Still more on the failure of the Electoral College


We’ve posted two exchanges about the Electoral College.

Here are a couple more items for your consideration.

By modern American democratic political thinking the winner of an election ought to be the person who won the most votes. Indeed, that is the case for every other office in American government, federal, state, and local. Now some modern thinkers offer various justifications for the Electoral College, but none of them withstand rational analysis, in my opinion, and none of them would be persuasive if we were to think about redesigning our presidential election system from scratch.

Thus, in this election the will of the voters has been frustrated. Not only did the next president not receive a majority, which is not unusual when there are third party candidates, but he didn’t even win a plurality. This is not a close matter. Here’s a report of the situation as of November 20. Hillary Clinton has more than 1.5 million more votes than Donald Trump, and votes from Democratic leaning states remain to be counted. This journalist estimates that Clinton will end up with 2 million more votes than Trump, out of more than 120 million cast. What modern theorist of democratic politics would propose that this should be the outcome in the presidential election and only in presidential elections? If this is a good idea for presidential elections, why isn’t it a good idea for elections for state governor or city mayor?

A key argument that I made in our earlier discussions was that the Electoral College failed in this election to achieve the purpose for which the Founders created it. It was their intention to protect the office and the nation from a populist demagogue by shielding the selection of the president from the popular will. The voters of that day, the 1790s, with the franchise limited by property requirements, were to choose electors, not presidential candidates, from among the natural governing class. The electors would then consider candidates, not doubt from the “best” of society, that is from among themselves, and chose one.

I put this argument forward from my own reading and thought as an amateur student of American history. Here is a report by a knowledgeable journalist, Peter Beinart, writing at Atlantic, The Electoral College Was Meant to Stop Men Like Trump From Being President. Here’s one paragraph from this essay:

Michael Signer explains, the framers were particularly afraid of the people choosing a demagogue. The electors, Hamilton believed, would prevent someone with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” from becoming president. And they would combat “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” They would prevent America’s adversaries from meddling in its elections. The founders created the Electoral College, in other words, in part to prevent the election of someone like Donald Trump.

Beinart says that many early state legislators selected their state’s electors with no popular vote at all! He also cites the Federalist papers and scholars to support his and my argument.

What he doesn’t mention is that in this election not only did the Electoral College fail, but the voters decided rightly against Trump.


Filed under Politics

2 responses to “Still more on the failure of the Electoral College

  1. Bernard, I am a friend and neighbor of Wayne’s, and I have been enjoying your posts in two heads are better for several months. I have a modest contribution to your Electoral College discussion.

    I heard on NPR about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which is designed as a way to get to a popular vote for president without having to go through the constitutional amendment process. Briefly, states pass a law pledging them to award all their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote. All these state laws specify that the law will not go into effect until states representing at least 270 electoral votes have adopted the law.

    I was surprised to learn that ten states and the District of Columbia, representing 165 votes, have already signed on to NPVIC. (I was less surprised that all those states typically vote Democratic.) There is a full explanation in Wikipedia if you are interested (sorry, I don’t know how to create a link in wordpress).

    A couple of other thoughts I haven’t seen mentioned in your exchange with Wayne. One, our nation was founded not by its individual inhabitants, but by its states. Therefore, it makes sense on the face of it that the states, not the collective of individual inhabitants, would select the holder of the only office that represents more than a single state or district.

    Whether that arrangement still serves any purpose is the question at hand, but the founders crafted a compromise that was explicitly intended to prevent a small number of populous states from gaining power at the expense of a larger number of smaller states. Which is exactly what happened in 2016. While I am not pleased with the current result, it’s worth thinking about the potential long-term divisive consequences of a small number of states controlling the presidency.

    Two, I haven’t seen mention of the problem posed by a very close election. Under the current rules, the dangers inherent in a close election are limited to the particular state or states where the margin is vanishingly small. But imagine a national popular-vote election whose results were nearly as close as the Bush-Gore vote count in Florida. How would we handle a national recount, where every contested vote in every precinct in the country could affect the outcome? And doesn’t any scheme have to provide an answer to that question, which will inevitably arise given enough elections?

    I’m as appalled by the results of this election as I know you and Wayne are, and I do see some major advantages to a national popular vote, but there are dangers and disadvantages as well.


  2. Pingback: Yet still more on the failure of the Electoral College | two heads are better

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