False Justifications for the Electoral College

Since the election, for obvious reasons, many Trump supporters have been posting a Prager video that purports to justify the Electoral College. This video makes specious arguments that should lead anyone who cares about the facts to question the objectivity of Prager, and perhaps even that of the person posting the video.

Yes, the Founding Fathers explicitly intended for the Electoral College to prevent “the mob” from electing a crowd-pleasing leader with anti-democratic tendencies. (It might even be argued that Trump will be the sort of president they were trying to prevent.) But they intended the Electoral College to serve this purpose by placing electors with the discretion to choose whoever they thought was the best candidate between the people and the presidency. People would elect electors — or state assemblies would choose them without even bothering with a popular vote (one wasn’t required) — ideally because they knew them to be wise, upstanding people. Then the electors would select the president.

From Adams on the electors generally have not operated as intended. A significant number has never deviated from how those electing them expected them to vote. In the years since most states have passed laws that require their electors to select the candidate with the most popular votes (though they probably could break these laws, if they wanted to — there hasn’t been a case to compel a court decision on the matter). What this means: the Electoral College has never served the explicit purpose intended by the oft-lauded Founding Fathers. Theoretically it could still serve this purpose, but it’s not likely that it ever will.

Do those championing the Electoral College as an example of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers want it to operate as the Founding Fathers intended? Not that I’ve seen. They like it as long as it gives an advantage to their party, and perhaps to their state as well.

The Prager video also argues that the Electoral College compels candidates to pay attention to all parts of the country, and not just rely on strength within one region. This is partly true, but ultimately with opposite the claimed result. The Electoral College does compel candidates to pay attention to different states than they otherwise would. But, in combination with the winner-take-all system used by all states except Maine and Nebraska to maximize their impact on the outcome (because politics), the Electoral College compels candidates to devote the bulk of their attention to states where the race is close, and to ignore those where the race is essentially pre-decided. The latter include the three largest states in the country. How does this make sense if the alleged purpose is to spread candidates’ attention more evenly?

You’ll also find people claiming that the Electoral College was put in place to ensure that large cities didn’t decide the outcome of elections, and so tyrannize rural areas. This wasn’t a consideration at the time of the Founding Fathers, for the simple reason that only one-twentieth of the population was urban.

Also note that no governors are selected using the equivalent of the Electoral College. Do any of them only attend to the large cities, and ignore their rural constituents?

The Founding Fathers were concerned about the relative power of large and small states — but this was (and is) NOT the same as urban vs. rural. Even once this distinction is recognized, let’s not pretend that small states were given a disproportionate say out of some sense of fairness. It was politics, pure and simple. They needed the great majority of states to ratify the Constitution. To get small states to ratify, they gave these states (specifically their ruling elites) disproportionate power.

BUT, defenders of the Electoral College argue, eliminating the Electoral College would permit California and New York to overrule all of the current small states (few of which existed in 1787). This is either disingenuous, or trapped-inside-the-box thinking. With a popular vote it would no longer make sense to think of a state as voting in a certain way, because all of the people in any given state do not vote the same way. All Californians don’t vote for the Democrat. All Montanans don’t vote for the Republican. It would make far more sense to think of different like-minded groups within the population.

The stereotypical rural voter might be one such group. Would this group necessarily be neglected with the popular vote? I do not see why. While I do not know the population of this group, surely it must be at least as large as that of the stereotypical Hispanic voter. And is the latter group currently neglected? Why should one group be privileged over others, as currently happens with the Electoral College?

The Prager video also argues that the Electoral College prevents 51% of the population from overruling 49% of the population. It suggests that because of the Electoral College a larger percentage of the population must be in favor of the selected candidate. In fact, the opposite is very clearly the case: because of the Electoral College the winner could potentially receive as little as 22% of the vote. I doubt this theoretical minimum will ever be approached, but in both the 2000 and 2016 elections the Electoral College did enable someone to win without even receiving the most votes, much less a majority of votes.

Of even greater concern, the Electoral College lets people who can suppress the vote of an opposing group (in the past even preventing an entire group from voting at all) still essentially count this group as having voted for their candidate. Non-voters are counted when apportioning electors. This worked to the South’s tremendous advantage during slavery, when each slave essentially counted as a 3/5 vote in favor of those enslaving them. It continues to work to the extent the votes of minorities are suppressed, and the outcome favors the party doing the suppressing. Some even argue that this was the actual motivation for the creation of the Electoral College, though the connection wasn’t quite explicit. Also note that motivations aren’t either / or. Many laws that get passed have multiple benefits serving multiple parties. Both the slave states and the small states would have been in favor. And the others? They accepted the Electoral College as the price of these states to join the Union.

I say all of this without expecting the Electoral College to be eliminated. You might have also seen mentions of what seems a viable way to essentially eliminate the Electoral College (without actually eliminating it, and so avoiding the need for an amendment), the National Popular Vote Bill. Though it might come close to getting enough states to agree to it, I highly doubt this bill will ever be passed by states with 270 electoral votes, for strictly political reasons. When you add up the number of states that benefit from the current system, and the states controlled by the party that controls most of these small states (the Republican Party), you’ll find that too many states have a political interest in maintaining the status quo.

So I don’t expect the Electoral College to be eliminated, and I do expect its results to be accepted, because of the Constitution. Just don’t expect me to accept that the Electoral College remains justified. It’s sustained by partisan politics, nothing else.