I know this is very far afield from my usual area of focus, but Donald Trump’s twitter tirade against the Electoral College and exhorting people to start a revolution when he for some reason had it in his largely empty head that Mitt Romney was going to win the popular vote gave me a hankering to write today’s post. There is always a lot of hand-wringing this time of year about the Electoral College, which to many is the most mysterious and baffling aspect of American democracy. The problem that most people have with the Electoral College is that it can lead to a situation like we had in 2000, when a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the presidency, which seems like a blatantly anti-democratic outcome. This is an enormous concern, but it overlooks the fact that the Electoral College was created because the framers wanted to mitigate some of the problems they saw with direct popular election. The question then to be asked is not necessarily whether the Electoral College was a bad idea, but whether it is now anachronistic; in other words, do the reasons for which it was created still apply today?
The first concern the framers had with direct popular election was that the people would be easily influenced by small groups with ulterior motives. The framers’ concern on this issue turned out to be unwarranted, but perhaps not in the way that they had anticipated. While small groups have not had a large effect on voting trends, extremely large groups have – namely the Republican and Democratic parties. The Federalist Papers’ warning against faction is well known, as is the founders’ early revulsion of political parties, but it is the two major parties that have exerted the greatest influence on voters. So in this sense, the first of the major concerns was not historically borne out, although the decision to create a body that meets only once and then disbands, and whose eligibility requirements work to exclude elected federal officials, was quite prescient. The small groups of influential men that the framers were worried about can easily be construed as today’s various political lobbies, who unquestionably exert a great deal of influence on both the executive and legislative branches, but not on individual voters. While voters being easily swayed might have been a legitimate concern in 1787, it is not one anymore.
If anything, the Electoral College has allowed small groups of voters to wield disproportionate power in influencing the outcome of a state’s electoral votes. The framers were worried not about this, but about people being easily influenced by small groups that had their own best interests at heart. This unintended consequence is in a similar vein, however, since it allows narrowly focused special interests to punch above their weight. This sounds quite similar to what the framers were trying to guard against, yet this type of behavior is facilitated by the Electoral College and would be negated by popular election.
The second large apprehension about popular election, which was that the country was too large for the people to be sufficiently informed about the presidential candidates, is most definitely no longer in force. Despite the expansion of the country from the Eastern seaboard west to the Pacific Ocean, and despite the enormous population growth that has taken place since the country’s founding, there has never been greater availability of information about those running for office than exists today. We live in the Information Age, and with the advent of the Internet, 24 hour news channels, the constant news cycle, and presidential campaigns that begin two years before the actual vote, it is a given that voters are as sufficiently informed as they’d like to be about those who choose to run for president.
There is also evidence that points to the fact that voters are better informed in a presidential election year than they are during midterm elections for their state’s congressmen. In 2000, 82% of respondents surveyed watched at least one television program about the campaign, as compared to 62% in 2002. In 2000, 76% indicated that they care who wins the presidential election, whereas only 61% indicated that they care who wins the Congressional elections. It is a given that most people know more about the presidential candidates (and can actually name them) than they know about those running for the seat in their Congressional district. In 1787, this could not have been anticipated, due to the fact that information about candidates was not nearly as widely disseminated, so there was a better chance that the people would know something about local politicians than ones from out of state. In addition, the framers might not have anticipated the president becoming the public face of the country to the extent that he is today. It is clear, however, that the ill-informed electorate which so concerned the framers no longer exists, removing the second major impediment to popular election.
The third fear of the framers was that the president would always come from a large state and a Northern state if popularly elected. In fact, even with the Electoral College, only two presidents have made their primary residences in small states (Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire, and Bill Clinton in Arkansas). However, the fear that large states would only vote for candidates from their own state or from other large states was unfounded. It is clear that the framers did not anticipate the two party system that emerged, hence the fear was that each state would vote for a favorite son candidate. Under the two party system, it is impossible for states to only vote for local presidential candidates since only two states get this opportunity. Even when the opportunity arises, it is never certain that a candidate will carry his own state, as demonstrated by Al Gore’s inability to carry Tennessee.
In addition, large states do not necessarily have a tendency today to vote for a large state candidate. The most recent example is the presidential election of 1992, when Bill Clinton ran from a small state and George H.W. Bush ran from Texas. Despite his Arkansas roots, Clinton carried large states such as California (54 electoral votes), Illinois (22 electoral votes), Michigan (18 electoral votes), New York (33 electoral votes), Ohio (21 electoral votes), and Pennsylvania (23 electoral votes). In fact, Clinton carried seven out of the ten most populous states in 1992, so the most recent election in which a small state candidate ran against a large state candidate indicates that the fear of large states only voting for large state candidates is no longer warranted, if indeed it ever was.
The North versus South concern was due to the disparity in eligible voters caused by slavery, but since slavery and the 3/5 rule no longer exist, this particular rationale for the Electoral College also no longer exists. Furthermore, the notion that Northerners would not vote for a Southern candidate is also no longer a political reality, to which the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton can attest. In 1976, the original Northern states of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island voted for Carter, and in 1992, Clinton carried the original Northern states of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. If anything, today’s political reality is that Northern candidates have trouble getting votes in the South, and not the other way around.
In short, the most compelling reason to do away with the Electoral College is that its outcomes and its operation subvert the very rationales for which it was put into place. The great fear of popular election was that it would never produce a national figure, since the residents of each state would only vote for candidates with whom they were familiar. The Electoral College was supposed to encourage candidates who were national figures in that they would appeal to people from all the states, which would let all states have a say in who became president. The current incentive structure has, of course, created the opposite effect, in which the only states that truly matter are the small number of battleground states. Were the Electoral College to be abandoned in favor of popular vote, the focus would shift back to all of the states instead of just some of them, and the framers’ intentions of candidates appealing to everyone rather than to targeted groups would be realized.