The Electoral College has fallen out of favor ….. again. Not since 2000 have so many people felt that the democratic will of the people has been overridden by an anachronistic institution that must be replaced. But calls to abolish the Electoral College overlook three important features of an institution that serves to protect federalism, republicanism, and diversity.
One of the reasons why the Electoral College rubs us the wrong way is that it violates the maxim of equality in voting. The argument that the Electoral College unfairly weights the votes of people in small states is true, but it’s true for Congressional representation as well. For example, Texas gets the same number of senators as Rhode Island, even though we have 27 times the population. In this sense, the relative weight of each Rhode Island vote is 27 times more influential than each Texan’s vote. It’s a similar situation in the House, where differences in state population change the relative influence of each voter (though not as drastically as the Senate).
The idea that each vote must have exactly the same amount of influence isn’t true in any of the elected branches of our federal government. That’s because our government was designed to represent the people of the various states of the Union and not the people of a singular American nation. State-based voting is central to our political system, as evident not only in the Electoral College but also in the state-based election of our US Senators and Representatives. So while we may clamor for more equality in voting, the problem goes beyond just the Electoral College and is sewn into the federal nature of our political system. If we’re serious about equality in voting, we need to look beyond just the presidency.
Our frustration with the Electoral College is also a product of the fact that we tend to emphasize democracy as the American ideal rather than republicanism. Democracy is the idea that we, the people, all get an equal say in making public policy. Republicanism is the idea that we, the people, elect representatives to make those decisions for us. We do this in the House (to represent localities) and in the Senate (to represent the states). The President, as described in the Constitution, is not elected by the people of America but chosen by Electors who represent the interests of the states that comprise the Union. The Electors were, and still are, chosen by state legislatures. So charges that the Electoral College is not a democratic institution are exactly right, but the Framers would contend that democracy was never the objective.
The modern emphasis on democracy overlooks the fact that federalism and republicanism play an important part in our political system – they protect diversity. According to Census data, two-thirds of Americans live in urban areas, areas that occupy about only 4% of American land. The other 96% of the country is home to people who live in rural America. Presidential nominees pay attention to large cities like those found in Texas, New York, and California because those states possess the Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. But what about the smaller states that lack major urban cities?
In this last election – because of the Electoral College system – little places like New Hampshire and Iowa attracted attention because the polls indicated that their Electoral votes might also be needed to win. The concerns of farmers, ranchers, and rural residents suddenly became important because the Electoral College made them so. In a national popular election, those voices would likely be drowned out by the density and political value of big cities. In contrast to the current system, a national popular election risks elevating the importance of urban America over rural America and transforming the presidency into an agent of the metropolis. The beauty of the Electoral College system is that it secures a voice for people from different backgrounds, races, and cultures throughout the nation. In essence, zip code doesn’t determine political influence.
There is some irony in the push to abolish the Electoral College while lamenting the difficulty of doing so. The Constitution actually makes it very easy for states to act. The Constitution is clear that the American states control the Electoral College, and each state is free to do with its Electors as it pleases. Any state in the Union can decide to award its Electors proportionally, on the basis of direct popular vote, within its borders. Not a single state has chosen to do so (Maine and Nebraska come closest with a Congressional district-based system). The reason they don’t is due to partisan politics over democratic principles.
Activists and politicians may talk a good game, but both Republicans and Democrats want to secure the best odds for their presidential nominee. As a result, 48 states award their Electors on a winner-take-all basis. However, if the people of any state feel now is the time to take a stand and switch to allocation based on popular vote, they can make that change right now via their state legislature. No constitutional amendment or Congressional approval is required. Advocates for abolishing the Electoral College won’t make the change because behind all this talk of democratic principle is a partisan desire to win. Both parties are guilty of it. Democrats figure they will have better odds under a national popular system where the vote would be weighted toward the cities. Republicans understand that the existing federal system provides a check on the influence of Democratic-leaning urban areas. And so, here we are.
Like much of the Constitution, the Electoral College isn’t perfect. It’s a compromise institution for a government built on compromise. At the heart of this debate is a tension between Republicans and Democrats that goes back to the debate over the ratification of the Constitution itself – are we a nation of states or a singular nation? Are we a republic or are we a democracy?
There is a famous story regarding Ben Franklin at the end of the Constitutional Convention. As he was leaving, Dr. Franklin was asked by a passing woman what kind of government the Convention had produced for the American people. He responded “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The Electoral College is part of that republican legacy, and it’s worth keeping.
Dr. Hammons is Director of the Center for Law & Liberty at Houston Baptist University