Ending the Electoral College Won’t Lead to Tyranny

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Back in the days of blogging, there was something called “fisking” – the practice of painstakingly, paragraph by paragraph, examining, critiquing, fact-checking and (since blogs were like that) ridiculing someone’s bad argument.

It is possible to fisk a tweet? 

Because Dan Crenshaw, a Republican member of the House from Texas, is sort of inviting it. Here’s what he said this weekend: “Abolishing the electoral college means that politicians will only campaign in (and listen to) urban areas. That is not a representative democracy. We live in a republic, which means 51% of the population doesn’t get to boss around the other 49%.” As it happens, I’m more or less neutral on the electoral college, and strongly against strict majoritarian democracy, but this is a bunch of nonsense. I’ll take it bit by bit.

“Abolishing the electoral college means that politicians will only campaign in (and listen to) urban areas.”

Well … no. Simply not true, on several levels. To begin with, as lots of people have pointed out, statewide offices such as governor and senator take place all the time; all of them use a simple statewide vote; and yet lots and lots of statewide candidates nevertheless campaign in rural areas all the time, including in states where the rural vote is just a fraction of the overall vote. Others have noted that there are plenty of rural voters in California and other states – including, at least recently, Texas – that are uncontested and therefore get no candidate attention under the current rules.

It is true that big cities don’t do very well right now under the electoral college. But that wasn’t always true, and it may not last. The states that get the most attention under the current system are the close ones, and especially the big close ones. Sixty years ago, most big cities were in close, big states; now, few are. It’s also true that there are simply fewer close states now than there were during the middle of the 20th century. Either of those things could change, but they do, in my view, make it harder to argue for the electoral college. The former (few big cities) is bad because the Senate already undervalues urban areas, so the presidency shouldn’t also penalize them. The latter matters simply because it makes little sense to run national elections in which only a handful of states are targeted and contested. 

“That is not a representative democracy.”

Yeah, this makes no sense. Again: Most offices in the U.S. are voted on with “popular vote” rules. The presidency is a weird exception, not the normal rule. It is true that as long as we’re going to have an elected presidency, some will have voted for him or her and some will not have, and those that didn’t may feel (at least in a sense) unrepresented. That’s a good reason to also have a districted Congress! And it's certainly possible that there will be a stable majority, with a long-term minority. That doesn’t mean there’s no representative democracy; it just means one side is losing.

“We live in a republic...”

Oy. This again? Outside of specialized usages, we’re all better off using democracy and republic as synonyms for a system of government in which the people rule. There are plenty of kinds of democracy/republic, and a lot of good arguments to be had about which kinds are better. But carving off one kind and calling it a “republic” is just a word game that’s not solving anything. It’s not going to be what the American revolutionaries meant, or the ancient Romans and Greeks, or anyone else until very recently. (Some theorists, most notably James Madison but plenty of others, have used the words differently – but there’s no consistent usage over time.)

“...which means 51% of the population doesn’t get to boss around the other 49%.”

There’s a valid point here, but it has nothing to do with anything else in the tweet.

Yes: The U.S. isn’t a strictly majoritarian democracy. Madison and the rest of the framers constructed a system in which it was difficult for majorities to even form, and extremely difficult for them to rule. I’m all for that. I don’t think majoritarian democracy is a very good form of government at all. 

But that has little to do with the electoral college, and nothing at all to do with Crenshaw’s complaint. There’s going to be a president elected, whether with a majority or a minority of the vote. It’s bad if the majority is rewarded with absolute rule, but it’s quite a bit worse – I’m not even aware of any vaguely plausible argument otherwise – if the minority is rewarded with absolute rule. And no, it doesn’t matter a bit if that minority is the one that Crenshaw (or anyone else) happens to like. The remedy for majority tyranny isn’t to tabulate the votes in some convoluted way to get a preferred minority to win. 

The Madisonian remedies for majority tyranny are such things as having multiple branches of government (each with a different form of election), meaningful federalism, separated institutions sharing powers, and so on. To put it another way? Institutional design in a good antimajoritarian democracy prevents any single election from being overwhelmingly important. Unfortunately (as Julia Azari for one has argued) the U.S. political culture on both sides of the partisan divide increasingly assumes the opposite – that majorities exist, that the point of elections is to demonstrate them, and that democracy is fulfilled if and only if the (supposed) will of those majorities is implemented. Which is perhaps why, outside of the obvious reasons of recent electoral history, a member of Congress would make what certainly reads as a very foolish argument that (and here I extrapolate, but I don’t think unfairly) it’s only a democracy if my side wins. 

1.  Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman at the Monkey Cage on changes in the world economic regime. 

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer on the Trump Administration’s new migrant detention rules. 

3. Very good Jamelle Bouie item on slavery and U.S. history.

4. Byron York on why the also-rans in the Democratic presidential nomination contest won’t quit. I’d include Amy Klobuchar and Julian Castro in the group that still have a non-negligible chance of winning.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox on the unpopular G7 summiteers. 

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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