What is the point of the Electoral College? Why do we need States? What is the purpose of having local governments struggling with a national government for power? Why does the idea of State’s Rights seem so intuitively important to so many people?
The answer to all of these questions–the basic principle that, in theory, supports all of these ideas–is that the closer government is to the people it represents, the better government works; and the more separated the government is from the people, the more room there is for corruption and insider politics to grow. The idea is that the closer government is to my home and the needs of my community, the better it can represent my needs and the needs of my community. Alternatively, the more separation there is between my community and the people who govern it, the more likely it becomes that the government will represent its own interests, not mine. That is the basic principle that (most) people use to defend the Electoral College and State’s Rights. This is the first of a two part series of posts on why this basic principle is one that we should all agree on in American politics, how–in application–it is often misunderstood and distorted, and how we should be able to unite around it and make a better system.
“One Person, One Vote:” The Electoral College
Now, I get that our system of government is not a democracy, it’s a democratic republic, and that the Electoral College was written into the Constitution from the beginning for that reason. The founders wanted safeguards to protect against simple majority rule, providing stability in the event that Americans ever temporarily lose their minds, but they also wanted safeguards against inside political deals that perpetuate political corruption. A true democracy can become mob rule overnight (which is why the Constitution allowed state governments to select Senators), and a true republic can become a simple oligarchy (which is why the Constitution allowed the public to elect House representatives), but a democratic republic takes several election cycles and cooperation between the political elite and the populists to truly go off the rails. I am also not trying to question the validity of the 2016 presidential election: under the same system we have always used, Trump won fair and square. He is the duly elected president. And if Clinton had won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote, this discussion would still be worth having.
There are huge misunderstandings about how the electoral college works and why it exists. In much of the popular imagination, the Electoral College ensures that the votes of rural Americans have an equal value to the votes of urban Americans. For this reason, it is common to see the Electoral College defended with things like this meme…
Or videos like this. The problem is that this shows a basic misunderstanding of how the Electoral College works, as well as demonstrating a rural vs. urban animosity based more on perception than reality. The total number of electoral votes is predetermined, independent of state populations. There are currently 538 electoral votes to be divided among the states. If electoral votes were split up according to actual population, then there would be one vote for every 574,000 people. But that is not how it actually works. Instead, every state gets three votes to start with, regardless of population (because they get one for each senator and one for each House representative, in addition to the rest, which are allotted by population). According to population, New Hampshire, Maine and Hawaii should only have 2 votes, and Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota should have only one; instead, New Hampshire, Maine and Hawaii get 4 and Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota get 3. Because the number of electors is already set, that means that the extra votes these states have above what their population allows them have to come out of the pocket of another state. So, because these states get a share of electors disproportionate to their population, Georgia, Virginia, Michigan and New Jersey each get one less vote than they should, and Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Illinois each get two less, Florida is missing four, and New York is missing 5, and Texans are missing six, and Californians miss out on ten votes! If you live in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, or Massachusetts, then your vote counts for less than it should (note: there is no urban vs. rural divide here), and, what’s worse, it counts for significantly less than votes from states with smaller populations. While Wyoming has one elector for app. every 190,000 voters, Texas only has one elector for app. every 750,000 voters. One person from Vermont has the voting power of three people from TX, and one person from Wyoming has the voting power of four Californians. So much for “one person, one vote.”
As mentioned above, the idea in many people’s minds is that the Electoral College a) puts smaller and more rural states on an equal footing with larger and more urban states, and b) forces candidates to pay attention to everyone, not just a few states or major population centers. The problem is, 1) neither of these things happen and 2) this was never the point of the Electoral College.
To the first point, during presidential elections, candidates spend more than 50% of their time and money campaigning in just Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. These are all states where the voter’s vote is actually worth far less than the votes in other places (such as Wyoming and Vermont). The reason candidates’ campaign here has nothing to do with the power of the electorate in these states, or even, directly, with the total number of electoral votes available in these states; rather, candidates campaign in these states because they are actual swing states. California, Texas and New York have a far greater number of electoral votes, but they are firmly planted on one side or the other already. Similarly, Wyoming, Washington DC, Vermont and North Dakota have, by far, the moist voting power in the country (despite three of them being extremely rural), yet they are completely ignored because their votes are already firmly set. In reality, what the disproportionate distribution of electoral votes (combined with the winner take all system) means is that (if every state was actually up for grabs) a candidate could actually win the presidency with as little as 21.9% of the popular vote. Again, hardly a “one person, one vote” scenario.
Not only does the Electoral College not force candidates to pay more attention to smaller or more rural states, but contrary to the implications of memes like the one above, doing away with the Electoral College (or restructuring it to accurately reflect population distribution) would not mean that a few major population centers decided the outcome of the election. For one thing, even if you added up the populations of our top ten largest cities (NY, LA, Chicago, Houston, Philly, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose), they only amount to 7.9% of the population of the country. Even if you totaled the populations of the top 100 cities in America (all the way down to a population of just 209,000), this would still only equal 19.4% of the voters in America. Memes like the one above, by focusing solely on population distribution, instead of actual voting power, falsely imply that, without the Electoral College, the cities of America would simply rule the election, but this is completely false. 80.6% of voters live outside those major urban centers: they have, and would continue to have, far more voting power than the major population centers. What the above meme (and those who think that either rural votes or urban votes should count more than the other) misses is that elected representatives are supposed to represent people, not acres of land, so population density or dispersion should not matter when it comes to voting; rather, every voter’s vote should carry an equal amount of weight.
To the second point (the original purpose of the Electoral College), there are two major misunderstandings about the origins of the Electoral College, both of which stem from falsely assuming a direct correspondence between the modern situation and the situation at the time when the Constitution was implemented. First, the system described above, by which states get an allotment of electors disproportionate to their population, was never intended to allow even representation across urban and rural centers. When this system was implemented, Southern states like Virginia (which were always represented as part of the “rural” South vs. the “urban” North) had massively larger populations than most of their Northern counterparts. The issue wasn’t population, it was that the bulk of the Southern population was enslaved and disenfranchised. James Madison–a Virginian and a slave-owner himself–wrote:
There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.
A purely democratic system, or even a system of elector allocation directly tied to the number of eligible voters, would have disadvantaged the South because so much of its population was disenfranchised and enslaved African Americans. A system that allotted voters strictly on the basis of eligible voters would have absolutely favored northern, more abolitionist-minded states with wider enfranchisement, but this had nothing to do with a rural vs. urban divide and everything to do with slavery. The solution of creating the electoral system (with uneven representation) offset that power differential by allowing slave-owning southerners a larger share of electors than their numbers merited. It was, from the beginning, a system designed to promote the interests of some people (in this case, slave-owners), over the interests of other people (in this case, African Americans and abolitionists). This system not only allowed slave-owners the political power to maintain the institution of slavery for nearly a century, it allowed Southern supporters of Jim Crow and segregation to continue to retain power for nearly another century after the Civil War. The only way to defend the creation of this uneven system in the first place would be to argue that it would not have been fair to slave-owners to deprive them of representative votes that should have rightfully belonged to the very people they enslaved. In an era when every citizen over 18, regardless of race or gender, is allowed to vote, this uneven system serves no purpose (definitely not the purpose it was designed for).
