Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

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.

I’ll elaborate.

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 ;).

7 thoughts on “[POLITICS] The Electoral College

  1. Nick says:

    Can you go into more detail as to how it is preferable to “protect minorities from a wrongheaded majority”, but not protect the majority of people from a wrongheaded minority? I’ve heard this argument before but have never been able to make sense of it. And how exactly is the 1964 Civil Rights Act relevant to this issue? It was passed by a democrat president with large majorities in both houses.

    1. Don Jones says:

      I didn’t say it’s “preferable;” I was pointing out the textbook difference between a republic and a pure democracy. And the Civil Rights Act is an example of the government – by means of its legislature, regardless of the party – passing laws to protect a minority, even though at the time a pure democratic approach – say, a direct vote of the people – might well have -not- passed that Act. As opposed to, say, a state ballot referendum, where the direct will of the people, and not the government per se, creates legislation.

      1. Nick says:

        We’re in agreement about the function of representative democracy as it pertains to the legislature. But I think if the Founders knew that the electoral college would result in “battleground states” 250 years later, they would have reconsidered. The executive branch is a single ticket, after all, and in the spirit of checks and balances between the three branches, it would make sense to me for that one branch to be elected directly, while being in balance with the representative democracy of the legislature.

      2. Don Jones says:

        Oh, I think we’ve largely moved past whatever benefit the College may have once provided. I’d honestly prefer a Parliamentary system, so as to put greater emphasis on Legislature elections, honestly. Watching the Brits and Italians, though, I’m pretty sure we’d end up in the same place before very long.

        The surviving notes from the Framers suggests that the College was always a difficult compromise.

  2. Jerry Cote says:

    Stated another way – the people who work our land to grow our food, a task that will never garner the wealth of city activities, gets a disproportionate vote, without which they become slaves of bankers (which kinda happened anyway, except at the ballot box.)

    1. Don Jones says:

      I think it’s a little facile to say that everyone in the Midwest is a farmer and everyone in a city is a banker. Our cities have a far greater proportion of poverty, for example, and most agriculture in the US falls under massive (and rich) conglomerates like ADM. As with much in politics, it’s easy to want to make simplistic pictures, but they’re rarely all that accurate. Rich bankers typically lean conservative, for example, which doesn’t explain why large cities tend to overall lean liberally. There’s a lot more at play than you suggest.

    2. Don Jones says:

      Also, it’s important to note that the vote isn’t disproportionate at all; it’s porportioned based on population, just like the House. The Midwest does represent more physical geography, but we don’t assign voting based on square mileage, of course. The effects of the EC happen because populations tend to polarize, giving us fewer swing states. Even in the last election the popular vote was incredibly tight. And again, I’m not proposing the EC is, or ever was, right; I was just attempting to explain why it came to be. Of course originally that had nothing to do with farmers or bankers; it was smaller states like Delaware concerned about the potential of larger states like Virginia to completely drive Federal elections. Bankers versus plantation owners, perhaps, with the latter having the upper hand.

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