Don’t Blame the Electoral College; Blame Our Two Major Parties

In case you missed it, there was an election last week. American voters decided that a reality TV star who boasted of committing sexual assault should be the next President of the United States. Well, that’s not exactly true. Hillary Clinton received around 1 million more votes than Donald Trump did. But in spite of winning the popular vote, the former Secretary of State will not become the nation’s chief executive. Instead, that office will soon belong to a man who was brought down by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XXIII.

Like his 2007 humiliation of Vince McMahon, there is a pyrrhic element to Trump’s victory in Electionmania LVI: lacking a popular mandate, Trump will arrive at the Oval Office thanks to the Electoral College, making 2016 the second election in less than two decades in which a Republican has won the presidency in such a manner.

Bear with me for a civics lesson, O knowledgeable reader. There’s a point coming, I promise.

The President of the United States is not elected by a national popular vote, but rather by the aggregate of 51 individual contests held in each of the 50 US states and the District of Columbia. Winning a state contest secures the candidate a number of votes in the Electoral College equal to that state’s representation in Congress. (Although the District of Columbia is not represented in Congress, it is nevertheless allotted three electoral votes.) With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which split their electoral votes according to congressional district, these contests are winner-take-all. The candidate who secures a majority of the 538 electoral votes thus wins the presidential election, to be inaugurated in January of the following year.

The Electoral College has been the method of electing our head of state since 1788, when the office of President was constitutionally established. As with virtually every aspect of the US Constitution, it is a clunky compromise intended to hold together a heterogeneous collection of former colonies under an awkwardly-fitting federal roof.

Inspired by the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, the framers feared that direct democracy would likely lead to tyranny in the name of the majority. They hoped that disconnecting the chief magistracy from a direct mandate would make its occupant less inclined to use adherence to the popular will as a justification for despotism.

As James Madison remarked at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the states most in favor of adopting the Electoral College were those in which much of the population was enslaved and thus disenfranchised. Given that the slave-holding states had a smaller voting  public than the free states, the representatives of these states feared that they would be ignored if the presidential election were decided by popular vote.

This is the “original sin” of the Electoral College: it was designed to simultaneously stave off a tyranny of the majority while buttressing a system of oppression against the country’s largest racial minority. Its origin is hardly a reason to abolish it, though: no human institution was ever immaculately conceived. But in every election from 1892 through 1996, the Electoral College did exactly what it was designed to do: every candidate who won a plurality of the popular vote also won a majority of electoral votes, a feat that is only possible by winning a broad coalition of states, which in turn requires appealing to a diverse range of voters.

As the UK is learning with Brexit, narrow majorities often reflect the whim of a few rather than the conviction of many; hence, tyranny of the majority is a real thing. The Electoral College favors candidates who can build a broad geographic base of support over those who simply mobilize 50% of the electorate plus one. This is not a design flaw, but a deliberate incentive for consensus-building. The system has become dysfunctional because its extra-constitutional elements – the Democratic and Republican parties – no longer mesh with the constitutional infrastructure as a result of party infighting during the 1970s. Fortunately, reforming a political party is much easier than amending the Constitution.

Democrats frustrated with their Electoral College defeats in both 2000 and 2016 have called for a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution, but the hurdles for achieving this are impossibly high given Republican dominance at both federal and state levels. Just proposing an amendment requires support from either two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of the individual state legislatures. Even then, it still takes ratification by three-fourths of the individual states for the Constitution to actually be amended. Requiring super-majorities at both steps of the process ensures that the Constitution cannot be amended without a broad national consensus.

That same desire for consensus is at the heart of the Electoral College, but both major parties currently discourage it. Writing in the conservative journal National Affairs following the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama, Jeffrey Anderson and Jay Cost proposed that the Republican Party adopt a presidential nomination process that favored local and state conventions over primary elections. At the time, moderate Republicans feared that cultural and demographic shifts would make it difficult for their party to ever capture the presidency again without significant changes in both structure and message. Instead, Donald Trump made the party his own by taking advantage of the very same weaknesses signaled by Anderson and Cost.

Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party brought him victory in the Electoral College, but not a popular mandate; thus the dysfunction remains. As long as it does, as I’ve argued before, we are likely to see more Donald Trumps. Ironically, the Democrats might now be more tempted to make the kinds of internal reforms that Anderson and Cost were recommending for Republicans. State caucuses favored Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton during the nomination process, and the Vermont socialist and his allies are now rising into the party leadership. If they can place consensus and coalition-building above Clinton’s dashed hopes of merely turning out a loyal base, they might have better chances of wooing back disaffected working-class and rural whites in 2020.

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