Selecting the Nation's CEO: A Risk Assessment of the Electoral College

By Barnett, Arnold | Journal of Managerial Issues, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Selecting the Nation's CEO: A Risk Assessment of the Electoral College


Barnett, Arnold, Journal of Managerial Issues


On hearing the word "management," many Americans think instinctively of the leadership of private firms. But the federal government is the largest managerial enterprise in the country, and the President is the nation's chief executive. The process by which the President is selected therefore, reflects a managerial decision of the highest importance.

At the center of Presidential selection is the Electoral College. The College is a controversial body whose operating rules have drawn criticism for nearly two centuries. A state's delegate strength in the College is equal to the number of people it elects to Congress; because coach state elects two Senators regardless of its size, its less populated states have more delegates pcr capita than do the others. Critics have holed that the ratio of delegates Io residents varies sharply from state Iii state.

Even greater criticism is directed at the "winner take all" custom, under which the candidate who nets a plurality of a state's popular votes gets all its electoral votes. (1) Arthur Schlesinger has noted that voters whose candidate loses their state are not only deified representation in the Electoral College, but are effectively treated as having voted for the candidate they opposed (Schlesinger; 1988). Researchers have argued that the "all or nothing" rule mixes inordinate leverage to swing voters in large states (Blair, 1979; Sterling, 1978; Longley and Dana, 1984), and that, in addition, it depresses voter turnout by enhancing the perception that an individual vote cannot affect the election outcome (Cebula and Murphy, 1980).

Probably the most controversial aspect of the College's modus Vivendi is that the loser in the national popular vote can nonetheless win the Presidency. President Andrew Jackson warned in 1829 that "a President elected by a minority cannot enjoy the confidence necessary to the successful discharge of his duties." Uneasiness about this possibility has led to frequent proposals that the College be abolished and the President elected by national popular vote. (2) There have also been several less sweeping proposals that would preserve the Electoral College but change it substantially. One approach, somewhat akin to the British system, would have one Elector from each congressional district cast his vote for the candidate who carried the district (see Weinhagen, 1981). Another would retain the existing Electoral arrangements (including state-by-state winner-take-all) but add a new pool of "national bonus" delegates all committed to the winner of the national popular vote (Schlesinger, 1988).

Of course, the Electoral College has its defenders. Some believe that the College strengthens the two-party system because its rules leave most minor parties bereft of a single delegate (Weinhagen, 1981). And, to many observers, a massive collision between the Electoral College and the popular will is more an academic fantasy than a serious threat. They note that, over a period of two centuries, only twice has the loser in the popular tally prevailed in the College, and even in those cases, the person chosen as President got 49% of the popular vote.

This last circumstance probably explains how the College has survived all the efforts to reform it. But for a reason highlighted by the Challenger disaster, such an historical defense of the Electoral College may rest on a fallacious argument. Alter the Challenger exploded, it emerged that several previous space shuttles had returned with their O-rings damaged; the very fact that these shuttles landed sadly, however, had been constructed as evidence that O-ring problem posed little danger. Analogously, the benign historical outcomes in the Electoral College to date may have been accompanied by cogent warnings of a potential disaster ahead. Until we have carefully searched for such warnings, we have no right to assume that they do not exist.

This paper explores both theoretically and empirically the extent to which Electoral College outcomes can deviate from democratic norms. …

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