The frequency and intensity of recent attacks against the Electoral College suggest that the Left is gearing up to make elimination of the Electoral College a centerpiece of the 2020 presidential campaign. Such appeals will likely strike a chord with the American public as the presidential selection process is one of the least understood and most unpopular aspects of American constitutional democracy.
Opposition to the selection process is largely based on the assumption that the system is undemocratic and that electing the president by a nationally consolidated popular vote or allocating state’s electoral votes proportionally (rather than on a winner-take-all basis) would make the system more representative of the public will. In response to such opposition, defenders of the system tend to assert that the United States is a federal republic, not a democracy, and that the Electoral College serves a variety of important ends—chief of which is balancing the electoral interests of small and large states.
While critics and advocates alike tend to argue that the system was always intended to fortify the influence of the states and to moderate the expression of majority will, this overlooks the intention of the system’s framers. In a previous study, I address the widely promulgated, but inaccurate, claim that the system’s architects were seeking to thwart the expression of majority will. On the contrary, a close look at the debates of the Constitutional convention reveals that the chief architects of the system were primarily concerned with facilitating the selection of a qualified candidate with a broad base of public support. Although several delegates initially supported the idea of a direct popular vote, they worried that such a process would lead to the selection of a candidate with an ideologically or geographically narrow focus.
Electors chosen by the people were viewed as a solution to this problem—as such electors would have more information about national politicians than the people at large. To further encourage the selection of a candidate by an acceptable national majority, the original system required that each elector cast at least one of their two votes for a candidate from a different state and that the victor receive at least a majority of the total electoral votes.
It soon became clear that the system as originally designed would not achieve its intended goal. In a country as large as the U.S., with substantial regional differences, individuals like George Washington with reputations significant enough to galvanize a national majority would not always exist. Consequently, the president would frequently be selected by the contingency mode of election by state delegation in the House of Representatives—a process which Jefferson once referred to as “the most dangerous blot in our Constitution.” In spite of early selection crises, the launch of the ongoing two-party nomination system helped restore the system’s original purpose by reducing the number of contenders—thereby encouraging consensus among competing factions and increasing the likelihood that a candidate could receive a majority of electoral votes.
Although the selection process has undergone substantial changes over the course of American democracy, the Electoral College’s role in promoting a national majority is still relevant thanks in part to the two-party system, the winner-take-all method of allocating votes used in all of the state contests except for Nebraska and Maine, and the constitutional requirement that the winner receive a majority of electoral college votes. These features of the current system work together to narrow the field of candidates and to produce not only a popular-vote majority or significant plurality for the winner, but also a geographically distributed electoral vote.
A shift to a nationally consolidated popular vote or proportional electoral vote system, in contrast, would likely encourage a plethora of minor party candidates which would serve only to fracture the electorate. As political science Professor Emeritus Gary Glenn explains, anyone with a sizeable following would have the incentive to run. This would include governors of populous states, movie and rock stars, and ethnic leaders. A larger number of candidates would split the popular vote, which would potentially enable a single candidate to win with as low as 30, 15, or even 5 percent of the overall vote.
Proposals to alter the Constitution to include a run-off election if no candidate gets at least 40 percent of the popular vote would not resolve this issue. Notwithstanding the fact that the victor in the Electoral College consistently garners more than 40 percent of the popular vote, the experience of presidential run-off elections in other countries shows that they attract even lower voter turnout than the initial election. Theoretically, under such “democratic” reforms, a candidate selected by only a fringe of the country could win the presidency.
In contrast, Glenn explains that the current operation of the Electoral College structures the popular vote to encourage substantial popular support behind the victor. “It does this so well,” Glenn writes, “that we take for granted that the victorious candidate will have a majority of the popular vote, if not at least approach one.” Thus, it may very well be that those seeking to reform the system by replacing direct popular election at the state level with a direct national election are, in reality, calling for a less democratic alternative.