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The Electoral College Experts Debate and Audience Dialogue

10/17/2008 1:15 PM Bartos theater
Arnold Barnett, PhD '73, George Eastman Professor of Management Science, MIT Sloan; Vikram Amar, Professor of Law UC Davis Law School; Dr. Alexander S. Belenky, Visiting Scholar, MIT Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals; Robert Hardaway, Professor of Law University of Denver College of Law; Alexander Keyssar, Professor of History and Social Policy, JFK School of Government, Harvard University; Paul Schumaker, Professor, Political Science, University of Kansas

Description: Much like our divided country, each side of this debate strains to comprehend the perspective of the other, together reaching no consensus on the fate of the Electoral College. In what feels like a constitutional law and political science scrimmage, participants lob questions and spark exchanges. What follows is a short list of discussion themes:

Judith Best wonders how a movement currently pursuing a nationwide popular vote outside of a Constitutional amendment can accomplish its goal without usurping Constitutional process. Robert Bennett responds that advocates believe they are neither overturning the Constitutional system nor encroaching on the prerogatives of federal government. Alexander Belenkyasks what benefits popular vote proponents think it will bring. Alexander Keyssar asks in return, "Why shouldn't people have the ultimate voice in deciding what their political institutions look like?"

Robert Hardaway worries about implementation of the direct national election. John Fortier notes possible problems among states over differing voting standards (e.g., polling hours, or mail"in ballots). Akhil Amar adds, "Who votes and who doesn't? Is it fair if one state allows 16"year"olds and another 18"year"olds? Is it equal if one state lets you vote for three months and another lets you vote for three hours? These are real issues, but in the end don't scare me away."

Is a national popular vote doomed due to inertia and the preference of political parties for the Electoral College? Bennett imagines opposition might wither if a modest version of a nationwide vote emerged. Akhil Amar believes if both parties feel "bitten in the back" by the EC system, they'll say "let's move." Vikram Amar says unlike other ideas for constitutional amendments (such as for a balanced budget or school prayer), a popular vote has "potential for traction," since it involves improving democracy.

Best thinks proponents of popular election "have their priorities wrong and should go after the Senate first." Vikram Amar agrees that the Senate is anachronistic, part of the original deal "to get the Constitution done" but Akhil Amar states there are "perfectly sound reasons for wanting to change the presidency and selection mechanism that do not require rethinking the Senate."

Belenky wonders if it's good for the country if we elect a president by a thin plurality who has lost the popular vote in every state. Keyssar retorts "that for any conceivable electoral system the rest of people herecan think of a disastrous counter example." Best insists that "as thinkers, we must be careful to not confuse end and means: the goal of an election is to produce a president who can govern this nation."

Concludes Akhil Amar, "Many arguments invoked against popular elections are actually red herrings, which might be sufficient to persuade people to stick with what we've got now." Says Bennett, "I don't think there's any doubt, if we go to a national popular vote there might be unexpected consequences but the notion that it will be somehow fatal is an over"dramatization of a point."

About the Speaker(s): Arnold Barnett is one of the nation's foremost authorities on aviation security. He uses statistical techniques to probe social and organizational issues. Barnett heads an FAA research team to investigate antiterrorist measures. He has also written at length about crime and punishment, war casualties, and the misuse of statistics in the media.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences honored him with the 1996 President's Award for outstanding contributions to the betterment of society. In 2002, he received the President's Citation from the Flight Safety Foundation for "truly outstanding contributions on behalf of safety."

Barnett holds a B.A. in Physics from Columbia College and a Ph.D.in Mathematics from MIT.

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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