You don’t hear many people defending the Electoral College these days. But is it the undemocratic relic that its critics claim, or is it a constitutional bastion of federalism, a place where states can still flex their muscle over the most powerful office in Washington, D.C.?
It turns out that where you stand on the Electoral College depends largely upon where you sit.
If you reside in an urban, coastal, densely populated state that is “deep blue,” our modern vernacular for solidly Democrat, chances are good that you don’t like the current system very much. For one thing, you are apt to be a Democrat yourself, and that means you are probably more inclined to support a bigger role for central government relative to the states on such matters as health care, education and public transportation. For another thing, you probably don’t care for the fact that both political parties more or less take your vote for granted in presidential elections. Unless you travel to other parts of the country or happen to live near the border of a swing state like Virginia or Ohio, you saw only a tiny fraction of the political ads that were broadcast in the recent campaign.
You probably want the large number of people who live near you and vote like you to have a commensurate impact in presidential balloting. The New York Times echoed these views in a recent editorial that declared, “The Electoral College remains a deeply defective political mechanism no matter whom it benefits, and it needs to be abolished.”
The chief complaint about the Electoral College is that it makes it possible for a candidate to become president without winning the largest share of the popular vote. This has happened three times in our history, in 1876, 1888 and 2000. Some commentators thought it might happen again in 2012. Earlier this year, I examined what could happen if Electoral College resulted in a tie. It’s likely another president will win the White House without winning the popular vote one day, even if it is not anything like a frequent occurrence.
The Times editorial adds the red herring that the Electoral College was “born in appeasement to slave states.” This is true, but the relevant provision isn't so much that Electoral College was created to protect slavery as that it was created to protect agrarian, less populous states. Less populous states and slaveholding states were one and the same until after the American frontier crossed the Appalachians.
In my view, the Electoral College is not inherently undemocratic. Rather, it is a democratic way of instituting federalism. Though today's liberals often overlook the fact (except when discussing subjects like gay marriage), states matter.
The Constitution is indisputably biased to overweight the interests of small states relative to their populations, not only via the Electoral College, but also in the existence and the role of the U.S. Senate. This lopsidedness often leads to distorted policy making, which is why we have overly generous farm subsidies and foolish ethanol mandates. But it also safeguards against a situation in which the country’s priorities are entirely skewed toward population centers at the expense of a vast, sparsely populated interior.
A strong federal system is one of the things that distinguish us from, for example, Argentina, where the government financially oppresses its agricultural sector to subsidize urban interests for the political benefit of its leaders. It's not a coincidence that resource-rich Argentina has been sliding in global development rankings for the past 100 years.
The Constitution gives states the power to decide how their electoral vote is determined. If states choose to band together in an interstate compact like the national popular vote legislation, which the Times endorsed, that’s their prerogative. It would be akin to having a national Powerball lottery for the presidency. Right now, however, the proposal is not close to gaining enough support to go into effect.
It should come as no surprise that the only states that have signed are deep blue and mostly coastal. (Illinois, one of the endorsers, is far from salt water, but Chicago’s economy more closely resembles that of the coastal cities than it does the rest of the Midwest.)
The states that want to augment their power in presidential elections also include those that have among the most indebted governments - the ones that feel most put upon by the disproportionate representation of rural states, and the ones most likely to want to federalize their unsustainable obligations sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Good luck, though, getting the big swing states like Florida, Ohio, and now Virginia and North Carolina, to sign on to this proposal. Why should they? Competitive electoral battlegrounds currently enjoy outsized influence. And what, exactly, will backers of a proposal like the national popular vote tell the minority groups whose expanding role was vividly apparent earlier this month? “We have come up with a way of making sure that the white 72 percent of the electorate will keep their influence a while longer. Let us know when you get to 50 percent plus one!”
It's even less likely that states like Colorado, Nevada and Iowa would endorse such a proposal, since they currently have even more disproportionate influence in presidential campaigns. The idea will be an outright non-starter in rural places like Montana, whose three electoral votes would essentially count for nothing if their influence relied solely on the size of the state’s small population. Montana counts for 0.6 percent of the Electoral College and could theoretically serve as the deciding vote in a very tight election. It accounts for only 0.3 percent of the national population and would be all but ignored in a nationwide popular ballot.
The problem with the current system is that each party has, in effect, gerrymandered itself into a secure area - southern and rural places for Republicans, urban and northern ones for Democrats - leaving the balance of power in the hands of a few small groups in border zones.
Luckily, this problem is self-correcting. As the Republican zone continues to shrink and thus lose the ability to secure the White House, the party has a built-in incentive to broaden its appeal. That’s exactly what the Democrats did in the 1980s and early ‘90s, when their labor-oriented message stopped working and Bill Clinton subsequently repositioned himself and his party closer to the political center. Republicans, finding their social and immigration stances hurting them too much with female and Hispanic voters, are currently under pressure to reconsider their approach.
Our existing system balances the regions and pushes parties to the center, where we want them. Abandoning the Electoral College would create more space for the extremes, including extreme pressure for big government spending, which continues to put the financial future of places like California, Illinois and New York at risk. It’s precisely because we have a federal system that we don't have to federalize those states’ problems. The system is not broken. There is no need to go hunting for something to fix.