In making the case against the Electoral College, I frequently run into an insidious argument which states that the "popular vote" not only doesn't determine the winner but is a meaningless concept in our system. The argument goes as follows. Because of the Electoral College, candidates campaign in some states and not others, and this affects the outcome. Al Gore may have received half a million more votes than George W. Bush, but that was the end result of two campaigns that had been conducted on a state-by-state basis. We have no way of knowing what the nationwide totals would have been in a non-Electoral College system, because the campaigns would have been conducted differently, yielding different results. Therefore, Gore's apparent popular-vote lead doesn't mean anything.
I heard this argument several times from Republicans in 2000. I heard it most recently from Charles M. Kozierok, a blogger and self-described Democrat who is presumably not speaking from partisan bitterness over what happened eight years ago. I find the argument insidious because it attempts to whitewash the damage that a split between the electoral and popular vote does to public confidence in our system. The fallacy of the argument is that it confuses the causes of public opinion with the measurement of public opinion.
The purpose of an election is to ascertain the will of the people. It cannot ever be a perfect measure, since we can't read minds. A flat tire on the way to the polling station can distort the outcome. So can a medical emergency, or bad weather, or problems in the voting machines, or any number of other factors unrelated to people's intentions. Nevertheless, an election is meant to reflect as accurately as possible what the public thinks at a particular moment in time.
Campaigns do affect the outcome, of course. But they have nothing to do with the accuracy of the election in measuring public opinion. Rather, they have an effect on the public opinion itself before it is measured. For example, if a candidate campaigns in Missouri but not Kansas, the election will probably turn out differently than if he were to campaign in both states. But that simply means he has influenced the voters in a particular way, before their views were measured in the polling booths. The combined vote total in both states is still an accurate and meaningful measure of the collective will of Missouri and Kansas voters, whom the candidate helped influence. So too with the collective will of voters in all fifty states (plus DC). It may not determine the winner, but it is independently significant--a "valid metric," to use Kozierok's terminology.
Still, I agree about one thing: the state-by-state campaign strategy used by U.S. presidential candidates is the most obvious consequence of our having an Electoral College. A true split between the popular and electoral vote is in fact quite rare. It has apparently happened four times in our history. What is seldom pointed out, however, is that only once was the split uncontroversial. That was in the 1888 election, when Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but won the election, apparently without any controversy over the results.
The other three cases were a different story. In 1876 and 2000, the election ended in a months-long battle over the voting results in Florida, and the man who finally triumphed was widely viewed as an illegitimate president, not because he lost the popular vote but because his triumph in Florida was called into question. Thus, in both cases the popular-electoral split was arguably an illusion.
The 1824 election was the strangest. Andrew Jackson received a plurality of the popular and electoral votes. But because there were four major candidates, he failed to reach an electoral majority, so the election was thrown into Congress, which made John Quincy Adams president. (Jackson would gain the presidency four years later.) Partly that was because of Speaker of the House Henry Clay, whom Adams subsequently appointed Secretary of State, an act that struck many people (including Jackson) as bribery. Constitutionally the outcome was legitimate, but an expression of the public will it was not.
Given the relative rarity of these kinds of situations, the difference between the Electoral College and a direct-vote system might seem more theoretical than practical. But one very tangible difference that shows up in every election is the suppression of third parties. The most striking example was the 1992 election, when Ross Perot, running as an independent, received 19% of the popular vote but not a single electoral vote.
Earlier that year, Perot had led in the polls. What would have happened if he had maintained that lead into November? Probably he would have won enough electoral votes to throw the race into Congress, which would then almost certainly have gone for one of the major-party candidates (probably Bush).
That outcome would not have impressed the Founders, who opposed the idea of a two-party system. Actually, the Founders failed to anticipate many things about the Electoral College. And no wonder. That was a time when Thomas Jefferson referred to Virginia as "my country," and when the term United States was treated as a plural. None of them predicted the gradual weakening of the states and strengthening of the federal government over the course of two centuries. That's why I'm amazed whenever I hear defenders of the Electoral College talk about the "wisdom" of the Founders in creating this system. If you're going to defend it, at least acknowledge that its value is due as much to luck as to foresight.