The Corner

Elections

There’s a Partisan Fiction at the Heart of the Case against the Electoral College

Voters at a polling place at John Jay College in New York, November 6, 2012. (Chip East/Reuters)

On the substance of the defense of the Electoral College, consider me four-square behind our editorial today. This paragraph is key:

In our era of viciously divisive politics, the states are arguably more necessary than they have ever been. Critics of the Electoral College bristle at the insistence that it prevents New York and California from imposing their will on the rest of the country. But the Electoral College guarantees that candidates who seek the only nationally elected office in America must attempt to appeal to as broad a geographic constituency as possible — large states and small, populous and rural — rather than retreating to their preferred pockets and running up the score. The alternative to this arrangement is not less political contention or a reduction in anger; it is more of both.

If anyone thinks the American republic would remain stable if political power is consolidated in coastal urban enclaves, then they lack understanding of American history, American culture, and human nature. The founders struck a balance between state and federal power for good reasons — reasons that remain valid today.

But can we get real for a moment? While there are some constitutional scholars who carry on this debate based on high-minded concerns about the nature of American democracy, the real energy behind the Democratic anger at the Electoral College (and behind the Republican defense of it, for that matter) is purely partisan. They look at the national popular vote since 1992 and see exactly one Republican win but three Republican presidencies. Since George H. W. Bush’s rout of Michael Dukakis, only his son has managed a popular-vote victory.

So, if we abolish the Electoral College, the Democrats win, right? Not so fast. The Democrats are basing their optimism in part on “success” in a political race that no one is actually running. There is not a single sensible political strategist who has ever plotted out a presidential race for the purpose of winning the popular vote. That’s like game-planning to run the most total yards or to shoot the most free throws.

The bottom line is that no one can state with confidence who would have won the 2016 race if the national popular vote determined the outcome. The strategy would be completely different. Candidates would message differently, campaign in different states, and engage in radically different ad buys. Perhaps Hillary Clinton would have won. Perhaps not. We simply don’t know. In fact, outside of the true blowout elections, we don’t really know who would have won any of the close national contests since 1992.

And let’s not pretend that a national popular vote elevates every citizen’s vote in a way that the Electoral College does not. Your vote counts in each state, and the fact that your state is overwhelmingly red or blue is no more or less demoralizing than the popular-vote idea that your single vote is thrown into a pool of 130 million others.

Besides, if we want to talk about antidemocratic institutions — and the vastly disproportionate impact of a few, small states on national elections — the real culprit isn’t the Electoral College. It’s a primary system that places extraordinary emphasis on the power of winning the first three primaries. We live in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina’s America, and that’s far more troubling than perpetuating an electoral system that our founders wisely determined was helpful for maintaining national unity.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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