Our Stupid System

Would a National Popular Vote Be Better?

The pitfalls and drawbacks of a national popular vote

Wouldn't a simple national popular vote be better? He or she who gets the most votes wins. Period. That's how we're taught democracy works, and it's how it works in most countries, but it isn't how it works here.

The electoral college is reactionary and stupid, dating to an era when very few people could vote to begin with. And it skews our elections heavily toward certain states, as we know. Vast swaths of the country are ignored.

But there would be drawbacks to a national vote. Consider the following points.

First, I think money would become even more important because elections would be much more expensive. Candidates would have to do some TV advertising everywhere, even in markets where they were going to win handily, in order to crank up turnout. That would mean advertising in expensive media markets that are often now avoided. It would also mean logging one heck of a lot more miles on that chartered plane, and probably larger staffs. (And it would mean that many more of us would be subjected to three months of nonstop political ads.)

Second, I think it might polarize the country even more than it is now. A national turnout election would inevitably become a base turnout election, right? So you'd have Obama campaigning in black and Latino and white liberals trying to ratchet up turnout as high as possible, and Romney down South trying to do the same. In both cases, the candidates would be saying to the these audiences the kinds of things you'd expect them to say, and it would surely highlight the culture clash. As it is, at least they both feign toward trying to reach the moderate undecided voter in Ohio and other mixed states. To my liberal readers who are about to riposte that it's hard to imagine a GOP being harder right--oh no it's not!

I would think it might ultimately lead to multiple parties, or at least three. If I were one of those No Labels people, I think I'd be for this. Both parties playing more to their bases would leave more room in the middle. This, in turn, would eventually lead to plurality winners (i.e., the winner getting under 50 percent), and from there you know where this is head--ultimately, to a parliamentary-style coalition system. That would take 50 or 60 years, but it seems quite plausible to me.

Third, and more immediately, suppose an outcome of such an election were razor-thin. How could we undertake a national recount? That sounds like a nightmare.

I think I like this sort of compromise idea going around by which states agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the overall popular vote, so that the person who wins the popular vote can't lose (well, pending tonight, that is!). But there would be immense ramifications to changing to a national popular vote, and not all of them would be positive by any means.