Is It Time To End The Electoral College?

REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk/File Photo

David Weinberger Freelance Writer
Font Size:

“Time to End the Electoral College,” announced The New York Times.

“Monday’s Electoral College results prove the institution is an utter joke,” declared Vox.

The Electoral College is a “vestige” and a “carryover” from the past, proclaimed the president of the United States.

It is a sign of our failing education system that reputable news outlets and intelligent people don’t understand the Electoral College. Its preservation is vital for securing the rights of the minority and averting the tyranny of pure democracy.

Yet seemingly unfamiliar with these arguments, The New York Times (NYT) haughtily pronounced that:

By overwhelming majorities, Americans would prefer to elect the president by direct popular vote, not filtered through the antiquated mechanism of the Electoral College. They understand, on a gut level, the basic fairness of awarding the nation’s highest office on the same basis as every other elected office — to the person who gets the most votes.

The editors of the Times would do well to consult the history books. “Antiquated” is a term better applied to the idea of a direct popular vote. Millennia ago, Greece and Rome attempted what the NYT celebrates as a novel idea, and both collapsed.

This history was carefully studied by our founders. John Adams, for instance, implored us to “remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” Compatriot Benjamin Franklin reached the same conclusion: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” The author of the Declaration of Independence, who was extraordinarily well-versed in history and political philosophy, agreed. “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.

Our framers knew that democracy quickly devolves into “tyranny of the majority,” where minority rights get trampled. Their genius was in designing a system of majority rule that protected the rights of the minority—or in the immortal words of Federalist 51, a system where “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” They scrupulously designed a democratic republic (but only “if we can keep it,” admonished Franklin), which they equipped with checks against the excesses of democracy—including three co-equal branches of government, federalism, and a mixed regime of both republican and democratic elements, including the Electoral College.

While sovereignty resides with the people (as in a democracy), the Electoral College filters the democratic process through the electors of each state. This means that when we vote for a presidential candidate, we are really voting for our state’s electors to vote for that candidate. Electors for each state are determined by the state’s number of congressional representatives and senators. So, for instance, Minnesota has eight congressmen and two senators, totaling 10 electoral votes. Of the 538 total votes, a presidential candidate needs a majority—270—to win.

Unlike the Electoral College, pure democracy is simply a raw popularity contest. So, why not eliminate the electors and have a popular vote? Crucially, the layer of electors between the people and the candidates moderates the views of candidates and broadens the appeal of their policies, to gain support from diverse voting blocks. Similarly, because no single region can provide enough votes for a candidate to win, the system also encourages coalition building among diverse constituents who share overlapping policy concerns. The consequence has been the most successful experiment in human liberty and equality ever conceived.

But The New York Times disputes this:

The Electoral College, which is written into the Constitution, is more than just a vestige of the founding era; it is a living symbol of America’s original sin. When slavery was the law of the land, a direct popular vote would have disadvantaged the Southern states, with their large disenfranchised populations. Counting those men and women as three-fifths of a white person, as the Constitution originally did, gave the slave states more electoral votes.

These assertions lack perspective and ignore context. The purpose of the three-fifths compromise was to limit the influence of slavery. Since slavery dominated in the south, southerners demanded slaves be fully counted for purposes of representation (which would increase the south’s—and slavery’s—influence). Northerners, who opposed to the “peculiar institution,” were equally adamant about not including them in the count for representation. To resolve this impasse and prevent disunion of the republic, the three-fifths compromise agreed to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation. In effect, it shrunk the influence the south (and slavery) would have otherwise had. Far from a “symbol of America’s original sin,” the three-fifths compromise represents a moral achievement against slavery.

But the Times continues:

A direct popular vote would treat all Americans equally, no matter where they live — including, by the way, Republicans in San Francisco and Democrats in Corpus Christi, whose votes are currently worthless.

Would that it were so, but consider the consequence of a direct popular vote. The most populous states—New York, California, Texas—would be of high value to candidates while the least populated states—Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota—would be of negligible value. Indeed, lesser populated areas would be all but ignored as campaigns appeal to the heavily populated regions. This means policy platforms would narrow, undoing the electoral system’s protective tendencies.

This would further divide an already polarized public. Imagine that voters in popular states support policy X, which impedes the rights of those who do not live in those jurisdictions. Yet if sufficient numbers reside in the popular regions and Candidate A agrees to policy X to win the election, those whose rights are infringed will have had little chance to express their policy concern. Is that really an “equal” system?

Under the Electoral College, Candidate A would need to consider how policy X would impact voters who live outside that region and whose electoral votes Candidate A will need to reach 270. Furthermore, supporters of policy X would also need to contemplate whether that policy might negatively impact coalition building and thus hurt the chances of electing Candidate A. Both consequences protect the rights of minorities.

Until recently, this was understood and the Electoral College was universally admired. Yet many today are unaware of its relevance. But it was the father of the constitution who stressed that “in Republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.” Should the Electoral College be abolished, The New York Times may quickly learn what it is that James Madison feared.

David Weinberger formerly worked for the Heritage Foundation. His writing has been published in The Federalist, The Daily Caller, The Washington Times, The American Thinker, Roll Call and other outlets. You can find more of his work at diversityofideas.blogspot.com.