Electoral College vs. Popular Vote
I have been hearing a lot this past week about how the Electoral College is outdated and we should just go by the popular vote. Most notably political supporters of Hillary Clinton say, “she won the popular vote, so let’s use that to make her President.” But there are a few problems with this idea. The most obvious being that changing the rules after the election is an intellectually corrupt idea.
The best analogy I heard is that the Cubs won the world series which was the best of 7 games. However, the Indians scored more runs during the series. Did the Indians really “win” the World Series? After all, they scored more total runs? Of course, we can’t say the Indians are the real winners because that is not how the rules of the 7 game series were set up. The Electoral College is like the 7 game series. The votes are like runs. The total vote only counts in each state and then each state is given a number of votes based on population. This means each state (like each game in the World Series) is equally valued regardless of how disproportionate the popular vote might be in any one state. Or think of it this way, Trump won the popular vote in 32 of 50 states.
Turning to the election strategies of 2016, neither candidate campaigned in such a way to win the popular vote. Both Trump and Clinton spent time in small states with small populations because that is how they strategized to win the Electoral College. If at the beginning of the election they knew the goal was to win the popular vote, then both candidates would have run a very different kind of election; set policies to attract the largest numbers of people, spent advertising dollars to appeal to large population blocks, and physically campaigned only in the largest cities.
I realize people are upset (and, for the record, I never endorsed Trump or Clinton), but suggesting that we should change the outcome of the election based upon a new set of rules that we invent after the election is over is both irrational and silly.
But what of the larger issue… is the Electoral College (EC) outdated and a bad system? Should the United States of America switch to a popular vote election for President?
An Imperfect System
First, I think everyone can agree that there is no perfect system, but to suggest the EC is bad in every way is an exaggeration that demonstrates a lack of any real understanding of the issue. The founders were rightly concerned with what they called the Tyranny of the Majority and implemented the EC to mitigate that concern.
The founders of our government were fully convinced that no despotism could be more intolerable than a pure democracy, where the majority had unrestricted power. Our national legislature is restricted within very narrow limits by the Constitution. It has not the political omnipotence of the Parliament of Great Britain, which can change the dynasty, abolish the peerage, or the church establishment, and model at pleasure the institutions of the country. Our Congress has no such power. Its authority is limited by a written Constitution. It is held in check by the distribution of power, and by the legislative authority being vested in two houses—the one composed of the representatives of the states without regard to their relative size or importance. In every way, therefore, that human wisdom could devise, the minority is protected from the tyranny of the majority.
“Review of The State of the Country,” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review XXXIII, no. 1–4 (1861): 24–25.
The founders hoped the EC would protect the rights of the minority from a majority only concerned with their own right. I defer to Mills on this issue,
“Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”
John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in The Harvard Classics 25: John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 206–207.
Alexander Hamilton warned of the dangers of electing a person who could campaign only to win the popular vote, but lack the ability to represent all people, from every diverse state in the union, equally.
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1998).
So while the EC may have its flaws, I have yet to read any compelling argument from reason or history that supports the idea that a pure democracy would resolve those difficulties without creating a new tyranny of the majority.
An End to Slavery
Still, some argue, the EC has never in the 200+ years of American history shown itself to protect the minority from the majority. This, however, is not true. In fact, history shows that the Electoral College was a significant factor leading to the abolition of slavery. Lincoln won only 39% of the popular vote but was elected by an Electoral College landslide. Allen Guelzo and James Hulme write,
[I]t was the electoral college that made it possible to end slavery, since Abraham Lincoln earned only 39 percent of the popular vote in the election of 1860, but won a crushing victory in the electoral college. This, in large measure, was why Southern slaveholders stampeded to secession in 1860-61. They could do the numbers as well as anyone and realized that the electoral college would only produce more anti-slavery Northern presidents.
The EC has protected us from the Tyranny of the majority. The Confederate South, much like modern Leftists who reject Trump and Bush, saw Lincoln as “unjustly” elected because while he won the EC, he did not have the majority of votes.
“In November, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States by a sectional vote and upon strictly sectional issues. The platform of his party, upon which Mr. Lincoln stood, asserted that ‘the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom.’ It further declared that no legislative body could ‘give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.’ This claim ignored, or rather set at defiance, the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court, and indeed the personal liberty bills of many of the Northern States had already nullified that decision and the laws of which it was the interpretation.
