The Electoral College is often described as a terrible way to run a democracy. This rallying cry has become incredibly common among people on the left, especially in the wake of yet another presidential election where the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the presidency. The claim itself though is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the structure of our nation. It demonstrates the philosophical divide between those who value the system as it was designed and those who think that the system itself is broken.
The Founding Fathers were fearful of the tyranny of the majority. That fear permeates the entire system of government that they designed: the system of checks and balances between the three branches, the fact that each state has the same number of senators despite population differences, the idea that Congress needs a supermajority to enact the most important duties granted to it by the Constitution. All of this was designed to ensure that the government itself was not tyrannical, and that a simple majority could never use its power unjustly. In other words, it set out to ensure that 51% of the population could never tyrannize the other 49%.
People who wish to dismantle the Electoral College fail to realize that our country is the United States of America. The key here is in the name “United States.” The Founding Fathers placed a strong emphasis on states’ rights. America is a collection of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Fifty states that have different laws, different taxes, and practice different cultural norms. The president is not elected by a national popular vote but instead by 51 popular votes held on the same day.
This system is incredibly important to those who wish for their liberty to be protected. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described the states as “laboratories of democracy,” and that is precisely what they were designed to be. The founders thought that the citizens would experiment with governing in different ways and that the best ways would find their way to popularity. This also meant that people dissatisfied with the way their state is governed would be free to move and try life in another. Today, the fact that 40 million people choose to live in California makes no difference to those of us who choose to live in Missouri, because their ideas on how government should run cannot unduly influence our own.
The Electoral College forces candidates to build a national coalition. To speak to voters in each state and attempt to hear the needs and wants of the people who live there. Some argue that the politicians only care about the swing states, but this is simply not true. Since 1856 when Democrats and Republicans first appeared on the ballot together, only seven states have voted for one party over 80% of the time. Two of these, Alaska and Hawaii, and the District of Columbia are only on that list because they have voted in very few elections. Swing states are constantly changing. Six states swung from Democrat to Republican last election, which is what gave President Donald Trump the victory. Liberal bastion California was solidly Republican until as recently as 1988.
A constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College will probably never happen. Instead, the push now is to have states agree to split their electoral votes so that the person who wins the state is no longer awarded all the electors. Instead, they would only win electors according to the percentage of the vote they won. This terrible idea misses the point entirely. This would essentially be akin to a national popular vote, which is the actual goal of the people pushing for this type of reform. Do not be fooled by this subtle perversion of the Electoral College; it is full of the same problems as flat-out abolition.
The United States is not a pure democracy. This is not a flaw in the system, it is the essence of the system, and one of the things that makes this country great. The Electoral College is not a relic to be cast aside but instead something to be cherished for what it is, something that makes America the strong democratic-republic it is today. As for those who wish for a pure democracy, they would do well to remember the old adage: A democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.
Tyler C. Chrestman is host of The Chrestman Conversation podcast and blog in St. Louis.
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