Let’s squarely face an ugly possibility: President Trump could get elected a second time without winning the popular vote. Indeed, according to most experts, that’s the only way he could be reelected.

This would surely prompt another chorus of calls to scrap the Electoral College. I think that would be a mistake.

I say that even as I acknowledge that Trump has undermined the Electoral College’s legitimacy — not because he owes his election to it, but because of how he has behaved since taking office.

One of the Electoral College’s purposes is to broaden the president’s mandate and agenda by forcing candidates to appeal to different parts of the country and not just rack up votes in one region or a handful of states. But previous presidents who didn’t win the popular vote made a point of reaching out, once in office, beyond the coalition that elected them and at least pretending to lead the whole country.

Trump went a different way, effectively putting his thumb in the eye of the majority that didn’t vote for him.

But that’s not an argument for getting rid of the Electoral College, nor does it address the reasons people are mistakenly focusing on it.

The first problem with its elimination is purely pragmatic. Electing presidents via popular vote would be a logistical disaster, rendering every recount a national recount. Moreover, eliminating the Electoral College would require a wholesale revision of the Constitution. That process would almost surely fail, and it would certainly be ugly.

Reasonable reformers understand this, which is why they propose a national compact by which states agree to direct their electors to vote in accordance with the national popular vote.

That would be better than outright repeal, partly because if the compact backfired, it could be easily reversed. But popular elections would still raise problems. Candidates would be incentivized to rack up huge majorities among their bases. An outright majority of votes could be gotten simply with populist appeals to a handful of large, highly urbanized states. If you’re a pure-democracy fetishist, that may sound fine. But how would it lessen polarization?

Indeed, I think polarization, not love of democracy, is what’s driving antipathy for the Electoral College. Prior to 2016, there was a period when Democrats boasted of their “Blue Wall,” which gave them an Electoral College advantage. But once Trump crashed through the wall, many of the same people suddenly declared the Electoral College to be a white supremacist vestige of slavery. (It isn’t.)

For complicated reasons all fueled by polarization, voters, parties and politicians increasingly act as if we live in a parliamentary democracy, casting ballots for a party more than a candidate. Presidential contenders encourage this by insinuating, or stating outright, that winning an election is all that’s required to implement their agenda.

Partisan legislators — and they are nearly all partisans now — vote in near lockstep with their president when they’re of the same party and in lockstep opposition when they’re not.

Our constitutional system wasn’t designed for this dysfunction. The federal system of checks and balances was intended to foster stability and compromise while protecting the rights of political minorities and, crucially, individual liberty. If you really think government should only be answerable to the immediate desires of 50 percent plus one of voters, why have a Bill of Rights?

Such considerations are swept away when voters, parties and political institutions have neither the interest nor the capacity to honor them.

The growing anger at the Electoral College comes from the desire — and expectation — that all your political desires should be fulfilled without constraints simply by voting.

But even parliamentary democracies don’t work this way. Despite all the rhetoric about the Electoral College being anachronistic, very few advanced democracies — and none in Western Europe — elect national leaders without some mediating process designed to filter out demagogues or the unfit. Such mechanisms are arguably more important in our system because we combine the head of state and the head of government in one person. From this perspective, one could argue the Electoral College isn’t too strong, but too weak.

Regardless, the Electoral College, like states themselves, is part of a system intended not so much to constrain democracy, but to channel it productively. Removing it — a major step toward nullifying states themselves — would further centralize government and fuel the disordered politics driving the foolish effort to abandon the Electoral College in the first place.

(15) comments

threecents

Yah, it's not changing because it's too hard and too many are invested in the status quo because their candidate might get an advantage. America is evolving, but at this point we are still too lazy and corrupt to want everyone to have equal rights.

phydeaux994

There were only 13 States when the Constitution was ratified, all small. Who were the small States you mention? If Madison and Hamilton had not made the concession to the 7 “slave” States they would not have had the 9 States needed to ratify the Constitution to have it adopted. I have provided you with many, many articles that prove that to be true including papers from Madison and Hamilton that state that fact. Have you read THEM?

https://columbiaandslavery.columbia.edu/content/ambition-bondage-inquiry-alexander-hamilton-and-slavery

https://www.fairvote.org/why-james-madison-wanted-to-change-the-way-we-vote-for-president

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/electoral-college-slavery-constitution

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/12/13598316/donald-trump-electoral-college-slavery-akhil-reed-amar

