five or six weeks ago, about a month before the ghastly and depressing result of election day, i wrote a little about the electoral college.
why the electoral college
since trump’s victory, there have been more than a smattering of posts on facebook, commentaries in magazines and news papers decrying the electoral college as an old, undemocratic, and broken system for electing the president of the united states.
i’ll admit, my inclination toward the electoral college waned a bit, “maybe we should take a serious look at getting rid of it.” so, i’ve been reading as much useful content as i can find on the subject. historical articles and commentary on both sides of the issue. i’ll attempt to lay out both sides as i see them.
even the historical context for the creation of the electoral college seems to be steeped in controversy. whether you support the system, or not, there is a historical theme for you.
why the hell do we have this system in the first place
the constitution is the result of negotiations between representatives from the 13 original colonies. the election of the president is no different. some suggested the president should be elected by popular vote. others thought it better that the congress be tasked with the job.
for the founders, a direct democracy raised cause for concern. they feared the “tyranny of the majority.” and they worried that the average citizen would be unable to reach an informed, untarnished decision.
on the other hand, an election of the president by congress was also problematic. there was a concern that a president elected in the fashion would be beholden to congress, thus potentially tipping the balance between the three branches in favor of the legislative branch.
underpinning all this was a tension between the more populous “free” northern colonies and the less populous “slave” southern colonies.
in the end, a compromise was reached: election by the electoral college. included in the compromise was how representation in congress and the electoral college would be determined.
“according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
so, congressional and electoral college representation is identical and based on the census. every state gets at least three members in congress (one representative and two senators) and at least three electors in the electoral college.
why we should abolish the electoral college
the most immediate and obvious reason to do away with the electoral college is that for the second time in less than 20 years the popular vote result differs from that of the electoral college.
with the overwhelming majority of states apportioning their electors on a winner-take-all basis (except for maine and nebraska), even narrow popular-vote victories in a state result in massive electoral wins. this year, narrow trump wins in florida, ohio, pennsylvania, wisconsin, and michigan led to his decisive win.
because of this winner-take-all dynamic, candidates tend to focus their energy on a handful of states. they otherwise ignore any states they are either certain to win, or have no hope of doing so. and so the election is decided by a handful of states and voters who receive all the attention.
also, the structure of the electoral college creates lopsided voting strength for those who live in lower-populated states in comparison to the larger states. california, the state with the largest population, receives 55 electors (equal to the number of senators and representatives in congress). wyoming, on the other hand, receives just three.
according to the 2010 census, california had just over 37 million residents to wyoming’s 560,000. so, in california, each elector represents 677,000 residents. in wyoming, each elector represents just 188,000 people. voters in wyoming have nearly four times as much power as voters in california.
the electoral college operates contrary to the democratic “one person, one vote” principle.
so, the system by which we choose our president today is a result of concerns and political compromises made by the founders over 200 years ago. neither are relevant in the modern age.
why we should keep the electoral college
despite the flaws described above, there are good reasons to keep the system we have now. or, at a minimum, any attempt to do away with the electoral college should be carefully considered.
for starters, it’s important to point out that in the more than 200 years since the founders established the electoral college, it’s result has failed to mirror the popular vote just five times. that’s a 91% success rate. prior to the 2000 election, it hadn’t happened since 1888.
at both the state and federal levels, we are a representative democracy. and that representation isn’t directly proportional to “one person, one vote.” the house of representatives is based on proportional representation, but the senate is not; each state gets two senators regardless of population. remember, the united states is a federal republic. though imperfect, the electoral college is an integral part of that federalism. to do away with the electoral college would arguably leave little reason to retain the senate, since it’s creation is tied to the creation of the electoral college.
since it is mostly democrats, progressives who are calling for the abolition of the electoral college, consider what congress would be like without the democratic minority in the senate serving as the only bulwark against the republican majority.
with one exception, the electoral college has only contradicted the popular vote when the election has been within three points. despite clinton’s growing popular vote lead, the result is still less than one percent of the total. so, only when the election is a near tie does the electoral college become a frustrating aberration. and in these circumstances, it is indeed the smaller states that end up deciding the election.
the electoral college forces presidential candidates to have broad appeal across different regions of the country. a candidate cannot win by the south, or northeast, or west coast alone. they must establish their appeal beyond their “safe bets.”
though frustrating at times, the “winner-take-all” system that is currently in place further forces candidates to focus their attention beyond the large states. once a candidate reaches 51% in any given state, it makes no sense to continue to campaign in that state. instead, they must move on to other states. this mechanism further guarantees a candidate has broad appeal across multiple states and regions.
in a similar vein, were the electoral college abolished for a nation-wide popular vote, there’s little reason to believe candidates would campaign to everyone. instead, candidates would either focus all their attention in large cities (democrats) or in rural areas (republicans). in either case, direct campaigning would likely be replaced by even greater television campaigning via ads and interviews and by mass mailings. this shift of focus would also likely result in even more attention paid to fundraising and large donors.
another potential problem to consider with a popular nation-wide vote is the potential for a candidate to win the presidency with a plurality (unless run-off elections are established). the current system makes it virtually impossible to reach this result. however, in a popular vote, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that a candidate could win with 30% of the vote. or even less, if more candidates are in the race.
finally, despite the sorry, fear, and frustration democrats and progressives feel in the wake of this year’s election, it’s important to keep a couple of points in mind. one, had clinton focused more on white, working-class voters in wisconsin, michigan, and pennsylvania, she’d have won and this debate would be going on.
two, more than half the country didn’t vote for either of the two major candidates. opponents of the electoral college might blame frustration with the current system as a cause for the turnout. but remember, both candidates had high disapproval ratings. nearly 30% of the most cast in hawaii, a safe “blue state,” went to trump.
though i remain open to the debate and think having a thoughtful conversation on the subject is both important and healthy, i return to my original position. replacing the electoral college is both impractical and unlikely to lead to a perfectly fair, flawless presidential election.
also, the united states isn’t the only “democracy” that doesn’t directly elect its head of state. great britain is another example.
its important to remember how difficult it is to amend the constitution. given the added weight afforded the smaller-population states, it is highly unlikely enough states would ratify any constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college.
in the end, i view this argument against the electoral college similar to that of enacting term limits. i think it is far more important and effective to focus on cultivating better candidates and focus on organizing. progressives and democrats need to do a better job of convincing voters of the virtue of their positions and candidates, rather than trying to change the system.
and, of course, the democratic party needs to realign its messaging and priorities with those of working people.
in the end focusing on these solutions, i believe, will have benefits that go far beyond problems in the process of electing the president of the united states.