Politics

How to Make the Electoral College Matter Less

Like India, the U.S. could switch some presidential powers to the legislature.

Prime Minister Modi has the power.

Photographer: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. election system -- in particular the Electoral College -- has been getting a bad rap since Donald Trump's victory. Other countries that rely on similar procedures sometimes have trouble, too, though the turmoil has been mitigated by political traditions and laws that limit the powers of the presidency, reducing the stakes of the presidential contest.

Although it is just as unlikely to occur as the abolition of the Electoral College, such a system might be a more reasonable path, and even an easier one, for the U.S. If the presidency mattered less, so would any differences between the popular vote and the Electoral College's tally. And the government that would actually run the country -- in strict accordance with the current U.S. Constitution -- would reflect the popular vote.

The U.S. might want to consider the example of India, which also is a federation of widely divergent states.

It, too, uses an electoral college to elect the president. The body includes the entire parliament and also gives representation to state assemblies, proportional to states' population as calculated by the 1971 census. That sounds unfair in 2016, but there's a logic to it: It is designed to avoid penalizing states that made efforts to limit overpopulation.

Few people outside India can immediately summon the name of the country's president, Pranab Mukherjee: Prime Minister Narendra Modi runs the county because his party won the nationwide parliamentary elections. And yet the constitutional descriptions of the president's role are similar in India and the U.S. 

Echoing the U.S. Constitution, India's says that "the executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President." The officeholder is also named as the supreme commander of the armed forces. And yet the drafters never intended for the president to govern the country: India decided to stick with the British parliamentary model of government, replacing the monarch with the president in the role of head of state.

This is enshrined in the constitution through some rather unspecific wording, saying the executive power vested in the president "shall be exercised by him either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with this Constitution." The constitutional role of the Council of Ministers, led by the prime minister, is to "aid and advise" the president.

In the U.S., it would take smaller changes to the Constitution to introduce such provisions than to abolish the Electoral College. It could even be argued that the existing wording doesn't contradict a sharp reduction in presidential powers. Here's the part of Article II, Section 2, that would make it possible:

He shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

In today's practice, the incoming president needs to appoint about 4,000 officials to run the executive branch. But there is nothing, in theory, to prevent Congress from passing laws that would take most or all of these appointments away from the president. Congress, if it wanted to and if it could get a president to sign the appropriate laws, could take over the formation of the U.S. government. In effect, a prime minister selected from the parliamentary majority could run the U.S. by the power delegated to him or her by the president.

That, of course, would have solved the problem Donald Trump's opponents have with the Electoral College: The country's real leader would be elected by popular vote. As an added benefit, the election process would no longer be winner-take-all, with the possibility that more than one party would be represented in coalition governments. The lower house of the Indian Parliament includes legislators from 36 parties, and  one -- Modi's Bharatiya Janata -- holds a clear majority; but at least the whole spectrum, from Communists to the hard right, is represented.

If the U.S. took this path, the Electoral College would still choose the commander in chief and guarantor of the Constitution -- and few people would object to this way of enshrining the country's federal nature and the diversity of its states.

This is, of course, a utopia -- one that, because of long-standing traditions, makes far more sense to a European than to the most reform-minded American. But then getting rid of the Electoral College is an equally utopian idea. Just as moving to a parliamentary system would require the consent of a president, abolishing the college would need the consent of small states, which it would render irrelevant.

Americans can only carry out political reforms in small steps, like the Nov. 8 adoption in Maine of a ballot initiative calling for ranked-choice voting for all elected positions. If more states come around to this way of electing officials, presidential elections may eventually become more fair, more representative and less accident-prone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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