If you’ve ever wondered why America needs the Electoral College, the state-by-state process for electing a president, look no further than the angry mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Without the Electoral College, contested elections, massive political protests, and civil unrest would likely occur with much greater frequency.
The framers of our Constitution distrusted government power, but they also worried about mob rule. To protect us from these twin evils, our founders deliberately created a decentralized system for choosing our chief executive. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that the president is to be chosen by “electors” selected by each individual state.
The U.S., therefore, does not conduct a single nationwide election or operate a unified election system. Rather, the 50 states and the District of Columbia each conduct their own popular vote for president. Based on these results, the 51 jurisdictions appoint electors who cast direct votes for president in a process that we call the Electoral College.
By constitutional design, electors cast their ballots for president and vice president in their respective state capitals, away from the undue influence of outside interests. This decentralized process ensures that concerted political pressure (or mob violence) directed at a single institution won’t alter the outcome.
The federalist principles embedded in our Constitution not only prevent any one entity from overruling a presidential election, they also make it difficult to rig the outcome in the first place. That’s because election tampering and voter fraud can only affect the overall outcome if it occurs in key states, which can be hard to predict ahead of time.
Does that mean that voter fraud isn’t a problem? Of course not. Voters are right to be concerned about election integrity. But whatever one thinks about claims of a “stolen” election, last week’s protesters and rioters were barking up the wrong tree. Our founders clearly intended for the states to address these sort of election issues.
Those who expressed concern about President Trump’s refusal to concede the election to Joe Biden should be particularly concerned about attempts to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote. With the Electoral College, recounts are limited to cases where the vote tally in a particular state could change the Electoral College outcome (such as Florida in 2000). As a result, refusal to concede is highly unusual. With a national popular vote, it would become the norm. That’s because in the United States, the nationwide vote count is often close in relative terms. Electoral College outcomes, however, are almost always decisive.
Consider, for example, the 1960 presidential contest between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It remains unclear whether Kennedy or Nixon won more votes nationwide. (It’s fair to say it was, essentially, a tie.) But in the Electoral College, Kennedy won decisively—303 to 219. Despite the close nationwide vote count and widespread allegations of voter fraud, particularly in Chicago, Nixon conceded. It is unlikely he would have done so under a national popular vote system, which would have given Nixon an incentive to litigate the count in any jurisdiction where he stood a change of picking up votes. How such a scenario would have played out is anyone’s guess. But, by encouraging finality, the Electoral College in 1960 very likely averted a true constitutional crisis.
So, what would American elections look like without the Electoral College? They’d look a lot like 2020—but possibly much worse. To begin with, there would be increased incentives for voter fraud, as fraud anywhere could tip an election. There would also be more litigation, as the loser of any close race would likely challenge the outcome in precincts all across the country, not just in one or two states. And, with increased fraud and increased litigation, demonstrations and protests aimed at the federal authority in charge of any new national election apparatus would, sadly, become routine. Think Latin American-style politics.
Our founders understood that, in a pure democracy, might often conquers right, and politics can quickly devolve into mob violence. No election system is perfect. But, as the events of last week make clear, getting rid of the Electoral College would be a dangerous gambit.