This election has seen numerous calls to abolish the Electoral College system. Many of the theoretical objections — such as the greater weight given to votes from sparsely populated states — have merit. But these objections fail to account for the practical difficulties involved in switching to a popular vote system.
One problem is what happens if the popular vote is extraordinarily close — for example, in 1960, when Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy by 0.17 percent. By necessity a national recount would take place, requiring recounting every single ballot in every polling precinct in every state.
To imagine how difficult that recount would be, think of Florida in the 2000 election. Then, just a few precincts were recounted in a highly contentious and time-consuming process. A national recount would likely take months or more.
Whether intended by the framers or not, one benefit of the Electoral College system is that a clear-cut winner is determined on Election Day or relatively shortly thereafter. The alternative would be months of turmoil and uncertainty during a recount of tens of millions of ballots, and untold lawsuits.
Given that potential problems with a national recount in a popular vote system are very rarely discussed, I can’t say for sure whether my concern is valid or overblown. For example, in the thousands of online comments to the editorial, I did not see any mention of how a national recount would work in actuality.
Nonetheless, we’ve never before had a national election and, hence, never faced a national recount. History does not bode well for quick recounts. The 2008 Minnesota Senate recount lasted over 8 months with seemingly endless legal maneuverings. The 1974 New Hampshire Senate race was so close that after many months of recounting a second election was held.
And those were just single state recounts. The point is that in a national recount all 50 states and the District of Columbia would have to be recounted.
Imagine if we had an another election as close as 1880 when Garfield won by less than 2000 popular votes.
Until the mechanism and timetable for a national recount is made crystal clear, we should be wary of abolishing the Electoral College system.
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