The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Electoral College Is Not the Outlier Its Critics Insist It Is

A polling station in Brooklyn, N.Y., November 4, 2014 (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

In the New York Times, Jesse Wegman complains about the Electoral College. His argument will be familiar to anyone who has read complaints about the Electoral College. And so will this phrase, which has become a mandatory feature of complaints about the Electoral College:

No other advanced democracy in the world uses anything like it, and for good reason.

Progressives love to say “no other country does this!” when complaining about America. Often, they are right. America’s system is indeed different from most others, particularly when it comes to its separation of powers, the contents of its Bill of Rights, and the strength of its judicial review. Here, though, Wegman and his fellow cavilers are wrong. Many other countries eschew direct popular votes when choosing their executives — and a good number of those do so explicitly in favor of systems that aggregate the results of local elections when staffing the national government.

Take Canada, which is without question an “advanced democracy.” In 2019 — that’s last year — Justin Trudeau was elected as prime minister despite his party losing the “popular vote,” and despite not a single Canadian voter asking for him to fill the role. Wegman writes that:

The presidency is the only office whose occupant must represent all Americans equally, no matter where they live. The person who holds that office should have to win the most votes from all Americans, everywhere.

Is this different for the prime minister of Canada? We’d better hope not! In 2019, Trudeau’s party received 6,018,728 votes in total. This represented 33.1 percent of all ballots cast. As a result, it won 157 seats, more than any other party, and Trudeau, as its leader, became PM. The Conservatives, meanwhile, received 6,239,227 votes. This represented 34.3 percent of all ballots cast. As a result, it won 121 seats — thirty-six fewer than Trudeau’s.

It is, of course, absolutely fine for critics of the Electoral College to say, “okay, fine, that’s unfair, too.” And I’m sure that many do. But to do so is, by definition, to acknowledge that there is nothing unique about America in this respect. As is the case in a considerable number of advanced democracies — especially those that based themselves in some way on English notions of representation — America’s system prioritizes local building blocks over a national glob. American citizens exchange the chance to select their local representatives for the chance that the party that receives more votes overall will not command a majority in the legislature. And so do the British, Canadians, Australians, and so on. In America, citizens willingly utilize a system in which the national leader is selected via an aggregated process while accepting the risks that accompany it. And so do the British, Canadians, Australians, and so on.

There are, in fact, very few “advanced democracies” that pick a chief executive via a national popular vote (the prominent exceptions are France, Ireland, and South Korea), whereas in both non-advanced democracies and in tyrannies, the practice is common. India, the world’s largest democracy, does not. Nor does Germany, the most powerful nation in continental Europe. In part because of its size, and in part because of its profound political diversity, the United States is slightly more localist than its cousins; the enumerated powers doctrine and the Senate are good examples of this. But it is not unique — not by a long shot — and its critics should refrain from pretending otherwise.


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