Electoral College & United States: The System Is Essential for Democracy


(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The winner of a national office should have nationwide support

The latest enthusiasm from progressive pundits and activists for replacing the American system of self-government is to abolish the Electoral College and choose presidents by national popular vote. As with all such enthusiasms — expanding the Supreme Court, abolishing the filibuster and the Senate itself, lowering the voting age to 16, letting convicted felons and illegal aliens vote, adding D.C. and Puerto Rico as states, automatic voter registration, abolishing voter ID, etc. — the scarcely concealed argument is that changing the rules will help Democrats and progressives win more.

Also as with all such enthusiasms, Democratic presidential contenders have been unable to resist its siren song. Multiple prominent Democratic senators, including Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, are introducing a proposal this week in the Senate to make it happen, the second such proposal by Senate Democrats this month. As radical an idea as this is, its support in high places demands to be taken seriously.

The Electoral College has been with us since the Founding, and in its present form since the election of 1804. Some of the reasons for its creation may be obsolete now, and the original concept of the electors themselves as important actors in the presidential selection process has long since left us. But the fundamental system of electing presidents by 50 simultaneous statewide elections (plus D.C.) rather than a raw national popular vote has long served America well. It isn’t going anywhere, and it shouldn’t.

Uniting the States of America
What would American politics look like without the Electoral College? Changing our current system would unsettle so many of the assumptions and incentives that drive presidential politics that the outcomes could easily be unpredictable. But first, consider the immediate changes.

The core function of the Electoral College is to require presidential candidates to appeal to the voters of a sufficient number of large and smaller states, rather than just try to run up big margins in a handful of the biggest states, cities, or regions. Critics ignore the important value served by having a president whose base of support is spread over a broad, diverse array of regions of the country (even a president as polarizing as Donald Trump won seven of the ten largest states and places as diverse as Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, West Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Texas).

In a nation as wide and varied as ours, it would be destabilizing to have a president elected over the objections of most of the states. Our American system as a whole — both by design and by experience — demands the patient building of broad, diverse political coalitions over time to effect significant change. The presidency works together with the Senate and House to make that a necessity. The Senate, of course, is also a target of the Electoral College’s critics, but eliminating the equal suffrage of states requires the support of every single state. A president elected without regard to state support is more likely to face a dysfunctional level of opposition in the Senate.

Consider an illustrative example. Most of us, I think, would agree that 54 percent of the vote is a pretty good benchmark for a decisive election victory — not a landslide, but a no-questions-asked comfortable majority. That’s bigger than Donald Trump’s victory in Texas in 2016; Trump won 18 states with 54 percent or more of the vote in 2016, Hillary Clinton won 10 plus D.C., and the other 22 states were closer than that. Nationally, just 16 elections since 1824 have been won by a candidate who cleared 54 percent of the vote — the last was Ronald Reagan in 1984 — and all of them were regarded as decisive wins at the time.

Picture a two-candidate election with 2016’s turnout. The Republican wins 54 percent of the vote in 48 states, losing only California, New York, and D.C. That’s a landslide victory, right? But then imagine that the Republican nominee who managed this feat was so unpopular in California, New York, and D.C. that he or she loses all three by a 75 percent–to–25 percent margin. That 451–87 landslide in the Electoral College, built on eight-point wins in 48 states, would also be a popular-vote defeat, with 50.7 percent of the vote for the Democrat to 49.3 percent for the Republican. Out of a total of about 137 million votes, that’s a popular-vote margin of victory of 1.95 million votes for a candidate who was decisively rejected in 48 of the 50 states.

Who should win that election? This is not just a matter of coloring in a lot of empty red land on a map: each of these 48 states is an independent entity that has its own governor, legislature, laws, and courts, and sends two senators to Washington. The whole idea of a country called the United States is that those individual communities are supposed to matter.

This scenario is extreme, but the problem is not: elections where some places are overwhelmingly for or against a candidate while the rest of the country is competitive. The most extreme example happened in 1860: Abraham Lincoln won 18 of the 33 states (all the free states except New Jersey), giving him 59 percent of the Electoral College. Across the states he won, Lincoln got 54 percent of the popular vote, just as in our example above. In the two states that gave electoral votes to Stephen Douglas (New Jersey, which split its votes between Lincoln and Douglas, and Missouri), however, Lincoln won just 26 percent, and he was not even on the ballot elsewhere: He got just 0.9 percent in the eleven states carried by Vice President John Breckinridge and 0.7 percent in the three states carried by John Bell.

Lincoln won a popular plurality with just under 40 percent of the vote, and it is true that 1860 is a unique case. But the point is that the Electoral College works against a united regional minority, such as the antebellum South, that seeks to impose its will on the majority regions of the country simply by virtue of superior unity.

In the case of the South, that unity persisted long after the Civil War. Well into the 20th century, in elections still within living memory, states in the “Solid South” voted in far greater lockstep than elsewhere. Democrats won Mississippi, for example, with over 82 percent of the vote in every election from 1892 to 1944, clearing 90 percent eight times. Franklin D. Roosevelt won the eleven states of the old Confederacy with 81 percent of the vote in 1932 and 1936, 78 percent in 1940, and 72 percent in 1944. But 94 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 81 percent in Alabama counted no more than Tom Dewey’s winning 50–49 in Ohio and Wisconsin in 1944, or Wendell Willkie carrying Michigan by three-tenths of a point in 1940. That’s a good thing if you think a single, radicalized region of the country shouldn’t be given disproportionate power in choosing a national leader.

One of the reasons we are having this argument right now is that more than 13 percent of Hillary’s voters lived in a single state, California — the highest proportion for any candidate since Dewey in his home state (New York, then the nation’s most populous) in 1944, and higher than any winning candidate since 1868, when only 34 states voted (a few ex-Confederate states were still not allowed to participate). Hillary’s 4.2-million-vote margin in California more than accounted for her 2.9-million-vote plurality nationally. That one-party unity in the largest state, out of step with the rest of America, explains more about the popular/electoral vote split than the small states do. In the smallest states (those with 5 or fewer electoral votes, including D.C.), Trump got 30 electoral votes to Hillary’s 29. The real Democratic grievance is not that small states get a voice, but that big, closely divided states such as Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio get a say instead of being swamped by a few big outliers.

Making It Work
That’s just how the vote tallies matter. But of course, replacing the Electoral College would change how votes are courted and how they are tabulated.

The immediate question is what happens when no candidate gets a majority of the national popular vote (i.e., more than 50 percent). Senator Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), the author of one proposal, ducks the issue, claiming incorrectly that “we have now seen two elections where the majority of voters supported a candidate who did not become the President.” The proposed constitutional amendment authored by Senator Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) and joined by Gillibrand, Durbin, and Feinstein states: “The pair of candidates having the greatest number of votes for President and Vice President shall be elected.”

In 49 elections since 1824, the voters have returned a popular-vote majority 31 times. Those elections have not been the problem: In only one of them (1876) did an arguable winner of a majority fail to win the Electoral College. I say “arguable” because Democratic New York governor Samuel Tilden’s 1876 race against Republican Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes was marred by force and fraud throughout the South that left many of the vote tallies in question, and one state won by Hayes (Colorado) held no popular vote at all because it had been admitted to the Union that year and was not ready for a statewide election.

In the other 18 elections, an Electoral College majority went to the winner of a plurality of the national popular vote 14 times. Those winners, all below 50 percent of the popular vote, include the first election of some very big names in American history: Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman,…

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