Democrats are highly upset about the recent presidential election and are frantically howling about the unfairness of the venerable and much-abused Electoral College.
Someone trots out the same tread-worn complaints every four years anyway but the fury of today’s losers is downright apocalyptic because their loss was so shocking. Having prematurely popped open the celebratory champagne, and only then discovered that they had lost, they’re behaving like bees after someone has thrown a rock at their hive. One pundit correctly opined that Democrats haven’t been this angry since Republicans took their slaves away.
They didn’t complain about the Electoral College when they thought it was theirs but now it is archaic” and “undemocratic.” Something about whose oxen are being gored comes to mind.
A common complaint is that the popular vote winner can lose the electoral vote and, therefore, the election. This has happened five times; twice because minor party candidates siphoned off enough popular votes to affect a state’s electoral vote result (a pretty good argument for maintaining our two party system). Prior to this year, we’ve had “minority presidents” in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.
In 1824, none of the four candidates won a popular vote majority so, per the Constitution, the House of Representatives chose the president. Andrew Jackson won pluralities of the popular and electoral votes but was bumped by the House in favor of John Quincy Adams. It wasn’t the Electoral College’s fault. Similar wheeling and dealing in 1876 made “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes president in exchange for his promise to remove Union troops from the South. Again, it was politics, not the Electoral College.
In 1888, yes, the Electoral College winner was the popular vote loser because it happened to work out that way. Ditto in 2000 and 2016. That’s three times in 58 elections, though twice recently. This year Hillary won large popular vote majorities in deep blue California and New York but lost close races pretty much everywhere else.
Popular vote majorities matter in states because the states themselves matter. The Founders didn’t adopt a national popular vote procedure because, fearing “elective despotism,” they preferred a system which gives some influence directly to the people and some to the states, even the small ones, as representatives of the people. This is not “states rights” but federalism.
The Electoral College is thus but one part of a system of checks and balances deliberately designed to counter power with power and keep any single faction or region from dominating all the others. It’s why we have a Senate which is just as “undemocratic” as the Electoral College.
The favored alternative is “direct election.” Erase state lines and just add up the votes. But almost every popular vote plan ever put forward calls for the winner to be the candidate who receives not a majority, but a plurality, of the popular vote; usually a 40% minimum. Why? Because these proposals recognize that direct election inevitably means multiple candidacies by multiple parties. More candidates means less chance for any single one to gain a majority. Direct election therefore means more presidents with only a minority of the total vote.
The proposed solution usually is a run-off between the top two vote-getters. But this would increase the length of already interminable election campaigns while still only giving us a second-choice president. So if a popular vote majority president is what Electoral College critics want, but direct election is less effective in that regard than the Electoral College, how can it be an improvement?
Moreover, when all the votes are counted together, the opportunities for fraud increase exponentially whereas, under the current system, fraud is localized within a state and therefore easier to detect. Our Founding Fathers knew what they were about.
As Alexander Hamilton (the statesman, not the rap singer in the play) wrote of the Electoral College in Federalist #68, “if it not be perfect, it is at least excellent.”
We should leave it alone.