Perhaps the only good thing that may be said for the Electoral College is that every four years it relieves most of us of the burden of choosing the lesser of two evils from among major party presidential nominees. Once we know that a clear majority of the other voters in our state will be plumping for the Democrat or the Republican, we are free to vote sincerely rather than a strategically for any candidate that we like. And that includes the nominees of third parties. Blame the ‘winner take all’ rule that allocates the electoral college votes in every state except Maine and Nebraska. In a non-competitive state you are no more throwing your vote away on one of the third party nominees than you are by voting for one of the major party nominees. The horrible truth is that in non-competitive states your vote can’t possibly change the outcome. To be sure, no third party nominee has any credible chance of winning the White House. What voting third party gives you is the satisfaction that you voted your values rather than your fears and knowing that you are not responsible for what the winner will do in office.
Unfortunately for voters in 11 winner take all states the only benefit of using the antiquated Electoral College probably won’t be available in 2016. In a typical presidential election year, only two or three states are competitive. This year however Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are such unappealing (presumptive) nominees that they have managed to make Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin competitive. Florida is usually competitive but just how terrible must Trump be as a GOP candidate for Utah to be up for grabs? Mormon Utah might not go for Clinton! Colorado has been competitive since 2008 but how bad a Democratic candidate must Clinton to be worried about Iowa? ‘Iowa nice’ might not prevent Trump from winning the state!
Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim xenophobia helped him win the primary contest but it has country club Republicans ready to sit out this presidential election. His populist rejection of neo-liberal foreign policy has some neo-conservatives crossing over to vote for Hillary Clinton because of her unbounded Zionism and foreign policy credentials earned by reducing Libya to a failed state. Those are the same reasons many progressives shudder at the thought of voting for Clinton. Yes, yes it would be great to finally elect a woman to the Oval Office but must it be one who will indulge Israel in a fourth Israeli bombardment of Gaza or make the tragedy of the Syrian Civil War worse with an U.S. military intervention? Must it be a woman who will further the environment and job destroying agenda of “free” trade? Forget about financial reform.
Thankfully, voters in the remaining 37 uncompetitive winner take all states may anticipate voting for the Green Party’s Jill Stein or the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson without qualms. Stein is the third party nominee now being ignored in CNN’s news coverage as thoroughly as candidate Bernie Sanders was in the Democratic primary contest. Like Sanders, Stein might take votes from Clinton, which CNN disapproves. Johnson is the candidate that you will have seen rather more of in CNN’s news coverage because he might take votes away from Trump. CNN’s pro-Clinton bias in 2016 is as naked as the pro-Mitt Romney bias of Fox News in 2012, the pro-John McCain bias of Fox News in 2006, etc.
If the popular preference distorting mechanism of the Electoral College is ever abandoned for direct election of the president, the most promising institution would be the two round system, also known as the majority run-off election. It works like this. A candidate winning a majority of votes in the first round is elected without a second round. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the two candidates with the most votes in the first round compete in the second round. One of them wins a majority and is elected. So simple that we use in Georgia and Louisiana.
Adopting a two round system for U.S. presidential elections would have three big advantages. The first is that it means that only a minority of votes cast would become ‘wasted’ information about preferences in the selection process. Wasting information in a decision making process is normally thought to be a bad thing.
The second advantage is that it would allow every voter to cast sincere votes in the first round and then strategic votes in the second round. The distressing lesser of two evils calculation that now faces only voters in competitive states plus Maine and Nebraska would then be faced by every voter…but not until the second round. In the first round, they may vote as they wish. As a consequence every voter would be given the civilizing incentive to distinguish what they believe about politics in the abstract from what they will endure practically.
The third advantage, and it is not minor to my mind, is that from then on only the historians would ever need to explain the Electoral College. The time and effort now spent convincing the bewildered, incredulous or bemused that such a preposterous institution could be used to elect the leader of the most powerful country on the planet might then be devoted to reforming our other dysfunctional political institutions. We might tackle the problems of partisan gerrymandering or the inability of gun enthusiasts to understand punctuation. We might even begin to demand a return to journalistic neutrality from broadcast news sources. No wait, that last idea is too much to ask.
In 2016, you may vote without guilt at somehow failing to select the correct lesser of two evils for the Green Party’s Jill Stein, the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson or even write in your name in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. The only reason why any state on this non-competitive list might move to the competitive list is that Trump and/or Clinton somehow manage to become even more unappealing. That’s actually still possible.