The President Who Knew Too Little about the Electoral College

North Carolina electoral college certificates of vote await signatures from the state’s electors at the State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., December 19, 2016. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Trump needs to brush up on the history and purpose of the electoral-vote system before advocating its replacement.

Among the recent garbled effusions from today’s temporary president — cheer up; they are all temporary — was one that concerned something about which he might not have thought as deeply as the subject merits. During an episode of government of, by, and for Fox & Friends, he said: He won the 2016 election “easily” but wishes the electoral-vote system were replaced by direct election of presidents by popular vote. He favors this “because” — if you were expecting him to offer reasons drawn from political philosophy or constitutional theory, grow up — “to me, it’s much easier to win the popular vote.”

He added, accidentally stubbing his toe on a truth, that running for president without the Electoral College would involve “a totally different campaign.” Which, he does not realize, is one reason for retaining the Electoral College.

The president’s interest in all this comes from his festering grievance about losing the popular vote by five times more votes than George W. Bush lost it to Al Gore in 2000. His thinking is as murky as his syntax, but evidently he supposes that under a pure popular-vote system he would have campaigned in, say, indigo California, thereby reducing his opponent’s huge margin of victory there (30 points). Perhaps. But his California campaigning might have increased her turnout, which was probably reduced by the lack of campaigning there. Who knows?

This we do know: Presidential majorities are built by the Electoral College as it has evolved, adapting to the two-party system. The Electoral College gives the parties a distribution incentive for achieving geographical and ideological breadth while assembling a coalition of states. The electoral-vote system, combined with the winner-take-all allocation of the votes in 48 of the 50 states (all but Maine and Nebraska), serves, as scholar Herbert Storing said, “to drive all interests into one of two great parties.” This discourages a destabilizing proliferation of small ideological parties and encourages the two parties “to cast their nets very widely.”

Today’s president might not have noticed that America has 51 direct popular-vote presidential elections, in the states and the District of Columbia. This buttresses the federal system by having, as political scientist Martin Diamond wrote, presidential elections that are “federally democratic” rather than “nationally democratic” in registering the popular will, which is nonetheless registered. This “sends a federalizing impulse throughout our whole political process,” one that is increasingly useful as national politics continues to reduce states to the passive role of administering the national government’s preferences. The 17th Amendment (direct election of senators, rather than by state legislatures) was bad enough. Who thinks there is too little centralization in American governance under today’s administrative state?

In 1967, an American Bar Association commission, which recommended replacing the Electoral College with a direct popular vote, strangely criticized the electoral-vote system for being, among other bad things, “ambiguous.” Actually, in close elections, including 2016’s, the electoral-vote system provides what Diamond called “useful amplification.” In 1960, John Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote but 56.4 percent of the electoral vote (303–219). In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote but 67.8 percent of the electoral vote (365–173).

Woodrow Wilson could conduct a strong first term (during which America acquired the income tax and the Federal Reserve system) partly because his 41.8 percent of the popular vote produced 81.9 percent of the electoral vote (in a contest featuring three major candidates). If what Diamond called the Electoral College’s “magnifying lens” had been scrapped when the ABA commission called for this, the current president’s 46 percent of the popular vote could not have been translated into 56 percent of the electoral vote (304) and President Hillary Clinton would be glad that the Electoral College had ended.

America is a “mitigated” democracy (this adjective is from James Madison, the foremost translator of democracy into institutional architecture), in which, for example, Wyoming’s U.S. senators represent just 1.5 percent of the number of people that California’s senators represent. American democracy, as in the Electoral College, accommodates considerations more complex than simpleminded majoritarianism.

The president who said “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated” might be astonished to learn that people were thinking deeply about the Electoral College long before the subject crossed his mind. Which it did because he managed to lose the popular vote to one of the two least-popular major-party nominees in American history, the other being today’s temporary president.

© 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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