The concession was allowing slaves to count for ANYTHING toward election of the President of the United States. They couldn’t be used as direct votes, only as population of the State. So Madison contrived a voting system, the Electoral College, so that the population of the State could be used to determine votes for President and Veep, the number of Representatives in the House, and Federal Funding for the State. Virginia had almost 300,000 slaves!! Virginians were elected President four of the first five Presidents! Virginians were President for 32 of the first 36 years of the Country! Without the EC and 3/5 Compromise, Virginia or any other Southern State would never have elected a President. Without the EC and the 3/5 Compromise the Constitution wouldn’t have been ratified at all.

public-redux

I really scratched my head at some of Goldberg’s arguments. Getting rid of the EC means why bother having the Bill of Rights? Well, because rights aren’t subject to majority whims. States with large urbanized populations will control the outcome? Not hardly, given that 1) such states do not vote monolithicly and 2) The number of Americans in the 100 largest cities in the country (no. 100: Baton Rouge at 220,000 people) is approximately the same as the number of rural Americans.

hayduke2

Excellent points public

DickD

We need one person, one vote. The EC was set up because of slavery which has not existed for 155 years. The EC is archaic and does not reflect the will of the majority.

gabrielshorn2013

No Dick, it wasn't. Did you even read the article? Read up on the Virginia Plan, The New Jersey Plan, and the Connecticut Compromise. That's how we got our bicameral Legislative Branch, the sum of its members are the number of votes in the Electoral College. Without the EC, you can forget about any candidate in either party giving a fig about small states like Maryland. Candidates will focus on NY, CA, TX, IL, FL, and other big states. MD will be an after-thought.

rpkrauss

As things stand Maryland is already an after-thought. All that seems to matter are the coveted swing states.

Guy T. Ashton

Regardless of where a candidate focuses his campaigning, it still results in one person, one vote. The point seems to be why should the larger states dictate what happens in smaller states, but can't the reverse argument also be true? Why should states of smaller population hold sway over larger areas of population? The argument seems to be areas of higher voter concentration will decide the elections... well shouldn't they? In a one person one vote scenario that's how it plays out. It seems that where we go to "bring democracy" like in Iraq we push the one person one vote idea, but it doesn't seem good enough here (this being a republic and not a democracy begs a whole other discussion)..

gabrielshorn2013

So, Guy, you would have preferred the "Virginia Plan" over the "Connecticut Compromise"? The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral Legislative branch, but have each house be representative of the population size, rather than two senators and a representative HoR. This gives larger states in our Federal system power over the smaller states, The current bicameral system provides parity to each state by giving each state the same level of representation in the Senate, thus every State's votes mattered because they were equals. The Constitution never would have been signed and ratified without such concession to compromise.

Guy T. Ashton

Gabriel, I would prefer not to be “either or” here. I think our House of Reps, based on population, and the Senate based upon equal representation works. However, I can’t dismiss that the antithesis of not having the larger populations having a larger vote means that the smaller population has a greater representation under the Electoral College. And that to me would be unfair to the majority. It is protecting the minority at the expense of the majority. Further it seems to paint the opinions of the majority as wrong simply because they are the majority. Hope that makes sense.

gabrielshorn2013

I completely understand your position Guy. However, that is not how our Federal system is set up. In our Federal system, the Executive is not elected by the citizenry directly. The States elect the president as a result of 50 separate State elections. From those elections, electors are appointed to carry out the will of the voters in their respective states. There is nothing stopping any individual state from apportioning their electors to reflect the percentages found in their state's election results. However, the vast majority are winner-take-all. Eliminating the EC will require an amendment to the Constitution, and there is zero percent chance that you will get 66% of both houses of Congress to vote in favor, and 75% (38) of the states to ratify. The States may also call a Constitutional Convention, but there is an extremely high hurdle there too, and in that process, everything is on the table. Our Constitution was deliberately made to make it difficult to change, and for good reason.

hayduke2

Gabe- systems change and should. I understand your lengthy argument but our capabilities have advanced. You win 48.2 % of acstates vote, you should get 48.2 % of their electors. Add it up and highest number of elector votes wins

gabrielshorn2013

Maybe so hay, but , like I said, it takes a Constitutional amendment to do so, and the odds are against it happening. There is nothing stopping the individual states from doing it, but they don't. Why is that. Plus, what does 48.2% of Maryland's 6 electors look like? Do we round fractions up, or down?

hayduke2

No need to round/ pretty simple math to take to the hundredths or thousandth place and add them up. Thanks

gabrielshorn2013

All well and good hay, but still ain't happening.

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