On Monday, the Electoral College was convened and performed its sole Constitutional duty: it officially elected Donald Trump as President. For the fifth time in our national history, a candidate for President won the necessary number of Electoral College votes while losing the popular vote. This has given rise to a new round of sanctimonious whining that it’s not fair, and that the Electoral College should be abolished altogether, with the presidency going to whichever candidate amasses the greatest raw vote total.
The Framers of our Constitution understood the threat of tyranny better than we do today. The tyrannical actor of their day was England. The English system of government was a monarchy, with all power derived from the sovereign monarch. The Framers devised a system in which power was diffused rather than concentrated. It was diffused among the several States, rather than concentrated in a single central government. The central government was limited to certain enumerated powers, rather than possessing all power.
That system is called Federalism. Even within the very limited federal government, power was further diffused into three equal branches of government. The principle of diffusing rather than concentrating power was carried out in the Presidential election process through the creation of an Electoral College in which each State has a set of votes reflecting the State’s population, with each State retaining the right to determine for itself how those votes are to be allocated following an election. Thus, diffusing power through Federalism is a structural check on tyranny. If tyranny strikes our contemporary ears as too harsh a word, let’s try "overwhelming influence." The Framers constructed a system where no one state could have overwhelming influence over the rest due to its sheer size.
The state that they were concerned about having undue influence in the eighteenth century was Virginia. In the twenty-first century, it’s California. By apportioning Electoral College votes based on the number of Congressional seats in each state, plus two for the two Senate seats, the largest states have the most influence, but not overwhelming influence. That’s the genius of Federalism at work in the present day.
California’s 2016 Presidential vote was so lopsided that if you took away the 4.3 million vote margin for Hillary Clinton in California, Donald Trump would have won the popular vote by a million and a half votes in the other 49 states taken together. The California vote is exactly the kind of overwhelming or undue influence of one large state over the rest that the Framers of our Constitution warned us about and devised a system to prevent.
Donald Trump won 30 states over Clinton’s 20. And if you look at it on a County basis, he won more than 2,500 counties while she won fewer than 500. Abandoning the Electoral College in favor of a national raw vote winner would result in abandoning this check against tyranny.
We have become so accustomed to a two-party system that we easily ignore another substantial flaw in a popular vote system. If we had four roughly equal-size parties instead of the current two large parties, then a President could be elected on a raw vote plurality basis with a little more than one quarter of the total vote. Electing a president opposed by nearly three quarters of those voting would be the opposite of the fairness the proponents of the popular vote say they want.
A third flaw in a popular vote is cultural. It would lead to the selection of a President by the large cities whose media dominance would run roughshod over more rural and agricultural areas to the point that citizens in those areas could easily conclude that they had been left out of the process altogether. This would soon lead to insoluble cultural divisions that would make the recent campaign for President look like an exercise in national unity by comparison.
The current system has its own flaws, however, one of the worst of which is the disproportionate influence of so-called swing States. Eleven States were determined to be swing States in this year’s election, relegating thirty-nine States to near insignificance. California, New York, Massachusetts and Texas were largely ignored by one candidate or the other, because they were presumed to be so solidly in either the Trump or Clinton base as to not be worth either candidate’s time to campaign in them, even though they are among the largest in population. How is it in the interest of fairness and national unity for candidates for President to ignore our largest States?
The reform that I propose would retain the Electoral College, but do away with its present system of awarding Electoral votes as winner-take-all-by-state. We propose instead nationalizing the system used in Nebraska and Maine, where one Electoral vote is awarded to the winner of each Congressional District, with two additional Electoral votes awarded to the overall winner of that State. Every Congressional District would thus have the same weight. This system would preserve the Framers’ checks against the tyranny of the largest states over the rest, while also more truly nationalizing the national election.
Candidates would then campaign in states they never visit now. The electoral college is a brilliant gift from our Founding Fathers that can be made more fair by tweaking the way votes are allocated, rather than abolishing it altogether.