In Defense of the Electoral College

AP Photo/Scott Sonner, File

Nevada's six Democratic presidential electors sign their formal ballots for the Electoral College in the old Assembly chambers at the state Capitol in Carson City, Nevada. 

Electors cast their ballots for Donald Trump this week, but that has not ended calls to revamp or replace the Electoral College. While the disconnect between the electoral and popular votes may be cause for alarm, however, abolishing the Electoral College poses even greater dangers, particularly for liberals.

True, the system is imperfect, as evidenced by the mismatch between Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win and Trump’s Electoral College victory—the second such split in 16 years. And yes, in its current incarnation the system tends to favor Republicans. But even when the Electoral College malfunctions, as it did this year, it also protects liberals in often unseen ways.

Indeed, the Electoral College is one of the greatest guarantees our system delivers to ensure that minority interests are represented in the office of the presidency.

That’s hard to see now that a candidate who stoked the fires of white supremacy is getting ready to move into the Oval Office. But if anything, that makes it especially important to consider the ways in which this archaic system, initially devised to protect a sliver of propertied elites, now serves to protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable minorities.

Those pushing to repeal the Electoral College seem to have concluded that without it, Clinton would have won. Maybe. But there is also a good chance she wouldn’t have. That’s because without the Electoral College, we might have had a different outcome, but we would also have had a very different campaign—and it likely would have been one that heavily focused on a much smaller, much less diverse segment of the population. It’s widely recognized that without the Electoral College, one could win the presidency with a few key states. Even more troubling, though, is that without the Electoral College one could win by just appealing to white voters. Since white voters constitute a majority of the electorate, at least for now, that might actually be the easiest road to the presidency for some candidates.

The Electoral College is designed to protect minority interests in a variety of forms, whether economic, ideological, or racial. Black and Latino voters draw considerable attention because, in several states, their votes are pivotal. That affords minorities a seat at the table that they might not otherwise enjoy.

Beyond that, though, the Electoral College simply produces a better system than one based solely on the popular vote. This is because to win the majority of electors, a candidate must gain the confidence of the greatest number of interests in the country. And the ability to speak to a diversity of interests is an important quality in the head of state. 

The best analogy one might make is to a sports championship. Take the World Series. The winner of the World Series is not decided by the total number of runs a team scores in the season, but rather based on the number of discrete wins. This is because the number of wins tests the team’s winning ability in many different contexts. This measure asks: Can you win against this team, and can you win against that team? Can you win on this day, and can you win again on that day? The winner must prevail across a more diverse set of contexts than the loser, who may in fact have scored many more runs. The Electoral College works in a similar way.

Is a system like this fair? Shouldn’t elections be won by the person with the most voters supporting him or her? The answer is that the presidential contest is not just about fairness but about values. Majority rule is an important value, but so is minority protection. All of our institutions are designed to balance these values, however imperfectly. And perhaps the Electoral College may be tweaked to make popular vote discrepancies less likely, without eliminating electors altogether.

But whatever changes we might make to this institution, let us not lose sight of the fact that, in this election, on the one issue that proved most salient to electors—the economy—Trump won a more diverse swath of voters than Hillary Clinton.

Granted, Clinton won the vast majority of African American voters (88 percent), Latino voters (65 percent), and female voters (54 percent) of all races. But Trump managed to reach across a broader set of economic and geographic constituencies than any other candidate: Rust Belt voters and rural ones; blue-collar and white-collar voters; economic nationalists and fiscal conservatives. Liberals need to take that seriously, and find ways to broaden their own economic appeal. This might not be difficult to do, given that Trump is filling his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires and looks unlikely to deliver on his economic promises. Liberals of all stripes need to be prepared to call him out when he falls short, and to jump in with answers of their own. No change to the electoral system will let progressives off the hook for that.

The concerns about democratic governance raised by this split election result should not be lightly dismissed. But those focusing on the Electoral College might do better to train their gaze on a different component of the electoral system that has done greater damage than the Electoral College ever could: voter ID laws. They pop up so frequently it’s challenging to even keep track of them. Just last week, Michigan passed a strict voter ID law that may have a significant impact on minority voters in that state. And recent talk of a federal voter ID law should alarm all democracy advocates.

Another worthy target for election reform advocates is redistricting. Tedious and unglamorous though it may be, this is perhaps the single most important thing progressives should address in the coming years. The next round of redistricting will take place after the 2020 Census. Think that’s a long way off? It’s not. The state legislators who will be in charge of redistricting will be elected in the next few years. Currently, only eight state legislatures are controlled by Democrats, versus 22 controlled by Republicans. Several states are split in such a way that a small change could shift the power balance: Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington, to name a few. The state-level opportunities are there, and they add up to much more than the sum of their parts. 

Electoral College critics seem to regard its abolishment as something of a silver bullet. But there is no one big fix for what ails our democracy. Instead, it’s time to focus on the many small fixes that might help galvanize the machinery of a democracy that has been ground down and neglected. It’s also crucial to guard against throwing out institutions, such as the Electoral College, that might serve progressive interests in the long run.

This story was posted in conjunction with the Scholars Strategy Network.

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