The vote by which Mr. Lincoln was elected was a large minority of the popular vote—nearly one million—yet he had a considerable majority in the electoral college. In the Southern States he had no electoral ticket at all; and there, too, was food for grave thought. If, adhering to the mere forms of the Constitution, a man could be elected to the Presidency by a vote strictly sectional and upon one issue, avowedly sectional, why not upon any other, however regardless of the rights and interests of another section? Mr. Lincoln had three competitors for the office of President, and it has often been claimed that his opponents could have defeated him by combining upon a single candidate. This is a great error, and therein is the defect of the electoral system, and it was a threat to the Southern States. The Electoral College at that time consisted of 303 members, making 152 votes necessary to a choice. Mr. Lincoln received 180 votes in all, though in a minority of nearly a million in the popular vote. But in fifteen of the Northern and Western States, having 167 votes in the Electoral College, he had also clear majorities of the popular vote over the combined votes of the three opposing candidates; so in any case he would have had a majority of fifteen in the Electoral College even if there had been but one competitor. Examination of the official figures will prove the correctness of this statement.”
J. William Jones, ed., Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 32, Southern Historical Society Papers (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, n.d.), 279–280.
I have seen signs and tweets from today’s protesters calling for someone to assassinate Trump and petitions calling for the Electors to honor the popular vote and reject their Constitutional mandate. This idea is not new. Some people in Lincoln’s day plotted to overturn the results of the EC to ensure a pro-slavery Democrat could take over.
“A plan was unfolded to me last night by which the election of Lincoln by the Electoral College may be prevented, and a prominent Southern Senator put in his place, If I thought the plan at all feasible, I would give it now.–Perhaps I may do so to-morrow.”
Richmond Dispatch, The Daily Dispatch: 1860, Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia: Perseus Digital Library, 1860).
And here details of the plot were outlined.
“(Washington, Dec. 12, 1860) The plan hinted at in my letter of day before yesterday, is, in brief, this: So to manage when the Electoral College declares Lincoln elected, that there shall not be acquirer of the Senate as required by law. Breckinridge having resigned his seat as President of the Senate, a President protem, is put in his place, and there being no legal election of President, the Senate declare the then occupant of the Chair to be the President of the United States for the next four years. This plan, it is said, requires only five Northern Senators to carry it into effect, and the name of the man who is to be elected President by this manœuvre has been mentioned to me. He would never consent to such a trick, nor would the people either of the North or South accept it. Therefore, I merely give it as a sample of the plots and intrigues now going on here.”
Richmond Dispatch, The Daily Dispatch: 1860, Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia: Perseus Digital Library, 1860).
The Confederates despised the EC because it limited their ability to control the Election of Lincoln. Here, just like the protesters and rioters on the streets today, they dreamt of overthrowing the EC because it did not meet with their personal preference.
“(Washington Jan. 31, 1861) A lovely morning, and glorious news. Lincoln resolutely, inflexibly holds on to the Chicago platform.Not a jot, not a tittle of it will he abate, though all creation go to wrack. –This we have by telegraph, and I hope sincerely the news went South last night. Virginia has no excuse for remaining in bondage to the Abolitionists. Her submission must be flat, abject, complete. Nor can she hope to obtain any pretext for submission from the Peace Congress which meets here next Monday. The Republicans will have plenty of Commissioners of their own stamp on hand.–to block that game. The people of Virginia may as well make up their minds to back square down to the nigger equality Despot, or to join heart and soul with the South.
The private interview between a distinguished New York member and a no less distinguished Western Senator, which occurred last night, inclines me to the belief that there is something in the wind, probably in the nature ofcoup d’etat when the time for counting the vote of the Electoral College arrives. But the aforesaid Senators will hardly be a party to it.”
Richmond Dispatch, The Daily Dispatch: 1861, Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia: Perseus Digital Library, 1861).
Because the majority is not always right, we need the Electoral College to preserve the rights of the minority. It may seem convenient in our modern context to reject the EC in favor of the popular vote, but remember this majority only vote will not always run in your favor. If you lived in the South, would you have accepted slavery just because the majority of people accepted it? Lincoln did not win the “popular” vote in the South, but the EC guaranteed he would become president and help end slavery.The issue at hand is the EC and is there a “better” way. Other than your opinion, you have not made any argument why a majority vote would be an improvement. I
The issue at hand is the EC and is there a “better” way. Other than political opinion, I have not read any transcendent argument why a majority vote would be an improvement. I am loath to embrace such a significant change without a strong argument rooted in both reason and history. Until that time comes, it seems the Electoral College is still the best possible system in a flawed and broken world.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana