I was having a vigorous debate about the Electoral College with a friend the other evening, and thought I’d share. Oddly, although I’ve kind of knee-jerk been against the E.C. for a long time, I found myself arguing for it.
A brief primer for those outside the US: we don’t directly elect our President or Vice-President (and although those two run as a combo pack, they’re technically elected independently). Instead, each state is assigned a number of electors, and each political party appoints their own people to those positions. E.g., if a state has 10 electors (or electoral votes), then each party appoints ten potential voters. With few exceptions, whichever party wins the popular vote in the state gets all of that state’s electors (there are a couple of states who award electors proportionally). The electors then get together, cast the vote for their candidate, and that’s who gets to be President and Vice-President.
The typical argument against the E.C. is that it’s pretty undemocratic. But it’s important to realize that the US is not technically a democracy. It’s a republic, and the common definitions of those have one important difference: in a democracy, majority rule wins in a republic, one of the government’s roles is to protect minorities from a wrongheaded majority. We see this role engaged all the time in hard-fought legislation like the US Civil Rights Act, but the E.C. is one of the root instances of this “protect the minority” behavior.
When the Founders set up the E.C., they did so because they didn’t want the heavily-populated large cities in the US – which tend to lean liberally, these days – to stomp on the opinions of the less-populated middle states, which tend to lean more conservative (at the time of the Founding, obviously, it wasn’t “cities vs. middle;” it was a bit more “Northern colonies vs. Southern colonies,” but the concern was the same). In a pure democracy, a city of 1.2M people can rule the world if their opposition is in a 500K person state. Wee little Rhode Island’s opinion would never matter compare to New York state’s. So the E.C. was created as a kind of “leveling” effect.
Today, the modern effect of this has been to “artificially” increase the voice of the conservative-leaning states, and “diminish” the popular voice the more heavily populated liberal states. So it’s possible to lose the popular election and win the Presidency – which we’ve seen four or five times, and in every case, it’s been a conservative President winning – trumping, if you will – the popular vote.
Arguably, this is precisely the intent the Founders had. Large cities are obviously more populated; they tend to be centers of commerce, and they tend to be on the coasts, in the US. Large city populations tend to be more diverse, because the economic opportunities attract a wide range of people. Diverse populations tend to lean more liberally. Ergo, big cities are more liberal, while the less-populated states tend to lean more conservative (we’e seen that in my home state of Nevada; it used to be firmly conservative, but as it’s grown in recent years, it’s become more of a swing state, and Las Vegas itself leans strongly liberal). So the E.C. has ensured that the majority rule doesn’t stomp on the minority view, especially when it’s a close race.
Anyway, there’s still a robust and valid discussion about whether this is still the right way to elect our leader, but there’s little argument that it isn’t what the Founders intended. Regardless, modifying the electoral process would involve amending our Constitution, which is a deliberately difficult task that, frankly, I don’t think anyone remembers how to do anymore ;).