Is the election of Donald Trump really an argument for the removal of the electoral college? Not even close.
Noticing that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and objecting to Donald Trump’s election, many people (recently former Governor of Massachusetts and presidential nominee Michael Dukakis) have renewed calls for an end to the electoral college.
The electoral college is “anachronistic” and “anti-democratic,” the argument goes. Indeed, Donald Trump made a similar argument in a tweet from 2012, when Romney had seemingly won the popular vote, calling the electoral college a “disaster for democracy”.
In reality, the electoral college safeguards several of the most desirable aspects of democracy, focusing on preserving the diversity of minority opinions and preventing majority overreach. Viewed critically, both of the objections found in these arguments, which often arise after heated elections, fail.
Whether or not the electoral college is anachronistic– this argument’s first objection– is a matter of interpretation. (It is nearly as old as the government, certainly, first appearing around 1845 in Title 3 of the United States Code, though it had been practiced before then.) However, except in rare instances, age alone is not a sufficient reason to do away with something. After all, who would argue that the Establishment Clause should be done away with merely because it is old? Would you take that argument seriously?
Actually, what Dukakis and Trump were arguing for was not so much democracy as party-run elections and majority rule.
Think about this carefully: we now know that geography shapes political and economic values.
The lifestyles, customs, priorities, tastes and political allegiances of the middle of the country (like, say, Iowa, whose 6 electoral votes went to Trump) differ radically from those on the coasts (like California or New York, whose combined 84 electoral votes went to Clinton).
This difference will likely be reflected in who each group wants to elect. Accordingly, any system that privileges one geographic area over the other– in this case because the states on the coasts are more populous– also privileges the political tastes of that area.
In other words, if the US were to switch to a system that merely tallied popular vote, it would increase the power of already important and populous states like California and New York, allowing them to dictate terms to the middle states.
While this may seem great right now to elite liberals, who wouldn’t mind dictating terms if it means a Democratic victory in elections like this, one could hardly say this is an argument for a more “democratic” electoral system. Unless, of course, diversity is not your metric for democracy (I am assuming here that the argument for democracy, as opposed to, say, the argument for limited monarchy or constitutional dictatorship, rests both on popular rule and the preservation of diverse voices in government, which could always be denied). But this logic cuts both ways. If you give up the mechanisms for preserving diversity (a favorite word of leftists like me), you give up insurances against majority overreach, the very spirit of our democratic system.
Dispassionately considered, then, the electoral college is not some discarnate and elitist institution. Nor is it a method of subverting democracy. It is a method of ensuring people-based rule in state-ruled politics. In fact, those are the grounds James Madison offered in Federalist No. 39 for the college’s existence in the first place. (In Federalist No. 68, Hamilton puts this case rather too flatteringly, describing the system as “excellent.”)
But, counter-intuitive as this may seem, the electoral college system does preserve an amount of diversity in electoral politics that would not otherwise be protected.
However, objections may still be given, and an argument for separating electoral votes within a state, similar to what Maine and Nebraska already do, may be worthwhile. (And, I suspect this objection will be relevant for California’s secessionists.)
If you are unsettled by the unpredictable nature of American elections, you are unsettled by the nature of American democracy.
Since this is a defense of the principles of Hamilton and Madison, I will sign off in the same anti-authoritarian way they did: “PUBLIUS.”