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What (if Anything) Should Be Done About Improving the System of Electing a President? (Part 2)

10/17/2008 9:15 AM Bartos theater
Akhil Amar, Professor of Law at Yale Law School; Vikram Amar, Professor of Law UC Davis Law School; Robert Bennett, Nathaniel L. Nathanson Professor of Law, Northwestern Law; Alexander Keyssar, Professor of History and Social Policy, JFK School of Government, Harvard University; Paul Schumaker, Professor, Political Science, University of Kansas

Description: The Electoral College emphatically does not represent the best of all possible worlds, say these panelists, providing often scathing and nuanced responses to the EC advocates who precede them in this conference.

Akhil Amar favors the direct national election because it "best expresses the idea of one person, one vote." One argument in favor of the EC, though: inertia, which essentially expresses that "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't." He takes issue with those who would preserve the EC because it exclusively sustains federalism. Direct national elections, he says, wouldn't eliminate the Senate or the need for federal oversight of voting. Why fear a direct vote, he asks, when plenty of big states like California and Texas directly elect an executive "who looks like a mini"presidentand it works just fine."

The "origins of the Electoral College are quite tainted and not really that understood," says Vikram Amar, and the more he listens to arguments for retaining the institution, "the more laughable some of them are." The EC doesn't really promote "the deepest vision of federalism," as its proponents suggest, nor does it defeat regionalism, since as few as 11 states could dictate the outcome of an election. He also derides advocates who support the EC because it can "exaggerate the margin of victory to create legitimacy."

Robert Bennettfavors a nationwide popular vote, because he's "concerned about the incentives we have for campaigning and promising by candidates." Under the current system, candidates hit swing states hard and "ignore the others." Voters in California or New York don't hear from candidates except around money raising. Bennett believes that a popular vote "would lead to reaching out to a broader swath of the population." Other incentives to switch systems: the minority party would need "to get its act together" and we would be "less likely to have terribly close (elections). "

Alexander Keyssar says many of the empirical claims in favor of the Electoral College "are demonstrably false," and describes the current system as "deformed." It's "surely the most unpopular political institution the Founding Fathers have created." Many attempts to abolish the system failed, owing in large part to the issue of race. "Had there been a national popular vote, the political power of the white racist South would have been dramatically diminished." Another reason for the preservation of the EC has been the perception of short"term partisan advantage. Keyssar approves the decentralized efforts by the National Popular Vote Initiative to abolish the Electoral College.

Paul Schumaker has written a book breaking down the pros and cons of the existing election system. He recommends going beyond thinking "just in terms of a popular system," and looking at elections based on popular plurality, popular majority and instant runoff (his personal favorite). He examines all of these in light of such qualities as simplicity, equality, neutrality, participation, legitimacy and stability. Ultimately, "I don't think there's an ideal system, says Schumaker. But "can we do better? Yes."

About the Speaker(s): Akhil Reed Amar teaches constitutional law at both Yale College and Yale Law School. He received his B.A, summa cum laude, in 1980 from Yale College, and his J.D. in 1984 from Yale Law School, where he served as an editor of The Yale Law Journal,. After clerking for Judge Stephen Breyer, U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, Amar joined the Yale faculty in 1985. Amar is the co"editor of a leading constitutional law casebook, Processes of Constitutional Decisionmaking. He is also the author of several books, including The Constitution and Criminal Procedure: First Principles (Yale Univ. Press, 1997), The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (Yale Univ. Press, 1998), and most recently, America's Constitution: A Biography (Random House, 2005).

Vikram Amar rejoined the UC Davis Law School (where he was a faculty member from 1993"1998) in 2007, after teaching at UC Hastings for a decade. He received a bachelor's degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley and his J.D. from Yale, where he served as an articles Editor for the Yale Law Journal. After law school in 1988, Amar clerked for Judge William A. Norris of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and then for Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the United States Supreme Court. He has also taught regularly as a Visiting Professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law and at the UCLA School of Law.

A scholar in the field of constitutional law, Robert Bennett has been a member of the faculty of the Northwestern University School of Law since 1969, serving as the school's dean from 1985 to 1995. Bennett frequently teaches a seminar in the Law of American Democracy and courses in contracts, legislation, constitutional law, and constitutional theory. Bennett has also taught as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, the University of Virginia School of Law, the University of Southern California Law Center, Brooklyn Law School, and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University.

Alexander Keyssar is an historian by training, and has specialized in the excavation of issues that have contemporary policy implications. His 1986 book, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts, was awarded three scholarly prizes. His book, (2000), was named the best book in U.S. history by both the American Historical Association and the Historical Society; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Keyssar is coauthor of Inventing America, a text integrating the history of technology and science into the mainstream of American history. In 2004/5, Keyssar chaired the Social Science Research Council's National Research Commission on Voting and Elections.

Paul Schumaker has been a professor at the University of Kansas since 1990. He has published a number of books, including From Ideologies to Public Philosophies: An Introduction to Political Theory (Blackwell, 2008); and Choosing our President: The Electoral College and Beyond (edited with Burdett Loomis, Chatham House, 2002). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1973.

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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