History is too odd and too human to be treated like a science. It's better to think of it as a laboratory.
Keep the Electoral College
Since 2016, a lot of digital space has been devoted to debating the relevance of the Electoral College. Elizabeth Warren has been making headlines as she promises, if elected, to “get rid of” the Electoral College. Democrats have tried implementing a national popular vote to elect the president; in fact, Colorado recently became the first “purple state” to join an interstate compact that will tie their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins more votes nationally.
But there’s a blatantly anti-democratic feature of the “National Popular Vote initiative” embraced by the Democrats who dominate Colorado from Denver. The entire initiative depends on the day the popular vote goes to one candidate, even if the voters of states that have signed on to the initiative vote for another candidate.
By signing on to this pact, the legislature of Colorado has told their constituents that the people of Colorado have no communal voice in the presidential election, that their electoral power is no longer in their hands but in the hands of whatever loci of population on this continent can generate a large margin. The legislature of Colorado is telling its citizens that their voices do not matter.
Naturally, the Electoral College has defenders among American conservatives who argue that it is the only constitutional—that is to say, the only legal—way to elect a U.S. president.
Sure. But if shared values and the popular imagination are not behind an institution, it is doomed—just look at the legal institution of biologically complementary marriage, redefined in this country by raw judicial fiat. Conservatives need to make the case for why the Electoral College is a good idea.
This is, for sure, a hard case to make: the Electoral College is a “byzantine” way of electing a president, to quote my own Politics 101 professor, and it is relevant only once every four years.
A hard case, but not impossible.
The Electoral College Protects Minorities
Consider: the strongest arguments for abolishing the Electoral College all champion democracy, equality, and individual rights. These are the very things the Electoral College was designed to preserve. And a little reflection will show that it is better at really preserving these things than a popular vote could be. This is a ray of hope for the Electoral College: no one needs to convince Popular Vote activists that our goals are better, only that the Electoral College is more effective at achieving our shared objectives, even if it is not immediately obvious.
If all our chambers of government were decided every two or four years by a straight majority vote, the rights of the minority would suffer. In the 1970s, that could have meant a systematic restriction on the freedom of speech, press, due process, and peaceable assembly for anyone opposed to the war in Vietnam. At any time prior to 1910, this could have meant rural interests plundering urban areas with sky-high taxes. And frankly, it is hard to see a national government with such potential for consolidated force ever allowing the election of Abraham Lincoln or suffering the liberty-loving culture of the North.
The Electoral College is one of our guardrails, breaking up any monopoly of power wielded by a raw national numerical majority. Here’s how.
The Electoral College Keeps Politics Local to Your State Capital—Not in a Remote DC Monopoly
The frustration of the popular vote means states will play a more important role in people’s lives than will the national government. When fewer topics can be decided nationally, more are left for states to decide for themselves. For example, if a minimum wage cannot muster enough nationwide support, it can at least be legislated on a more local plane. The same goes for gun laws, criminal justice, marriage law, health insurance, and public transit.
If nothing else, the Electoral College at least makes it harder for measures to reach the threshold of national action. For an issue to materialize in federal law, it must pass the House (elected popularly) and the Senate (representation that is equal per state) before being signed—or not—by the president, elected by the Electoral College. Those are three distinct breakdowns of the American people that keep a bare 50.1% portion of our population from imposing its will on the rest of us. Each new distribution of electoral power makes it harder for issues to pass—meaning more issues will be settled differently by different parts of the country for themselves.
Realize, now, that the same “progressives” intent on crafting a one-size-fits-all bare-majority scheme for national power have a reputation for embracing ideas bad enough to drive people from their jurisdiction. Sometimes they accept that their ideas are bad, but sometimes they just expand their jurisdiction to ensnare more people with a policy they don’t like.
New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo recently admitted that he cannot raise taxes on “the rich” because so many New Yorkers are already fleeing to the “sixth borough”—Miami, Florida. Accepting reality like that is fairly reasonable.
Then there are cases like last year’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Florida, who suggested that a “confederacy of states” might be necessary for a government health insurance plan, because if any one state went it alone, all the taxpaying subjects needed to fund the project could just leave. And in Maryland, the Democratic mayor of Baltimore recently vetoed a minimum wage increase on the grounds that businesses would leave the city if it were passed, which is of course true. So Maryland Democrats implemented a mandatory increase across the entire state.
It’s no coincidence that the ideologues whose ideas drive people away want to make it easier to pass laws that govern the whole nation.
But at the end of the day, it is a better thing for the people of America and their rights when the rules governing their lives are decided in Santa Fe, St. Paul, and Atlanta rather than in Washington, D.C.
