Congress (both House and Senate), with the District of Columbia getting three electors.
No candidate can become president merely by rolling up huge popular majorities in the South, for example, or the Northeast.
No matter how large the totals in enthusiastic states, the winner needs majorities in more skeptical states in other regions too or the necessary electoral votes will not be attained.
Geographic diversity ensures issue diversity. However appealing extreme or single-issue candidates may be in one region, they are unlikely to garner enough support in states elsewhere to achieve an Electoral College victory.
This forces the parties to become moderate (“big tents”), appealing to geographic diversity as well as popular support to ensure success.
But isn’t the Electoral College “unrepresentative?” Our country chooses the people’s representatives in a variety of ways.
In the Senate, which no one would call “unrepresentative,” each state is represented equally, regardless of population. Illinois’ nearly 14 million citizens have two senators, just as Wyoming’s 600,000 people do.
The Electoral College, where Illinois has 20 votes to Wyoming’s three, is therefore more representative than the Senate — providing a hybrid form of representation based on both a state’s population (as reflected in the House) and statewide interests (as in the Senate).
Thanks to the Electoral College, President Obama has a clear mandate to serve as president. But he, like his predecessors, must remember what an Electoral College mandate means.
Single issues do not, indeed cannot, elect presidents. An Electoral College majority is not a mandate for this policy or that, but for the “big tent” moderation that won its vote in the first place.
Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor of philosophy at Saint Xavier University in Chicago and a practicing trial lawyer.