Call it Cooke’s Rule: Those losing the argument over a given domestic policy will eventually cry “necessity.” This morning, Matthew Olsen and Benjamin Hass provide a good example, arguing in Politico that “the Electoral College is a national security threat”:
Hamilton and his colleagues never could have envisioned a year like 2016, when an enemy state—Russia—was able to manipulate America’s election process with stunning effectiveness. But it’s clear the national security rationale for the Electoral College is outdated and therefore it should be retired. Simply put, it enables foreign powers to more easily pierce the very shield Hamilton imagined it would be.
In Hamilton’s day, as he argued, it would have been nearly impossible for a hostile power to co-opt dozens of briefly chosen electors flung across 13 states with primitive roads. But in the social media age, the Electoral College system provides ripe microtargeting grounds for foreign actors who intend to sabotage presidential elections via information and disinformation campaigns, as well as by hacking our voting infrastructure. One reason is that citizens in certain states simply have more voting power than citizens in other states, such as Texas and California. This makes it easier for malign outside forces to direct their efforts.
But what if the national popular vote determined the president instead of the Electoral College? No voter would be more electorally powerful than another. It would be more difficult for a foreign entity to sway many millions of voters scattered across the country than concentrated groups of tens of thousands of voters in just a few states. And it would be more difficult to tamper with voting systems on a nationwide basis than to hack into a handful of databases in crucial swing districts, which could alter an election’s outcome. Yes, a foreign entity could disseminate messages to major cities across the entire country or try to carry out a broad-based cyberattack, but widespread actions of this sort would be not only more resource-intensive, but also more easily noticed, exposed and addressed.
These arguments — more assertions, in truth — aren’t at all convincing to my ears, not least because in every single case one could just as easily argue the opposite. One could contend that the Electoral College is imperative in the age of the Internet because it helps to maintain discrete electoral areas that host discrete political cultures, and thus serves as bulwark against any centralized panic that could be orchestrated through the web. One could suggest that, while the status quo indeed ensures that “citizens in certain states simply have more voting power than citizens in other states,” this no more “makes it easier for malign outside forces to direct their efforts” than would a system in which elections are decided by the 3 or 4 percent of voters who sit in the ideological center and are likely to be swayed by a handful of issues (in fact, such a system, which would require no micro-targeting, could plausibly make such an attempt easier and cheaper). And one could — and should – ask why exactly the authors submit that it would be “more difficult to tamper with voting systems on a nationwide basis than to hack into a handful of databases in crucial swing districts,” when surely the opposite is the case, distribution being a much better way of protecting computer systems than centralization will ever be.
Anyhow, that’s all debatable. What’s far more interesting to me is that the authors felt that “National Security” was the way to make this play. “Necessity,” said William Pitt the Younger, “is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” And so it is. But it is also the argument of the terminally frustrated. After a while, all struggling sides fall back on it. Recently we’ve seen this with Obamacare, with gun control, with food stamps, with climate change, with illegal immigration, and with tax policy. That the Electoral College is now being critiqued in the same manner suggests that this particular avenue of catharsis is rapidly coming to an end.