With little fanfare and even less attention from the media, Maryland just became the third state to deviate from the "traditional" means of awarding its electoral votes. However, unlike Maine and Nebraska (which allocate EVs based on Congressional districts, with the two votes from the Senate seats awarded as a bonus to the overall winner of the state) Maryland will commit all of its electors to the winner of the national popular vote.
Now, I have always had it in for the Electoral College. It is truly a ridiculous anachronism with absolutely no benefits to counterbalance its considerable potential for disaster and complication. Let's look at some common arguments in favor of the EC:
1. "It forces candidates to win a broad geographical victory representing a large number of states" – No it doesn't. It's possible to win the presidency by winning exactly eleven states (CA, TX, NY, FL, IL, OH, PA, MI, NJ, GA, and NC – and no, I didn't have to look that up. I have them memorized because I am so fucking cool)
2. "In a national popular vote, candidates would ignore small states and focus on only a small number of large states like California" – Huh. Well, in 2004 3/4 of the states in the union received no ad spending or candidate visits. Thank god we don't have a system that encourages candidates to ignore small states and large portions of the country!
3. "It contributes to stability by encouraging the two party system" – Yeah, that's quite the benefit. Must be why we end up with such awesome candidates all the time.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that none of the arguments in favor of the EC make any sense….and far beside the point, they all represent "bouncing ball" logic (i.e., if this reason doesn't justify it then how about this one? And when that one fails then how about we move on to this one?). In short, none of these "defenses" relate to the original purpose of the EC. The founders didn't institute the system to "ensure broad geographic support" and they sure as hell didn't do it to ensure the hegemony of the two major parties (which not only didn't exist at the time but were also seen as highly inimical to the idea of democracy). They created it for two reasons and two reasons only, neither of which are relevant today and neither of which are addressed even tangentially by contemporary 'defenses' of the system.
First, they wanted a buffer between the public and the presidency. Electors were actually supposed to sit around and debate for whom they should cast their votes. In other words, states were supposed to select (by whatever method they so chose – more on that in a bit) a group of "betters" to make the choices that the public was clearly far too stupid to make properly. The popular vote would inevitably go to demagogues and buffoons, so the EC was a way to make sure that the elite would still prevail and choose a proper, dignified leader. Does anyone think that electors still sit around and deliberate like this? If so, please put your head in an oven ASAP. An hour at 450 should do it.
Second, the EC was intended as a backdoor to allowing elections to be decided in Congress – which is what our "democracy-loving" founding fathers wanted all along. They created a system that gave the illusion of democracy (every state gets to play a role!) but one that they felt would never provide a majority winner aside from General G-Dub. Remember, travel and communication were slow, laborious, and poor at the time so the idea of a "national" campaign was inconceivable to them. Equally importantly, there were no political parties when they devised this system, and hence nothing to limit the field. They assumed, quite logically given the circumstances, that the election would be split among 5 or more regional candidates (NE, Mid-Atlantic, South, West, etc) with no majority. Of course, elections lacking an EC majority are decided in the House. How convenient.
Reality intervened. The rise of the party system dramatically winnowed the range of choices, and technological improvements in travel and communication allowed the parties/candidates to mount truly "national" campaigns. Furthermore, states gradually drifted towards awarding electors based on a popular vote. Why were they allowed to do so in clear violation of the founders' intent? Article II, Section I, Paragraph 1:
Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress
The "manner" each legislature chose was initially quite varied. Until 1848, for example, South Carolina simply had its governor choose the electors. Most other states let the State Legislature do it. In short, the process was never intended to be democratic and it was not until the late 1820s that popular vote played any role at all in the process.
So Maryland's recent decision creates huge logistical challenges – how could a "recount" ever be accomplished with such a system? – but there is absolutely nothing that the courts (where opponents of the change plan to take their fight) can do about it. The Constitution is clear as a bell on this issue. State legislatures can choose to appoint electors via a popular vote, by legislative fiat, by coin toss, by 3-on-3 basketball tournament, or by cage match. There's nothing short of a Constitutional amendment that can stop them. Good luck getting that.
I had hoped that the debacle of 2000 was enough to convince people of the folly of the system in the modern context. Significant risk, zero benefit. Indeed some states have taken some action (Colorado did a referendum to switch to the Maine/Nebraska method in 2004, and the CT legislature introduced a bill to do the same – both failed) including the recent Maryland decision. When individual states start making changes without the larger problem being addressed, this does nothing but add even more risk and complexity to the system. So I was wrong. Debacle 2000 was not enough. Apparently there will have to be two or three more complete trainwrecks before people realize what an asinine system we use. So I suppose there's not much else to do but sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the fireworks.