Arguments in favor of preserving the Electoral College are flawed
I’ve already said a bit on the Electoral College this week in my most previous post, after it was revealed that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump for president. But because Trump won more Electoral College votes, he technically won the election.
|Image via USA.gov|
Another bit of commentary, taking the opposite view, caught my eye this afternoon. Jonathan Krause, Programming and News Director of radio station WOSH in the Fox Valley region of Wisconsin, felt that the preservation of the Electoral College was necessary.
On his blog “My Two Cents,” Krause wrote:
Because a Democrat has won the popular vote for President -- but did not win the White House -- for the second time in 16-years, calls are growing stronger to do away with the Electoral College. "THIS IS NOT HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS!" is a common argument for simple, direct majority rule on the election of a President. Which would be a great argument if the US was a true democracy -- and not a representative democracy.That part in bold (my emphasis, not his) is one of four parts of his essay I take issue with. We are a representative democracy, but the president is the one office that’s meant to represent the entirety of the nation. He or she is selected on the basis of all of the states’ votes (even considering the Electoral College).
We have representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate. But the president is an officeholder who is supposed to be, at least in modern practice, chosen by the people. Millions of Americans cast a ballot for the selection of the president, yet an outdated method of selecting him or her renders many votes invalid. By using the “representative democracy” approach of argument, Krause defends a “minority rule” way of choosing the chief executive. That doesn’t make any sense, especially in these modern times.
Krause also writes, “The Founding Fathers developed the electoral process through a series of compromises after winning the Revolution.” That’s a real simplification of what really happened, and I’m sure Krause himself was trying to be more brief in his blog post. Yet it glosses over history -- and some pretty important facts on how our founders felt on the Constitution themselves.
We had won the Revolutionary War, and then we had eight years of government without the U.S. Constitution. Those eight years were governed by a document called the Articles of Confederation. One of the main problems with that document was that it reduced our government to minority rule -- if but one state disagreed with a proposed law, that law would not pass at the national level. Other problems, such as the inability of the government itself to enforce laws that DID pass, led the lawmakers of the day to call for a Constitutional convention.
Here’s the important part to this story: the Constitution the founders proposed and passed was not considered perfect, even at the time. Many defenders of the Electoral College argue in favor of it because of its association with the founding fathers -- but even the founders understood that the government they founded wasn’t perfect.
Indeed, that is what is meant by striving for a “more perfect union” -- a recognition by its authors that the document itself wasn’t perfect, but that the nation would find ways to get it closer to perfection as time progressed. That’s why there are mechanisms for changing the Constitution in the first place.
Need more proof? Here’s what Thomas Jefferson once said:
Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well: I belonged to it…We must exercise caution in changing the Constitution, but we must also not revere it as sacrosanct. Our founders certainly didn’t -- they changed the document, and how we select the president, in 1804 with the 12th Amendment. Certainly, we of a “more enlightened” time should be able to tweek it also, to suit how we select the president in a more responsive way to the will of the people?
...but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times…
Speaking of the will of the people leads me to my third qualm with Jonathan Krause’s blog post. He wrote, regarding the mechanisms of the Electoral College itself, that, “each state was granted the power to determine their own way to select their electors -- with most deciding to be ‘winner take all’ -- while a handful now distribute their electors by Congressional Districts won.”
That again glosses over history. Krause’s take on the Electoral College is that two options were available to the original 13 states -- “winner take all” or Congressional Districts. Yet at the start of the Constitution, half of the states weren’t “winner take all” -- rather, electors were chosen by the state legislatures, employing almost no democracy whatsoever. And for many states thereafter, this remained the way electors were chosen, up to the end of the 19th century.
But since that point in time, democratic preference has been tied to the selection of electors, with 48 states choosing the “winner take all” method. Were we to take the traditionalist view, we might argue in favor of going back to that old system. No one is advocating for that, however, because it’d be absurd. It’s equally absurd that we select the president using the archaic Electoral College. The methods for selecting electors have evolved, and now it’s time for that method to become extinct, in favor of a national popular vote.
Finally, the last issue I take with Krause’s piece is that he makes the same tired argument about the Electoral College preserving a system that requires the candidates to travel to states they may not otherwise go to with a popular vote in place. Krause writes:
Maybe we here in Wisconsin wouldn't mind not getting all of the candidate visits or the endless barrage of campaign ads every four years. But we also wouldn't want to be completely ignored in favor of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and the other major population centers that by themselves would have the votes to elect the President.The emphasis in bold added by me.
That is one of the most frequent arguments made by defenders of the Electoral College -- and it’s also wrong, statistically speaking. Consider this: to feasibly reach a majority of U.S. citizens, traveling only to the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, would require going to the following areas:
New York, New YorkThese 24 metro areas are located in 18 different states plus the District of Columbia. Now, a candidate going to 19 of the 51 geopolitical boundaries within the U.S. sounds like a small number. But for comparison, let’s look at the 2016 presidential race -- after Trump and Clinton completed their respective parties’ conventions, 94 percent of their campaign travel time was confined to just 12 states total. Two-thirds of their campaign time was confined to just six states.
Los Angeles, California
Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland
San Francisco, California and San Jose, California
San Diego, California
St. Louis, Missouri
Charlotte, North Carolina
The 24 metro areas mentioned above are just those that are the bare minimum a candidate could go to in order to do the least amount of traveling and reach a majority of citizens. We must keep in mind, however, that not all of those metro areas are going to be responsive to a single candidate. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t campaign in Dallas, Texas; and Donald Trump wouldn’t waste his time in Chicago, Illinois. In short, the two major party candidates would need to travel to more metro areas (probably including some in Wisconsin) in order to reach a majority of citizens, and to create their own coalition that wouldn’t include their opponent’s base.
In other words? The “conventional wisdom” that says the Electoral College preserves an interest for candidates to travel to areas outside of “just a handful of big cities” is turned on its head. If anything, it’s more likely a popular vote would result in MORE travel, not less.
I’ve no doubt that Jonathan Krause wants to preserve the Electoral College because of well-intended reasons. I want to end the Electoral College, too, because I feel it is best for our country.
Yet the arguments Krause makes in favor of preserving the old system are flawed -- and the reasons for eliminating the Electoral College are impossible to ignore. The president is meant, at least in modern times, to be chosen by the people; the Constitution is meant to be amended when societal changes warrant it; the Electoral College has evolved many times over the history of our nation, and now it is an unreliable way of picking the president; and candidates would be foolish to only camp-out in three or four major cities to win a popular vote.
As mentioned earlier, we should always proceed with caution when it comes to changing how our Constitution works. Yet we shouldn’t be deifying our nation’s founders either -- they were human, after all, and their document had its flaws. It stands to reason that, over time as the world changes, the Constitution needs to change with it.
The people deserve to have their preferences heard in Washington. And as the only elected office that’s meant to serve the entirety of the citizens of this nation, the president ought to be selected through a system that respects every citizen’s vote equally. A national popular vote achieves that end, and ought to be implemented in future elections.