How the Electoral College Works—and Why It’s Effective
The Electoral College is a system that (roughly) weights elective power among states by population and then empowers the states to award all their votes to a single candidate in a “winner-take-all” system. (Indeed, all states except Nebraska and Maine do just that.)
Thus we have the comfortable vantage point of deriding faddish errors from our past like McCarthyism and slavery. But we are naive if we assume that is because we possess any virtue or wisdom superior to that of our ancestors. On the contrary, we were blessed to have Founders wise enough to construct a system of government that could endure the headstrong, temporary manias of a given age. A raw majority cannot rally behind an idea and bring it to life with the full power of the government instantaneously. Any idea, good or bad, must have abiding support that cuts across multiple breakdowns of our country in order to become enacted.
In order for our (frightfully powerful) national government to wield power, either all three elected portions must be in agreement or there must be overwhelming agreement (two-thirds) between both houses of Congress. In other words, the mere fact that the president is elected in a way that is different from the way members of the House and Senate are elected is a good thing for our country.
As James Madison explained in Federalist No. 51, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” All governments have sufficient power to control other people; those that don’t do not last. The second goal of keeping the government from becoming an invincible tyrant is harder, and is what the most distinct features of our American government—like the Electoral College—are designed to do.
People still criticize the Electoral College in defense of “minorities” because states receive a fixed number of electors regardless of who turns out to vote. If a racial or religious minority in Alabama or California think their votes are meaningless, the logic goes, then they won’t show up to vote (even if they might actually win); consequently, the majority in that state should have no right to the electors they’ve only been apportioned because the minority lives there.
But if you remember the last time you voted for president, you filled out a long ballot. Presidential elections coincide with other elections in this country—Senate, House, referenda, downright local issues—that bring people to the polls anyway. There’s a reason that only two states had more Trump voters in 2016 than did California. So the issue of depressed turnout and biased results is easy to overstate.
And as far as state-level majorities wielding the electors of minorities they’ve outvoted, that’s just a more emotionally engaging way of saying that for the election of president we have a different breakdown of voters. Having the safeguards mentioned earlier—having different systems of election for House, Senate, and Executive—means that something like that has to be the case. And it is some consolation that that advantage works both ways, affecting denizens of downtown Austin and Atlanta as well as residents of Upstate New York and rural Illinois.
Yes, the Electoral College Empowers the Middle—Like Every Voting System
Another perennial objection to the Electoral College is that it empowers “swing states,” so that presidential candidates focus their efforts on a few states every election. As Senator Warren put it during one stop where she called to dismantle the system, “We need to be an America where voting matters for everyone and part of that is making sure that candidates for [president] come to all of America . . . nobody comes to Alabama in the general presidential election or Massachusetts.”
Some states get more attention than others, but to pretend that erasing the Electoral College would fix this is unreflective. We are a nation of about 330 million people; candidates for a nationwide office have a lot of ground to cover. And the factors of time, space, funding, and exhaustion are real limits on how many voters a candidate can reach.
In the final ten weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump made 106 campaign stops, while Hillary Clinton made 71. A different electoral system would change how they decide to apportion those visits, but in what way? Trump would not have started booking venues in college towns; Clinton would not have started paying visits to “deplorable” areas. This is what any democracy would look like: the votes of party activists and ideologues on both sides are taken for granted, while tipping-point voters in the middle receive attention and favor.
Under a new, national popular-vote-win condition, campaign managers would identify the biggest pockets of voters their candidates could sway (moderates) and focus on them. And this would apply not just to campaign stops but also to the national conversation: the issues important to swing voters nationwide would receive attention, while candidates would be freed from familiarizing themselves, at least somewhat, with the concerns and priorities of voters in individual states.
We enjoy a government founded by people who carefully constructed a system that, though sometimes counterintuitive, would deliver results when it came to protecting individual rights and liberties. They did not opt for the shiny model that most loudly promised and most obviously appeared to do so but was vulnerable to every passing fad and sensational obsession.
Doing so, the Founders created a stunningly durable system. As the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia once put it, “We have been a nation under [our Constitution] for a century longer than ‘Italy’ was anything more than a geographical description. For more than a century longer than ‘Germany’ was anything more than a geographical designation.” France, meanwhile, has churned through several systems of government while we’ve been living under this one.
We owe it to our fellow Americans to understand why our system was set up the way it is and to make the case to people that the Electoral College does not just happen to be legal but is also a priceless shield of our freedom, equality, and rights.
Noah Diekemper studied Math at Hillsdale College and is an M.S. candidate studying Data Science at Loyola University Maryland. His work has appeared in The Federalist and the Baltimore Sun. He lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @NoahDiekemper.