The Electoral College Strikes Back

[Readers please note: this re-post contains technical corrections to the description of the outcome of the election.]

Of the many painful realities that have begun to sink in after last week’s national election, one of the most painful is the fact that, despite reduced voter turnout for both of the major parties, more American voters cast their votes for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, and it’s only because of the anachronistic, anti-democratic Electoral College that we have Trump, of all people on the planet, as President-elect of the United States. (For some further background and pre-election views on the Electoral College, see http://keithmcwalter.com/2016/09/01/tales-of-the-electoral-college/)

For the second time in two decades, a candidate will assume the Presidency without having won the popular vote, the last being George W. Bush in 2000. (You have to go back to 1888 and the election of Benjamin Harrison for the next previous instance.) There are renewed calls to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a straight popular vote, or the proposed multi-state compact (so far signed by 10 states) that would require each state’s electors to vote consistently with the national popular vote (a clever end-run around the much harder task of amending the Constitution).

Those eager to defend the outcome of the election marshal a number of arguments in defense of the Electoral College, the most cogent (other than that, simply, the Constitution calls for it) being what we’ll call the geographic rationale: that it spreads political power around geographically and therefore culturally, and that a candidate shouldn’t be able to win the Presidency by appealing only to urban and coastal sophisticates.

One might ask, however, why not, if we purport to live in a democracy and the urban/coastal sophisticates actually outnumber the rural naïfs (which, depending on how you define “urban,”  –not to mention “sophisticates”– they almost certainly don’t)? Some answer that the urban sophisticates should be denied majority rule because this will force them to discuss matters of national import with their rural brethren. However charmingly naïve, this notion is belied by our collective awareness that the exact opposite is happening: each camp has withdrawn into ever more balkanized factions, never to address the other in any real way.

Bluntly put, the Electoral College institutionalizes a vote subsidy for the residents of less-populated states. In any other walk of life, the idea that one person’s vote should count for more than another’s because of the vagary of residence would be an anathema, yet that’s exactly the case when we elect a President. When I moved from California to Ohio a few years ago, the political power of my individual vote (the ratio of my state’s allocated electoral votes to its population) increased by about 13 percentage points. Wyoming has three electoral votes and only about half a million residents. As a result, each of Wyoming’s three electoral votes corresponds to around 177,000 people. If I moved to Wyoming, I would have over three (3) times as much clout in the Electoral College as the average American. And this subsidy doesn’t always favor the Heartland states – a vote in Texas counts, electorally speaking, for only 79% of the national average, the lowest in the nation.

This vote subsidy may have made a bit more sense in the Founders’ time, when a citizen’s movement between states was rare. But today it’s capricious and, democratically speaking, bizarre. And remember that electoral votes are allocated according to the national census (next one in 2020), which builds a significant time lag into the calculus.

We all get that the Electoral College makes politicians pay attention to states they otherwise might not visit during an election cycle. But beyond that its beneficial effect on underpopulated states is hard to detect, and is far outweighed by the allocation of seats in the House and Senate, which assures them a representative voice on matters of legislative substance.

In addition to being anti-democratic, there’s something distinctly paternalistic and anti-free market about the geographic argument for the Electoral College, the notion that we need a system of disproportionate votes to give voice to the little guy in the hinterlands and override the city slickers. People live their lives where they do, and change where they live more and more frequently, for a multitude of reasons, many of them economic.  If the plains states or the Appalachians empty out because they fail to keep or attract residents, it’s because people are voting with their feet in a way that the Electoral College shouldn’t (and wasn’t intended to) counteract.

There are reasons why the bulk of the population has gravitated to cities and to the coasts, and none of them involve party affiliation or ideology. That’s where the jobs are, or the better climate, or the better schools, or the opportunity for fun or romance or acceptance or anonymity; that’s where, in short, a plurality of our fellow citizens have determined that they’ll have a better shot at living the American dream. They, and we all, deserve an actual popular vote in Presidential elections.

One can only imagine the hue and cry if this had gone the other way, and Hillary Clinton had won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote (as Trump has, by over a million votes). Can there be any doubt that Trump would be decrying a “rigged” election and deploying his lawyers to challenge the untested 1887 statute that codified the current Electoral College system?

It’s time, finally, to retire the Electoral College.

4 thoughts on “The Electoral College Strikes Back

  1. The prior version of this post said that Hillary had won a majority of the popular vote, which is incorrect. No one did. She won a plurality, 47.7%, while Donald won 46.8%, a difference of over a million votes, with a lot of west coast absentee ballots still being counted. We tend to talk loosely about “winning the popular vote,” but I felt this needed to be corrected.

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