America can be a strange place. Tuesday night, after learning that President Obama had won Ohio and thus (what a relief!) secured re-election, many of us went to sleep without knowing which candidate more Americans had voted for.
It turns out Obama won the popular vote too, averting a much-predicted electoral college/popular vote split. Some will argue that winning the popular vote as well as the electoral college gives Obama more of a mandate to govern—and it should. But this election—the latest to be fought out over a dozen counties rather than fifty states—should still offer an inspiration to fix how we pick our presidents.
Some argued in recent weeks that Obama wouldn’t score a “real” win if he secured the electoral college alone. But the real issue wasn’t the legitimacy of a victory—it was the integrity of our democracy. After all, this election was governed by the archaic rules we still use. Both campaigns knew this, and essentially wrote off efforts to win the popular vote for its own sake. A popular vote election would have been a very different election in all kinds of respects (consider the drop-off in Obama’s support in deep-blue states, which neither side had reason to care about).
(Facile comparisons to 2000 were inevitable, and of course that election also illustrated the inanity of the electoral college. But liberal rejection of that election’s legitimacy was based in other outrages: names expunged; voters intimidated; translators denied; recounts halted; malfunctioning machines.)
But what we do know is that every American would have had the chance to participate on an equal basis, in sharp contrast to our current system in which four out of five are absolutely ignored by both campaigns.
Electoral college defenders offer a range of arguments, from the openly anti-democratic (direct election equals mob rule), to the nostalgic (we’ve always done it this way), to the opportunistic (your little state will get ignored! More vote-counting means more controversies! The Electoral College protects hurricane victims!). But none of those arguments overcome this one: One person, one vote.
Our current system has a different pedigree: the “three-fifths compromise” between slave states and free states. As Yale constitutional law expert Akhil Amar has pointed out, James Madison wrote in his diary that the question of counting slaves posed a challenge “of a serious nature.… The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”