The election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 convinced many of his opponents that something was fundamentally wrong with any system that could have produced such an outcome. For years, Democrats and Never Trumpers have been seeking to pinpoint the exact location of what they consider a national dysfunction. At a structural level, nothing has come under more scrutiny of this kind than the Electoral College.
A refresher: the College is the device whereby American presidents are chosen. It’s not a direct vote—i.e., the candidate with 51% of all individual votes doesn’t automatically win. The technical term for such a procedure is a “plebiscite.” The framers of the American Constitution considered, but rejected, plebiscitary government.
Instead, the voters in each individual state vote for “electors”: these are individuals holding no other federal public office, each of whom casts one vote for president. Every state gets the same number of electors as congressmen—so two for the two senators that every state gets, plus a variable number depending on a number of factors (population foremost among them) for the number of representatives.
In the original design and defense of the Constitution, these electors were considered genuine representatives whom the people would choose to deliberate on their behalf. Today, except in extreme cases, almost no one expects electors to vote against the candidate who got the most votes in their state. This phenomenon—the “faithless elector”—is at this point largely the last-ditch fever dream of people dissatisfied with the results of the national vote. (Sorry to disappoint anybody who’s banking on that option today.)
To put it another way: people don’t vote for electors anymore so much as they vote for the presidential candidate who will receive their states’ electoral votes. But that still means—as we have been reminded often these past four years—that the person who loses the popular vote can win the presidency. Trump did that in 2016.
And this is the outcome that many Democrats can no longer accept. Even in 2020, Trump’s sternest critics are appalled at how close you can come to winning the Electoral College after losing the popular vote. From Bernie Sanders, to Marianne Williamson, to The Washington Post, to any number of amateur commentators, calls to abolish the Electoral College abound.
Chiefly, the argument against the system is that it gives undue weight to the concerns of rural states with small populations but a large number of electors. This leads to claims that it threatens or undermines “democracy”—by which people usually mean, as The Washington Post said, that “it’s time to let the majority rule.”
At the more progressive extremes of the Left, you’ll also hear concerns that the College is “racist”—either because it mutes the importance of urban centers, where many black people live, or because slaves, when they were held, only counted as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of representation.
What people might not know is, we’ve been over all this before. The most serious challenge to the Electoral College came not in 2020 but in 1970, when a constitutional amendment passed the House and looked poised to pass the Senate. Recall, by the way, that an amendment is what it would take to change the College: it’s written into Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, so abolishing it isn’t a matter of a mere executive order or even the most well-worded of op-eds. Still, 50 years ago, it looked like an amendment was in the cards.
The man who gets the most credit for turning that around is Michael Uhlmann, who was then a congressional staffer for the Republicans and would go on to a long career in law and teaching. Uhlmann prepared a lengthy brief for the Senate Judiciary Committee explaining in precise terms why abolishing the College would be a disaster. It’s remarkable that we’re revisiting the question now, since every one of Uhlmann’s arguments is still perfectly sound. In truth, hardly anything of consequence has changed since we hashed this all out at length in ’70.
Keeping the Mobs at Bay
The first thing to acknowledge is that choosing an appropriate number of representatives is one of the most delicate and difficult tasks in republican statecraft. There’s no magic formula: it takes prudence and discernment. The authors of the Federalist Papers, in which all American procedures of this nature are explained and defended, observed that “no political problem is less susceptible of a precise solution” than the problem of who gets how many votes.
It’s not just a question of population: it’s a question of political corruption, social dynamics, and their effects on reason. Get too few people involved, and you leave them open to bribery or influence from vested interests. Get too many involved, and you end up with an unruly mob.
And if populism and demagoguery are what we’re worried about these days, then unruly mobs ought to be a major concern: big crowds tend to elevate the kinds of leaders who are good at rousing and motivating big crowds. Think Mussolini, or Gaius Gracchus, or Maximilien Robespierre: not exactly the sort of person we want at the helm in this tense moment.
No argument for the Electoral College is more germane than this one. But none is more unpalatable either. For many people, it now smacks of elitism to argue that public sentiment is fickle and needs to be channeled by virtuous representatives.
This colossally misses the point: the concern about direct democracy isn’t about the character of the voters. It’s about the sheer effect of numbers. The Founding Fathers argued not that the unwashed masses were fundamentally stupid, but that even “had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
In other words, the tendencies of crowds in and of themselves lead naturally to chaos and instability: mobs bring out the worst in people, no matter how enlightened and decent the people in the mob. Crowds can be intimidated into conformity, swayed to impulsive action, and goaded or tempted into acting against the better judgment of the individuals involved. It’s simply part of how people work when they get into large groups and pressurized situations. We’ve seen it play out on our city streets over the past few months.