Second, because of the winner-take-all system now used by 48 of the 50 states, the Electoral College, as it currently works, functions as a check against democratic representation (which is why its results have increasingly come into conflict with the popular votes in recent elections). If 49% of people in a state vote for a Democrat and 50% vote for a Republican, the Republican takes all the electors for that state, rather than each getting half or the Republican getting only one more (either of which would be an outcome that closely represented the will of the voters). This is wildly different from the process the founders put into the Constitution and serves the opposite purpose from what they intended. In the Constitution, the use of electors was meant as a check against institutionalization (by using citizens from outside the political establishment to select the president). How did this change? While the Constitution left the decision of how to allocate electors up to the individual states–and a few favored letting the state legislatures elect the president (George Mason said that letting “the people” decide would be as “unnatural” as “to refer a trial of colors to a blind man”)–the founders generally agreed that the best system was for every state to allocate electors by House district (each district has an elector who is allotted by popular vote within the district; electors from Maine and Nebraska are still partially allotted on this basis), with the state government deciding how to allocate the extra electors not tied to population. James Madison wrote that “the district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted.” This was one of the few things Alexander Hamilton–leader of the opposing party–agreed with Madison on unreservedly. Unfortunately, as politics continued to break down into two opposing factions, some politicians realized that, if they held a slim majority within a state, they could amplify their sway in the election by switching the state to a winner take all (state-by-state) system, depriving the minority party in their state of any electors. Some states did this by switching to a winner take all allocation through general election within the state while other states simply cut voters out altogether by allowing the state legislature to decide. Either way, this partisan alternative allowed partisans in some states to wield so much power, other states were forced to follow suit. Thomas Jefferson noted that “All agree that an election by districts would be best, if it could be general; but while 10 states choose either by their legislatures or by a general ticket, it is folly & worse than folly for the other 6 not to do it.” Thus, though there was widespread agreement that the district by district method of choosing electors was best, that system was eventually abandoned in favor of a less representative, more partisan system; creating the current system by sacrificing localized representation for the sake of the political establishment maintaining control.
It is important to note that reforming the Electoral College, as an isolated step, would not necessarily ensure greater power to either party. In fact, under the current district divisions, an electoral system directly tied to electoral districts would have resulted in basically the same result in the Electoral College: about 55% of electoral votes to Trump (plus or minus 1% depending on what Michigan ends up doing). In part, this is because of the gerrymandering of districts (one of the issues in part 2 of this post). But the point is, the fact that Clinton currently stands as the winner of the popular vote, despite losing the electoral college, does not itself prove that a system more closely representative of voters themselves would favor one party over the other. It would simply be a better, fairer system. Also, for anyone actually concerned with local voices being drowned out by larger population centers within a state, a district by district system for the electoral college would also allow, for example, more rural and Republican districts of states like California and New York to allot their electors to a Republican candidate (rather than being swallowed up by the population of the large cities in those states) and more urban, Democratic districts of states like Texas to allot their electors to Democrats rather than being swallowed up in the sea of red that surrounds them. A system like that allows for actual representation tied to local interests; the current Electoral College doesn’t.
Despite the fact that people in both party’s think that the other party favors oligarchy over democracy, people on both sides of the political divide agree, in principle, that the closer government representation is to the people it represents (geographically and demographically) the better it represents those people. In fact, the further to the left and right you look on the political spectrum, the more you find people demanding democratic representation over the interests of establishment politics. While it is understandable that Trump supporters want to defend the legitimacy of their candidate’s election, then, they should realize that they do not need to defend the Electoral College to do that. He won by the rules as they stand, regardless of whether or not those rules where themselves fair or should be changed. Wasn’t a recurring theme of Trump’s campaign that, regardless of whether existing laws have benefited him or not (e.g. with his taxes), he and his supporters acknowledged that those laws themselves were bad laws and need to be changed? Wasn’t one of the rallying cries of the campaign a call to break the hold of the establishment over politics and demand a political system more representative of the people themselves? (And weren’t both of those issues also central to Sander’s popular revolution?). Was all that talk about a government that more closely represents the people, from both sides, just a charade used to gin up votes, or do we actually want that? Or do we only want it if we think it will help our party? Which do we care more about, representative government, or retaining power for our chosen party? Republicans do not need to defend the Electoral College in order to legitimize Trump: specifically because they claimed to be electing him because the system is rigged against the people and they wanted him to fix that. Democrats may have disagreed about how to do that, but they agreed whole heartedly with that conclusion (at least the ones who supported Sanders). If Republicans now double back and try to defend the corruption and lack of democratic representation in the current system (in a misguided effort to support the legitimacy of an election that does not need to be defended), they become exactly the evil they rallied against by simply using the established system to protect the political power they have rather than trying to use that power to make a better system. Despite all the things Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Green Partiers and Independents of all stripes disagree on right now, this is one thing they should (and in theory, do), all agree on! It is the one thing, above anything else, that Trump supporters claimed to want and the one thing, out of all Trump’s policies, that Democrats pretty much universally agree with. So, Republicans, don’t turn back now (on this issue), and, Democrats, don’t back away from Sander’s call to action. Either would be abandoning principle for partisanship.