California's governor has demonstrated virtue, understood as the good we do when no one is watching. With his state and the nation paying no attention to an anti-constitutional campaign to alter how presidents are chosen, Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that, had it become law, would have imparted dangerous momentum to a recurring simple-mindedness.
The bill would have committed California to cast its electoral votes -- today, 55 -- for whichever candidate receives the most popular votes nationally. The commitment would have been contingent on a compact with other similarly committed states, all having a combined total of at least 270 electoral votes.
Such legislation has been introduced in six states and passed by Colorado's Senate. Advocates offer two rationales:
First, California and other states that are not closely contested battlegrounds are not "relevant." (A state with more than one-fifth the electoral votes needed to win the presidency is "irrelevant"? Please.) What is meant is that uncontested states are "neglected" by presidential campaigns, so direct popular election of presidents -- the point of the multistate compact --would increase voter interest in the many states (by one count, 37, 34 and 37 in the last three elections) that are not considered to be swing states.
But it is disproportionate to traduce, by simplification, sophisticated constitutional arrangements just to make campaigns more stimulating for some states. Furthermore, the electoral vote system is a wholesome political market: It provides steady incentives for parties to change their attributes that make them uncompetitive in many states. How long will the GOP be content not to contest California?
The system aims not just for majority rule, but rule by certain kinds of majorities. It encourages candidates to form coalitions of states with various political interests and cultures. Such coalitions can be assembled only by a politics of accommodation. So the Electoral College system discourages attempts to build narrow ideological or geographical majorities. Today the system is helping the Democratic Party by nudging it to be less of a coastal party -- less reliant on a risky 20-state strategy in presidential elections.
The second argument for the multistate compact is: The possibility of the winner of the popular vote losing the electoral vote contest violates the value that trumps all others -- majoritarianism. Well.