While the calls for the elimination of the Electoral College as a fundamentally undemocratic institution are often dismissed as sour grapes for Hillary’s loss, that’s not exactly a strong argument for its existence or continuation. After all, the intuitive reaction to a mechanism for electing a president that, as it’s argued, ignores the will of they majority by over-valuing the votes of sparsely populated small, rural states, certainly seems to emit an unpleasant whiff.
Jamelle Buie says it’s not just about Trump, even if he’s the poster boy for how the EC went horribly wrong.
In February, I wrote about the Electoral College, its origins and its problems. Whatever its potential merits, it is a plainly undemocratic institution. It undermines the principle of “one person, one vote,” affirmed in 1964 by the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims — a key part of the civil and voting rights revolution of that decade. It produces recurring political crises. And it threatens to delegitimize the entire political system by creating larger and larger splits between who wins the public and who wins the states.
Ross Douthat tries his hand at offering a rationale for its current existence, its historical justification notwithstanding.
Instead the Electoral College really just does one big thing that a popular-vote system wouldn’t do: It makes it possible for close elections to yield a president supported by a minority of voters, especially in circumstances where that minority is regionally concentrated rather than diffuse.
Without the EC, candidates could ignore small states, rural voters, the minority, altogether, as the win would be concentrated where the most people are, and that’s cities and coasts. What Douthat contends is that the EC creates an incentive for candidates to take the concerns of voters in Montana seriously, as well as those in New York City.
In this way, each would provide a moderating force on the other, so neither one could exert unwarranted control over the other and preclude their views and interests from being ignored, if not ripped to shreds by the majority’s radicalization and rejection of less woke norms.
It’s an interesting proposition. While democracy demands that the will of the majority prevail, it also seeks to blunt the tyranny of the majority to the exclusion of the interests of the minority. Equal protection is a virtue, even if its not generally considered to relate to political views rather than suspect classifications.
But there’s a hole in both puzzles that’s ignored.
Robust voter turnout is fundamental to a healthy democracy. As low turnout is usually attributed to political disengagement and the belief that voting for one candidate/party or another will do little to alter public policy, “established” democracies tend have higher turnout than other countries. However, voter turnout in the U.S. is much lower than most established democracies.
The last election, being particularly contentious, produced about a 58% turnout. That means that 42% of eligible voters didn’t vote. One reason is that the EC system makes the effort to vote in a state where one is clearly in the minority futile. New York State? Even if every voter in Tompkins County shows up and votes twice, they won’t seize the day from New York City voters. So if you live in Trumansburg, why bother? Your vote won’t count.
There are many proposals floated to increase voter participation. Make it a national holiday, so no one will have to miss work to vote. Make it a crime not to vote, so anyone preferring not to have the SWAT team break down the door will go to the polls. It is a responsibility of citizenship, on the one hand, and for those disenfranchised by law, their deprivation of the vote is a painful reminder that the must suffer the consequences of politics while being denied any voice at all.
But can we force people to vote? Can we force people to care, to learn, to become sufficiently politically astute so as to make their vote useful to the governance of this nation? Remember, the average IQ is 100, and these are our neighbors, our voters. And yes, they are and should be entitled to vote, even if we might prefer not to put our futures in their hands. Democracy is, by definition, the lowest common denominator. But if many of these nice but politically ignorant voters decide they don’t feel like it, can’t be bothered, should this be a matter of concern?
The hole in the analysis is that we characterize the decision to exercise the franchise by about half our potential voters as the “popular vote,” when it’s really not. We rationalize away the problem by the fact that it’s their choice to vote or not, and if they choose not to vote, well, that’s a vote too. (Cue Rush.) But it’s not a legitimate argument, since it ignores the fact that the rules of our extant system include the Electoral College, thus reducing a state’s influence to that of its majority and leaving the minority with little reason to spend the time, waste the gas, to go to the polls.
Hillary may have gotten more votes than Trump based on raw national numbers, but she did not win the majority of the American voting population. Nor, obviously, did Trump. Clinton received the votes of 26% of eligible voters in America. Does that make her the popular winner? Can there be a popular winner when the rules of the game keep voters reflecting a minority of a state’s views home, well aware their votes won’t matter?
If the Electoral College, not to mention the Senate (that means don’t mention it), was to disappear for the next election, would we be better off with a voter turnout where no candidate won more than 50% of the eligible voters? After all, election by less would not serve to reflect the will of the majority of Americans. Or is a 26% win sufficient because 48% couldn’t be bothered to show? Of course, it could be that there would be a massively greater turnout in the absence of the EC, but then there’s no such rush to vote in elections now where the highest vote-getter wins.