Given its over-200 year legacy, the Electoral College has been greatly distorted by the rose-colored lenses of history, its purposes and its creators’ intentions largely relegated to the background in the popular imagination. Though optimistic views of its origins have perpetuated its support, said origins are not as pure as proponents claim them to be. In fact, while the founders originally considered a presidential election system based solely on the popular vote, they were largely swayed to the Electoral College, according to constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar, by the desire to balance between free states and slave states in the election of a president. Despite popular belief, the Founding Fathers were not magnanimously imagining a balance between small states and large states. Their aim was to put off the slavery problem that plagued them in the creation of the Constitution, because they knew the North would win the popular vote every time.
Today, an honest reflection on the Electoral College’s origins is more important than ever. On November 15, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to abolish it. With the controversial results of this election, and the fact that a candidate who lost by over two million votes won the presidency, it is no wonder the faults of the institution have been brought up again. But many misconceptions about the benefits and intended purposes of the institution persist. In order to judge whether the Electoral College should remain, we must examine what it is, what is has achieved, and whether it has lived up to its promises, not merely what it was idealistically designed to do.
While one of the original purposes of the college, to prevent uneducated voters from electing a poor leader, was wise in theory, it hasn’t played out in practice. Indeed, our two-party system, which the founders failed to foresee, makes an Electoral College override almost impossible. Instead of filtering and refining the people’s will, the Electoral College has become solely a reflection of the popular vote in each given state. Furthermore, Trump’s election is arguably the exact kind of populist movement the Electoral College was designed to protect against, meaning it has failed in its designated purpose.
The Electoral College’s proponents argue that it keeps small states in the conversation and ensures a president has cross-regional support. These are certainly desirable goals, but do they withstand close examination? While there is some merit to the claim that the Electoral College requires presidential candidates to have cross-regional support, the reality is less black and white. It’s true that under the Electoral College, a presidential candidate cannot win with the support of just the Northeast or the South. But mathematically, neither can they win under a system based solely on the popular vote. Some also argue that the Electoral College allows small states like New Hampshire to gain critical importance in the electoral process, but this ignores the fact that under the current system, the other 12 smallest states are entirely ignored. In 2012, these states received no significant campaign events due to their safely partisan leanings. In fact, only 12 states received any significant events, lessening Electoral College proponents’ claim of fairness. There is no good reason why winning by a slim margin within a few states’ boundaries should override the will of a majority of the people in the country, especially when the margins of victory in many states are so slim they hardly represent a mandate or clear preference at all.
In November, Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes, less than a quarter of a percentage point, contributing 16 electoral votes to his success. This narrow victory and others like it serve as evidence of the Electoral College’s success. The Rust Belt showed its discontent with Clinton and voted Trump, granting Trump 65 of the region’s electoral votes, compared to Clinton’s 20. Yet, he earned a mere 1.7 percent more actual votes; this slim margin simply does not reflect the overwhelming support for Trump popularly supposed. In Michigan, 10,704 voters alone were able to determine 16 electoral votes. If a mere 5,353 voters went the other way, Clinton would have won the state, whereas in consistently blue or red states, much larger margins are completely discounted once a majority is reached. In California, Clinton won by over four million votes, but after the bare majority were counted, the remaining millions were effectively useless. Its large population means each voter matters less than in other states, resultantly disenfranchising many Californians. Why should 10,000 voices in Michigan be so powerful while four million in California should be irrelevant?
Many fear a popular vote system would leave the presidency up to the decisions of big cities, disenfranchising most voters in rural states. This is a legitimate concern, but it is blatantly undemocratic to make the best interests of millions subservient to those of a much smaller number of people, or to unduly amplify some voices over others just because they come from certain states. Moreover, this theory doesn’t hold up in reality. According to the National Popular Vote campaign, the 100 largest cities in America make up only about one sixth of the population, the same as the percent of the population in rural areas. Both vote about 60 percent blue or red, respectively, so they roughly balance out, and are not nearly the deciding factor critics of the popular vote argue they are.
