Should we get rid of it? Thoughts on the Electoral College

January 1, 1913 Congress counting Electoral College votes.

“the Electoral College is, and long has been, out of step with the nation’s values – never more so than when it has elevated to the presidency candidates who did not win the popular vote.”  P.379  Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?  Alexander Keyssar

In his new book, celebrated historian Alexander Keyssar argues that the Electoral College represents a bygone era.  Political interests – not democratic principles – preserve this relic of 19th century politics.    

The country has evolved since its founding, becoming significantly more democratic, more devoted to political equality, and more committed to transparent electoral processes.   By contrast, the Electoral College begets inequality and produces confusion about presidential elections.  In sum, the Electoral College is an unwieldy institution that stands in the way of progress. 

The public generally agrees.  Since 1944, large majorities of Americans support amending the Constitution so the presidential candidate that receives the most total votes nationwide wins the election – see graph below.       

Should we get rid of it?  Keyssar certainly thinks so.       

However before moving down that path, let’s consider how the Electoral College lines up with two key democratic values. 

Equality

Recall at the Constitutional Convention, presidential selection created considerable debate and negotiation.  It was no easy task designing an Executive office that possessed significant, independent powers that could be properly constrained by federal and state institutions.   

While popular elections offered an independent power base for presidents – independence from federal and state legislatures, it also set large states against their smaller counterparts.   Small states, for example, recognized that national popular elections would advantage large state candidates and large state interests.  Accordingly, large states pushed hard for the national popular vote while small states lobbied against it.   After all, if it’s about numbers, there were far more voters in Virginia than New Jersey – at the time.   

Popularity contests would simply demonstrate the dominance of large states. No one disputed this fact.  In a nationwide popular vote, the small states would be crushed. 

Clearly, a nationwide popular vote did not offer a level playing field for electoral competition.  Rather, it unambiguously favored large states. 

Could Madison secure a Union of States with such a flagrant violation of equality?  Unlikely.  A national popular vote thus threatened the values of political equality and basic fairness. 

Freedom

A national popular vote also required states to merge their citizens into a single nationwide electorate.  Faced with this prospect, the states recoiled and summoned the fundamental American value of freedom. 

A national popular vote would inevitably lead to federal administration of elections and uniform suffrage laws.  States with generous voting laws would be advantaged.  In turn, this would pressure other states to expand their own voting restrictions.  The entire process would constitute an unacceptable departure from the principles of federalism.  States would not relinquish their authority to govern their own election laws.   

In other words, a single nationwide electorate threatened state sovereignty. 

Concluding thoughts

While a popular vote seems consistent with the nation’s values, it does challenge state freedoms and denies equality between states.  There are national values and then there are state and local values.  The Electoral College offers a balance between them.   

Keyssar frequently invokes public opinion to buttress his argument about the nation’s values.  He details Americans long-time support for national popular elections.   The Electoral College stands in the way of the people – its’ time to eliminate it.     

Nevertheless, Keyssar knows well that our system frequently stymies national opinion.  By design, public preferences are filtered through representative law-making bodies and kept at arm’s length when federal judges discern the very meaning of the Constitution.  

Should we reform or eliminate the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court?  Justices never have to stand before the people – they are nominated and receive life terms.  

What about the Senate?  It’s also out of step with our nation’s values.  Like the Electoral College, the Senate emerged as a solution to the large-small state equity issue. 

In election matters, presidential primaries mirror the Electoral College.  Small states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina hold disproportion power.  Primary voters cast their ballots for a favorite candidate.  But, much later, at the party Convention, delegates represent those voters during official nomination processes.  In other words, it’s the delegates that matter not the primary voters. 

Similarly, on the Democrat side, a group called “super delegates” function as an elite check on delegate preferences.  Voting as a block, super delegates can steer the nomination toward a preferred candidate – regardless of the primary vote.    

Without question, removing the College would align the presidential election more closely with the nation’s democratic ethos.    Yet it’s difficult to shake Madison’s reasoning for the College.  Yes, our democracy has evolved.  But old systemic fissures remain.        

Eliminating the College will lay bare the genuine tensions between large and small states – and between regions – in election politics.  Moreover, the absence of the College could very well revitalize serious conflicts between the states and national government.  And, as a previous consider the politics post outlined, a nationwide popular vote could produce a variety of outcomes – including victories by insurgent third party candidates.  In a post-Electoral College era, no one can be certain about the political dynamics that will ultimately prevail.     

Finally, keep in mind that freedom and equality can be applied generally or tailored for a specific purpose.  Here, freedom and equality are deployed as Madison envisioned 200 years ago – applied to the states not to the people within the states.  From that vantage point, the Electoral College appears as a remedy for inequality and a protector of freedom.    

Next week, look for part 2 which outlines the partisan perspective on Electoral College reform. 

3 thoughts on “Should we get rid of it? Thoughts on the Electoral College

  1. Interesting arguments and this recent election highlighted the reliance of elections on the rights of states to set election rules and procedures. Interestingly the challenge to election legitimacy came from within the party dependent upon state rights or better put small states power. Perhaps the underlying issue rest with whether a republic can be democratic.

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    1. Yes, good point. Without the flexibility at the state and local levels, it may be more difficult to adopt election rules to changing circumstances – pandemic. Without question, party and political figure’s support for federalism is contingent based on policy objectives. Once Trump took office, Democrats found state rights positions on immigration and environmental policies favorable – witness California. Similarly, Republicans used the power of the federal government to push their agenda on immigration and health care, among other things.

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