Given that this is so, another argument for doing away with the College—that it would break the two-party system and encourage viable third parties—is actually a point against abolishment rather than for it. In the chaos of a multi-party election, the candidate whose head will rise above the waters will be the loudest, the angriest, the most uncompromising and therefore eye-catching one. If you think it was a shame that we elected a Reality TV mogul for president, you may want to think twice before creating the conditions under which only a made-for-TV pundit can win attention and votes.
By and large, arguments for abolishing the College are framed in high-flown terms of the people’s right to be heard. And no American would deny that the people have such a right. The question is, are the people to be granted exactly their whims at all times, or are those whims to be filtered and interpreted by the representatives and structures of the government that the founders put in place?
The Washington Post editorial board writes, “we believe that Mr. Trump’s election was a sad event for the nation; his reelection would have been a calamity.” For the sake of argument, let us grant the worst that can be said of Trump voters: they are racist, homophobic Nazis who want to beat and scare minorities into submission. Let us concede all that, obviously false though it is. Still: there are 73 million of these despicable bigots in this country. Are the Bernie Sanderses and Elizabeth Warrens of the world really ready to turn the American people into one massive voting bloc and set them loose on the government in the aggregate?
In point of fact it is the Democrats who view “the people” as ethically deplorable and yet somehow, incongruently, want them granted direct access to the presidency. Republicans, by contrast, view America as a fundamentally decent place with generally quite commendable people—who nevertheless, like all people, need to be guarded against the worst impulses of their nature through carefully calibrated constitutional systems.
The Dam Against the Flood
The Electoral College is the best such system that exists. It is imprecise, as its crafters knew it would be—as every such system is. It has some amusing results, like the fact that voters in Wyoming have four times the influence of voters in California. But the consequence of all this is not suppression or racism: it is compromise and diversity.
This was one of Uhlmann’s strongest arguments back in 1970. “So successful has the electoral college been,” he wrote, “that most Americans are inclined to forget that they are, in one or more senses, members of a minority—geographic, ethnic, religious, social, or economic.” And since “a minority which fails to align itself with other minorities” will be in great political trouble, the Electoral College “not only encourages such alliances, but virtually requires them. It builds moderate majorities while protecting the interest of all minorities that are willing to compromise.”
This observation was actually borne out by the results of our most recent election, in which centrists of every race and sexuality banded together against woke extremism in a new Republican coalition. Far from representing the failures of the Electoral College as a racist institution, Donald Trump actually represents the triumph of it as a uniter of Americans from all regions and walks of life. That union—that complex, messy, strange assembly of weirdos we call America—is being reinvigorated in real time by the realities of our political system, even while all our elites protest to the contrary.
Uhlmann goes on to argue that a national plebiscite would invite electoral fraud on a massive scale. Suffice it to say that if mobs are something we should be worried about in 2020, election integrity is something we should be absolutely losing sleep over. These days, no matter how many fake ballots you shovel into the polling stations, you can only win one state’s worth of electoral votes. Imagine the temptation to corruption when every new pallet brings you closer, not just to winning Georgia or Arizona, but to going home with all the marbles.
In the end, as Uhlmann noted in 2000 after a photo-finish competition between Bush and Gore, the logic of the Electoral College is the logic of the country itself. Electors are given to states in exactly the same numbers, and for exactly the same reasons, as congressional delegates. In the simplest possible terms, those reasons are the ones described in the Federalist: that “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
The Electoral College is a carefully crafted instrument for doing just that: finding virtuous leaders who will lead in the best interests of the people, and keeping both people and leaders as free from corruption as possible. It’s a tremendously subtle and multi-layered task, one for which only a method as ingenious as the Electoral College is suited. The idea of abolishing that method because it has some observable idiosyncrasies is the most ham-fisted and extreme solution possible to a set of problems which require, if anything, only minor tinkering.
Maybe we should take stock of how many electors each state has. Maybe we should add or subtract a few here or there. But tossing the whole process out would be like taking a sledgehammer to a dam because it’s showing signs of the usual wear and tear. Cracks there may have been in the dam, but you’re not going to like it when the water it was holding back comes gushing through. It’s a good thing the same founders who put the dam there in the first place, also made it nigh-on impossible for thoughtless political celebrities to get their hands on the sledgehammer.