Under the Electoral College, swing states receive far more attention and have significantly greater sway in the election results. This could make those in blue and red states less likely to vote, as their votes largely don’t matter. If these voters agree with the majority in their state, their desired result will occur regardless of whether they vote. If they disagree, their vote would hardly make a difference in the overall results. This voter suppression effect should be recognized as the problem it is:democracy relies on civic participation, and the Electoral College makes engagement in presidential elections worthless or at least worth less for many Americans.
As can be seen in Michigan, states aren’t single-minded organisms, unanimously voting in their own best interests. Treating them as such, as the Electoral College does, is unfair. When campaigning is relegated to swing states, very small minorities of people often have deciding power over the presidency, and the narrow margin of victory shows that the states are nearly ambivalent between them. Trump won the Electoral College as a result of a mere 100,000 popular votes spread over three key states, or about 0.08 percent of all votes cast. Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes, well over 2 percent of all votes cast. It is ridiculous to suggest, in the face of such numbers, that the Electoral College has protected voters or states from unfair influence by cities along the coast. Such influence cannot be considered unfair when millions of people are largely discounted by the current system to give greater power to states that so narrowly show a preference for either candidate.
Moreover, the concern that populous states like California will matter more under the popular vote is arbitrary. It is not inherently better for swing states to matter more than other states, while states with large populations have a much more legitimate claim to national influence. We have moved far from our nation’s states-rights origins, and it is clear that we are one nation, not merely a group of sovereign states. We should thus treat the election of our president as such. The president is the people’s president, not Ohio’s president, not Florida’s president, and not California’s president. Under our system of federalism, individual states can have different policies that reflect their regional interests without imposing them, in the form of a national leader, on the rest of the country. Rather than suggesting candidates do more to appeal to certain states, we should encourage them to broaden their appeal to the nation as a whole. In a given presidential election, Democrats can win the Northeast and West, or Republicans can win the Midwest and South, plus a few other states, and win the presidency without capturing what matters to the other portions of the country. This type of regional cross-cutting is no better at giving the president a national mandate than the popular vote would be, despite claims to the contrary.
It would, of course, be terrible if our democracy devolved into a tyranny of the majority, the 51 percent ruling over the 49 percent, as Thomas Jefferson once said. But this drastic situation is unlikely to occur in our pluralistic country. For the vast majority of our history, the popular vote has swung back and forth between parties as much as the electoral vote, and there is no reason to believe this would be any different given the increase in voter turnout that could result from abolishing the Electoral College. Every so often, people will choose to vote for change, to make better the things the last president was unable to fix, and vote against their traditional choice of party, allowing those who have felt disenfranchised to have their turn. That has been the history of the entire American democratic experiment up to now. Entrusting the election of the president to the people, as we did for the election of senators with the 17th Amendment, brings us one step closer to the full democracy the founders feared but that modern America has progressed toward, without experiencing the major failures the founders anticipated.
It’s natural to expect some resistance to change, especially from the Republican side, given that Republicans have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. Yet, if the Electoral College consistently helps one party over the other, that should be a warning sign to the GOP. It’s true there are many logistical problems associated with a popular vote, including fear of a national recount and the need to reinvent campaigning, but there’s no reason that changing systems is inherently bad. Despite the great vision of our country’s founders, they could never have foreseen the breadth and diversity of our nation today, along with the spread of education and mass media. Progressing toward fuller democracy, whether that be full adult suffrage, direct election of senators, the inclusion of referenda, and more, is the calling card of our nation.
While some say that calling for the abolition of the Electoral College is just the reaction of ignorant sore losers, the desire to rethink the Electoral College results from an inclination to look forward. In doing so, we must acknowledge that most of the flaws of the popular vote are just as rampant under the electoral vote, simply in a different guise. Different states are favored, yes, but fewer people get to be involved in the process. It has accomplished little of what it was designed to do, and it may be high time we leave it in the past, just as we did with the indirect election of senators using the 18th Amendment, or the faulty system for selecting our vice president, which we fixed with the 12th Amendment. The new century has demonstrated that our method of presidential selection too may now be broken. Let us have the courage to continue to move towards a better and more democratic America.
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