Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
It is difficult to make an intellectual argument in favor of the Electoral College. Most people think that the person who gets the most votes should be president.
After all, that’s how we hold every other election in this country, says Jesse Wegman, the author of Let the people choose the president.
“Representative democracy in the 21st century is at least about political equality. It’s about one person, one vote – everyone’s vote counts equally,” he said. “You’re not going to convince a majority of Americans that you shouldn’t do it that way.”
Another way the Electoral College is dishonest, says Harvard University political scientist Gautam Mukunda, is that each state gets voters based on its representation in the House and Senate, meaning small states get extra votes.
“The fact that the people of Wyoming have about 44 times the power in presidential elections as the people of California contradicts at the most basic level what we stand for as a democracy,” he said.
But Brad Smith, who used to serve on the Federal Election Commission, disagrees.
Sure, the election can be decided by just a handful of states — swing states that can shift red or blue. But Smith, a Republican, says the battlefield is diverse.
“Those states include some of the states with the heaviest minority populations in the United States, some of the states with the fewest minority populations in the United States,” he said. “They include states from every region of the country, and that forces candidates to try to go out and have a platform that will appeal to the vast, diverse parts of America — or at least not grossly disable them.”
And Smith points out that for most of American history, the Electoral College has strengthened rather than contradicted the popular vote.
“Our calculation could change if pretty much every election, you know, the person who won the most popular votes didn’t win,” he said.
The problem is that since 2000, twice the person with the most votes hasn’t won. Both times – in 2000 and 2016 – it was the Republican candidate who got fewer votes but ended up in the White House.
And even if that doesn’t happen, Wegman still sees a problem with the Electoral College system.
“In 2020, despite the 7 million vote victory that Joe Biden won in the popular vote, people are overlooking the fact that” 45,000 votes change the top three battlefield states, and you’re looking at a second term from Donald Trump,” he said. “I mean, the fact that you could have the whole election run at 45,000 votes in any three states, you know, just a huge, glaring vulnerability for any republic.”
“Unnecessary” weight of important states
That vulnerability was fully apparent on Jan. 6, when Trump and the violent insurgents pressured Congress to undo Biden’s Electoral College victory. Without the Electoral College, it would have been much more difficult for them to ask Congress to overturn the will of 7 million voters. Instead, Trump asked Congress to throw out the electoral votes of just a handful of battlefield states.
That means the electoral college is placing a magnifying glass on just a few states that could have massive control over the presidential election.
“The Electoral College means that a small number of states have too much weight in the outcome of our elections and that smaller manipulations could have wide-ranging national ramifications,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the University’s Brennan Center for Justice. of New York, which advocates expanded access to ballot papers.
What she means by manipulations are Republicans’ attempts to change the electoral laws in their favor.
“Voice suppression is one way of doing that — subtracting voters from the electorate you don’t think will vote for your favorite candidates,” she said. “But this new trend of actually taking over the electoral machine and giving itself the power to run things or make decisions or count the votes is another way to do it.”
Democrats don’t have the votes in the states or in Congress to oppose these laws, so the Democrats are trying to build public pressure against them. Republicans say their goal is to fight future election fraud. The 2020 election was explained the safest ever, but Trump continues to push the lie that the election was stolen from him.
On the other hand, Republicans don’t need to convince the public. They have the votes to pass voting restrictions and in some cases they have never held public hearings.
“This is the essence of the minority regime, right?” Harvard’s Mukunda said. “You don’t have to convince the public that the system is fair. You just have to convince them that it’s not so unfair that they have to overthrow the system.”
And for the Republicans, the system, with all its minor features – the Electoral College, the US Senate, the filibuster, partisan gerrymandering – works, at least for now, in their favor. But maybe it’s not good for democracy if one party doesn’t have to try to win the most votes in a presidential election.
A warning from the Republicans
Smith says this is something fellow Republicans should keep in mind.
“They keep losing the collected votes,” he said. “Republicans don’t get enough votes and that’s why they lose most presidential elections. And, you know, they have to think, how can we appeal to more people?”
In the run-up to the January 6 Uprising in the Capitol, 12 House Republicans issued an extraordinary statement warning of the demise of the Electoral College.
Republican presidential candidates have won the national plebiscite only once in the past 32 years, the statement said. The signatories then begged their colleagues not to vote to reject battlefield state voters, as Trump asked them to do.
“Even if you look at it through a narrow partisan lens, this process or objection may have jeopardized the electoral college,” said Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer, one of the Republicans who signed the letter.
And that would be a bad thing for Republicans, because they depend on the Electoral College. As the statement said, “We will delegitimize the system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016 and that could be the only path to victory in 2024.”