The electoral college (EC) has many, many flaws. It leads to an unhealthy focus on swing states; it compounds the effect of the Senate in over-weighting the smallest states; and its byzantine complexity distracts from the issues. Worst of all, it is one of the many links in the disastrous chain of circumstances that brought us President George W. Bush.
So how can I possibly argue that it's a good thing?
To answer that question, I'm going to have to look at some new news and some older history. The recent item is that New York State signed on to the list of states using the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to try to undermine the EC. The older item is the aforementioned 2000 election, as a potent example of the flaws of plurality voting.
Let's start out by looking at the 2000 election. Pretty much everyone has their theory of what caused that disaster. "It was the Supreme Court's fault..." "No, Nader's..." "No, Katherine Harris..." "No, Gore..." "the Brooks Brothers riot..." "the news media..." "hanging chads and butterfly ballots..." "the Electoral College itself..." It's easy to get so caught up in arguing for one of those that you forget that all of them are valid links in the chain, and that Bush's victory was so weak that it could have been broken at any link.
In fact, I'd argue that the argument itself tells us something about what's wrong with our political culture. Why do we try to assign the fault to just one person or thing, to Nader OR the media OR Gore OR a broken system? I'd argue that such arguments stem in part from our plurality voting system. By forcing us to choose only one candidate to vote for, it pushes us to take sides, even in situations where various sides have some truth to them.
Approval voting wouldn't just help our side work together better. It would also give us, as voters, more power. Under the current system, a corrupt, sold-out incumbent can continue to win elections just because they remain the lesser evil, and rich special interests who can maneuver two of their puppets into the nominations for the two major parties can entirely remove any opposition to their positions from the public debate. With approval voting, there would always be room for one more candidate to participate productively, especially if the two candidates already at the table started to look too similar on important issues.
But what does this have to do with anything good about the EC? That's where the recent news comes in. With the addition of New York's 33 electoral votes, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) now has 165 EVs, or 61% of the 270 necessary to take effect. The NPVIC is an agreement between states to assign all their electors to whichever candidate gets the most popular votes nationwide.
Isn't that just a way to end the electoral college then? No; it's a way for states to use the electoral college to change the election system for the president. If there were just one nationwide presidential election, that would take at least federal action from our disfunctional congress, and probably a constitutional amendment — nearly impossible in the modern age.
And in fact, the NPVIC as it's currently written would already allow states to opt for approval voting. The key definition is: "'statewide popular election' shall mean a general election in which votes are cast for presidential slates by individual voters and counted on a statewide basis." That's entirely compatible with approval voting; and once one state implemented it, there would be a "race to the top", as voters in other states would demand equal freedom to support or oppose each candidate independently.
So in the end, what I'm saying is that the Electoral College is a good thing... because it contains the seeds of its own destruction. OK, fine, it's a bit of a #slatepitch; right now, this advantage isn't looking so worthwhile next to the 8 years of Bush that the EC caused. But there's reason to hope that that could eventually change.