Politics & Policy

The Incoherence of Electoral College Opponents

Election day in Brooklyn, N.Y., November 8, 2016. (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
Is the system too democratic or not democratic enough? Liberals can’t decide.

Behind the recent clamor for the abolition of the Electoral College are two contradictory sentiments: that the system is antidemocratic and that it is too democratic.

Of course the real problem, from the Left’s point of view, is that the president is not a Democrat.

Those liberals who see the Electoral College as antidemocratic tend to favor the National Popular Vote plan as an alternative. The NPV relies on compacts between the states to award electors to the winner of the aggregate popular vote. If enough states had signed onto the plan in time for the 2016 election, then Hillary Clinton would have been awarded at least 270 electoral votes because she received the greatest number of individual votes.

Political scientist Jack Rakove identified the crux of the argument for adopting the NPV when he remarked that “the electoral weight of the citizen should not vary from one place to another because of the distorting effect of the ‘senatorial bump.’” Political equality dictates that a fair electoral system remove distortions to the value of an individual’s vote because otherwise certain citizens hold greater influence than others over each election.

This point is crucial in a closely contested election, where the votes of a large minority become worthless under the winner-take-all rules currently used in 48 states because, as one critic noted, “an individual vote is only as valuable as its ability to influence the majority vote of a state” under the Electoral College.

Accordingly, the solution to inequality is simplicity. Our body politic would be healthier, Rakove said, if we elected the President from “one national constituency” rather than “red and blue states.” Proponents of the NPV, such as former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, would have us believe that, “If we really subscribe to the notion that ‘majority rules,’ then” we cannot “deny the majority their chosen candidate.” It is believed that having one national constituency would make identifying that majority relatively easy because each citizen would be speaking with an equally powerful voice. Determining the true feelings of a majority of the American people would therefore be as simple as counting votes.

The problem with this is that while its simplicity may appeal to our democratic sense of fairness, the NPV would complicate the process by undervaluing the role of the states in selecting the president.

For one thing, in attempting to circumvent the amendment process, the NPV gambles that its interstate compact will not face legal challenges. Even operating on the assumption that such compacts are constitutional, in a close election one candidate or the other would almost certainly challenge the process in a lawsuit, which might require the United States Supreme Court to decide the outcome of a close election — “hardly a more ‘democratic’ outcome,” as The American Interest pointed out.

For another, electing the president is not equivalent to electing a state governor, contrary to the argument put forth by Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar. Because the president represents a diverse nation, the system by which he is elected must incentivize him to win support from a broad, national coalition of voters. The NPV does not provide that incentive. Instead, according to John Samples, it encourages campaigns “to focus their efforts in dense media markets where costs per vote are lowest.”

Of course the real problem, from the left’s point of view, is that the president is not a Democrat.

For individuals concerned that the value of a vote is proportional to its influence on the majority vote of a state, then, the NPV should be particularly worrisome, because states have a greater likelihood of shifting between the two parties than do large cities.

The other camp of liberals opposed to the Electoral College believes that it is too democratic, and is currently engaged in an argument over the extent to which the Framers intended electors to function as a deliberative body checking popular sentiment.

Writing in Vox, Michael Singer, mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, and guest lecture at UVA, explains that we should call participants in the Electoral College “conscientious electors” because their “job” is not “to rubber-stamp the popular vote” but to “investigate and deliberate.” In this sense, the faithless elector acts faithfully to a higher imperative of representative government: deliberating about right and wrong.

It all sounds so Cruzian, until it isn’t. According to The Economist, “the Electoral College isn’t a deliberative body at all: there is no discussion, just a secret-ballot vote.” That these votes take place in fifty separate locations, corresponding to the capitals of the fifty states, further suggests that persuasion and deliberation are not among the utilities of the system.

The argument for faithless electors, then, is more precisely an argument for elite opinion checking popular opinion when the former believes the latter has erred in its selection of the president. According to Singer, the point of the faithless elector is not to decide the most qualified candidate, but to provide a “fail-safe” against demagogues.

But why, then, are electors selected based on party loyalty rather than wisdom and intellect?

Even if one granted proponents of faithless electors that the Electoral College ought to allow greater deliberation about the candidates, it is unclear exactly how independent electors, skeptical of popular decision-making but spread throughout the many states, would make a better choice than the people themselves. As The Economist further noted, separating the votes of electors from the votes that the people cast on Election Day would be “antithetical to democratic principles,” even if electors possessed “a deep understanding of what America needs in a president.”

More importantly, a deliberative body is not immune from the temptations toward demagoguery, even if the demagogue parades around in robes rather than rags. Another UVA man, James Ceaser, noted “by demagoguery, the founders did not mean merely the fomenting of class envy, or harsh, angry appeals to regressive force; they also had in mind the softer, more artful designs of a Pericles or a Caesar, who appealed to hopeful expectations.” Or, as Hamilton described this type of demagogue, “those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.” Demagogues come in all shapes, sizes, and tones.

William F. Buckley Jr. said that “if the Constitution is not, as presently understood, resilient enough to cope with the contemporary requirements of survival, then the Constitution should be modified, as it has been before.” With 27 amendments, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Electoral College might be an aspect of the Constitution in need of reform, whether it be too democratic or not democratic enough. But if we are to alter that sober expression of public opinion, then we ought to do it in an above-board fashion, through the Article V amendment process.

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