With Donald Trump becoming president despite losing the popular vote, the electoral college has become a topic of contention once again. The reaction of both sides was predictable; the Left was upset and felt cheated by the EC, while the Right was ecstatic. Both sides make arguments, but in almost every case, the arguments are post-hoc excuses that simply justify what they think will benefit their political side more. Ironically, had it been two democratic presidents that were elected without popular support in the last 20 years instead of Republicans, the Republicans would undoubtedly be making the exact same arguments the Democrats are. So how do we decide who is right? Let us start with our form of government.
The US is a democratic republic. People on the Right often point this out during their pro-electoral college argument. Actually, they usually say, “the US is a republic, not a democracy,” which I respond to by pointing out that it is both. The terms are not mutually exclusive. The fact Right-wingers make such an infantile mistake (and the fact you hear those words so often verbatim) suggests they learned that phrase from their favorite political pundit rather than after having actually studied government.
Republicanism was chosen as the form of our government for a good reason; to prevent the tyranny of the majority. The masses are very often extremely vulnerable to misinformation and demagogic rhetoric (education is a factor here). They can be whipped into a blood-thirsty frenzy willing to accept or even commit atrocities if a demagogue plays their emotions properly—as Donald Trump has demonstrated very well.
However, because of various factors, the EC has ended up further empowering this group of people rather than restraining them, and that is the big problem with the EC.
Reasons for the Electoral College
There are some legitimate reasons for the EC.
Preventing a tyranny of the majority was among them. The funny thing though, is that probably most on the Right who cite this reason have never actually read anything about the principle; they haven’t read Alexis de Tocqueville’s De La Démocratie en Amérique (On Democracy in America), they haven’t read James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, they haven’t read the Federalist Papers, and they haven’t read any biographies on the founders who crafted the Constitution. They just learned a modicum of the principle so they could use it to defend the position they took beforehand, because they liked the results of the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections. They don’t know the real reasons for the principle:
True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.James Madison
The Right tends to interpret this principle from the perspective that they are victims of the majority; that America is filled with conspiring liberal atheists who are persecuting Christians and “good ol’ boys.” They make up stories about wars on Christmas, Bibles being banned, and much more. In reality, Christians are the majority, and non-fundamentalist society is simply trying to prevent the religious Right from persecuting actual minorities, like LGBTQ+ people, foreigners, and non-Christians.
Indeed, majority religions were most prominent among the things Madison mentioned as being particularly susceptible to oppressive uses.
There is also the reason regarding the possibility that populous areas of the United States would neglect the more sparsely populated areas. The issue I have here is that I believe these potential problems were already solved without the EC. Here are the reasons why.
- We already have the Senate, which evens out the power between high and low population areas when it comes to national binding policy; something cannot become a law without the Senate’s approval. Moreover, the Senate has the power of approving Supreme Court appointees, making it probably the more powerful of the two houses of Congress.
- Constitutional amendments require the approval of 38 out of 50 states. This means, the high populous areas cannot unilaterally walk over the rural low-populace states on constitutional matters.
- State governments exist. It isn’t like all public policy is just handed out by the federal government. Despite how much a Libertarian may say otherwise, states still have more power to affect the day to day life of people than the feds.
- The coastal states with large populations aren’t voting 100% against the lower population central states in presidential elections. In 2016, nearly 40% of liberal California’s population voted for Donald Trump. So the central states aren’t just helpless and by themselves.
- Even if we had a direct one-person-one-vote democracy, a president still could not mathematically win without a large quantity of votes outside the populous historically liberal coastal areas.
A final reason why the EC came to be is one that the Right tries to bury: Slavery. One of the important motivations for the creation of the EC was to balance the power between slave states and free ones; hence the Three-Fifths Compromise. Slave-holders wanted to utilize their slaves to increase their numbers in the House of Representatives.
A Better Way?
I personally would not be so against the EC if we could pass a constitutional amendment doing a few things.
- Override the winner-take-all laws that 48 states and the District of Columbia have passed over the years. These laws made it so that whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote of the state takes all of the state’s Electoral votes. When the EC was constructed, states didn’t have these laws.
- Override state laws requiring electors to vote with the popular vote of the state. Electors were meant to be a check on mob rule, not a puppet tied to the mob’s decisions by law.
- Establish instant runoff voting (also known as ranked choice voting) for all House, Senate, and Presidential elections.
- Establish some much better (nonpartisan) mechanism for preventing the widespread and shameless Gerrymandering of districts we see.
Of course I highly doubt any of this will occur. I even doubt simply abolishing the EC will occur (at least, not any time soon). I’m not so deluded that I think the populace will choose efficient government over the fanatical defense of partisanship. Until the voters stop treating politics the way they do football and basketball; until they stop acting like spectators at the Roman Colosseum who are so easily distracted by blood sport, things will not improve.
The possible tyranny of the majority is a good reason to have something like the EC. However, because a host of problems including the fact that most states have passed winner-take-all laws regarding electoral votes, and because most have passed laws requiring their delegates to vote with the state’s popular vote, the EC works nothing like intended. The college has ended up making things worse and empowering the very people that the founding fathers were most worried about.
The founders weren’t all-knowing gods, and they merely did the best they could hoping that later generations would improve on the model. Unfortunately, later generations actually ended up making it work worse.
Based on all of these facts, I would support a mechanism that restrains the tyranny of the majority. However, in practice, the EC is currently doing more harm than good in modern America. So either abolishing it, or circumventing it seems to be the best we can hope for. It seems that by the time we are culturally evolved enough to make a proper restraint on the gullible masses we won’t need it because they won’t be as gullible by then.