Daniel Singal, professor of history, had an opinion piece published online by the Democrat and Chronicle. The piece, “The genius of the Electoral College,” was written in response to an essay previously authored by Tom Golisano. In his article, Golisano proposed using the popular vote for presidential elections.
Singal argues doing so “would in fact wreak havoc on our national political system.”
“Put simply, the Electoral College has turned out to be one of the most brilliant innovations the Founding Fathers devised when writing the Constitution. Its virtue is that it directs our politics to the center of the political spectrum, helping us to avoid the extremism that might otherwise rule the day,” he writes.
He explains how battleground states change over time, historically, and a key benefit in the Electoral College system is that “our entire political process gets pushed to the middle.”
A member of the faculty since 1980, Singal earned his B. A. from Harvard magna cum laude and his M.A. and Ph.D., (with distinction) from Columbia. He is the author of “William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist” (Chapel Hill), and “The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945” (Chapel Hill).
The full article follows.
Democrat and Chronicle
The genius of the Electoral College
Daniel J. Singal • Professor of History, HWS •August 25, 2012
Tom Golisano’s proposal in his essay “Make Every State Matter” to elect presidents on the basis of the popular vote rather than the Electoral College may sound appealing at first, but would in fact wreak havoc on our national political system in ways that he clearly does not understand.
Put simply, the Electoral College has turned out to be one of the most brilliant innovations the Founding Fathers devised when writing the Constitution. Its virtue is that it directs our politics to the center of the political spectrum, helping us to avoid the extremism that might otherwise rule the day.
As Golisano correctly points out, having the Electoral College means that the contest for president is limited to a relatively small number of “battleground states.” That means that the major party candidates almost never visit states like New York except for occasional fundraisers and our airwaves are not clogged with attack ads. Is that so awful?
Moreover, the states that become battlegrounds keep changing. Over time just about every state gets a turn. New York today is a sure-fire Democratic state, but in the middle of the twentieth century it was far more heavily contested. A few years ago, presidential candidates paid little attention to Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, while in 2012 they seem to touch down in them every other week. That is why it’s important to take the long-term view rather than to throw a fit because we in New York aren’t getting the attention we supposedly deserve.
That long-term view also makes manifest the hidden mechanism of the Electoral College. In states that are up for grabs independent voters in the middle of the political spectrum become crucial. Since those states are usually decided by a few percentage points, the candidates must gear their messages to appeal to those “swing voters,” who by definition are not strong partisans and thus open to either side. And since candidates running for the House and Senate must coordinate with the presidential campaigns of their parties, our entire political process gets pushed to the middle.
Think of what would happen if we did elect presidents by a popular majority vote. Democratic presidential candidates would spend most of their time in places like New York, Massachusetts and California, milking those states for the greatest number of votes, while Republicans would flock to the Deep South and the Midwestern Bible Belt. In each case they would attempt to appeal primarily to their political base, which means that Democrats would move to the far left and Republicans to the far right. The tone and substance of our politics would change dramatically for the worse.
It’s true that the country at the moment is mired in partisan gridlock, leaving many citizens upset. But again one should take a long view. This kind of partisan warfare tends to occur periodically in our history at moments when voters are making a fundamental choice about which direction they wish to go. We are currently faced with a decision between two visions: one in which government is used to grow the economy while also solving our major social problems like health care, and another in which government is cut to the bone and an essentially unregulated free market is allowed to tackle those same problems. If history is any guide, a firm majority of American voters will eventually opt for one of those visions and at that point the gridlock will be broken.
Democracy is necessarily a messy process that at times requires us to be patient while a nation of 300 million people agonizes over a fundamental choice. What has always insured that that process works properly is our tradition of ultimately coming together in the pragmatic center of the political spectrum when making those decisions while avoiding the temptations of extremism. That has been the secret of our success as a nation — which is why keeping the Electoral College intact remains essential to our future.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges history professor Daniel J. Singal is the author of “William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist,” and “The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945.”