Our Shared Electoral College

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Jamelle Bouie writes in the New York Times that Republicans are “riled” by recent Democrats calling for an end to the Electoral College system, because “neither Trump nor his Republican predecessor George W. Bush would have won the White House on their first go-round.” It is a good time to look at the College again, and to admit that it has developed in ways the Founders could not always anticipate. A spirit of later 19th-century democratization brought about the reforms that impelled electors to align their votes to those of the majority of their state’s electorate.

Of course there are partisan energies at work. If Hillary had won 200,000 more votes in strategically important areas, we would not be having this conversation. Democrats were not advocating eliminating the Electoral College in 1992, when its electors granted a very healthy majority to Bill Clinton even though 57 percent of voters rejected him.

But in fact the first mistake is to assume that simply removing the Electoral College and moving to popular-vote presidential elections would produce results similar to those we have now, only with slightly more Democratic wins, owing to the concentration of Democrats in big cities. It is very likely that removing the Electoral College would necessitate a run-off election system, or the institution of ranked-choice voting. In the midst of these proposals, Lee Drutman at Vox was quick to come out with a plan to combine the College’s abolition with ranked-choice voting. And upon these changes taking effect, the two-party system itself would disappear.

The presidential campaign is the weak point of America’s two-party system. Democrats and Republicans had to go to great legal and logistical lengths to prevent the two-party system from breaking down after election-shaping challenges from Ross Perot in the 1990s and Ralph Nader in the year 2000.

Drutman’s argument for a national popular vote touted the benefits of the two-round French presidential election system, which produced a giant majority for the centrist Emmanuel Macron of En Marche against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Drutman held that this system prevented the least popular candidate overall from gaining the office on a plurality vote. But in fact, Macron’s somewhat bumbling presidency is proof that this system can elevate a profoundly unpopular figure to the presidency. There is actually no worse example for America than the way the combination of candidacies produced an election and president that have worsened France’s troubling divide between the metropole and the peripheries.

The breakdown of the two-party system would ruin the other argument for abolishing the Electoral College. Some advocates of a national plebiscite say that eliminating the College will increase the power of Democratic voters in deep-red states, and of Republican voters in deep-blue states. But this is almost certainly wrong. The likeliest result is that conservative rural voters in New York and California will be even more disenfranchised from the system. A national plebiscite will dramatically enhance the power of the largest and most concentrated media markets, at the expense of swing states.

Currently it is the two-party system that ties the concerns of Republican voters in rural New York, or Democratic voters in Nashville, Tennessee, to presidential candidates, and it does so through the House of Representatives. The Electoral College, like the House, is tied into a larger constitutional and factional system that moderates political demands and ambitions, and ties together the country. Though New York’s rural conservatives may not turn out for a presidential election, they do feel invested in their party, which ties their ambitions to the president’s. An alternative, multi-party system could easily be more riven by sectional, religious, and racial divides, or, like France, leave enormous sections of the country feeling that they have no voice in the presidential contest.

The system of states electing voters, and certain states preceding others in the party primary system, brings presidential candidates much closer to voters in a few select states from the Midwest, New England, the South, and the West. A national popular vote will accelerate the Donald Trump style of campaigning, in which “earned media” or car-crash celebrity are sought as a means of speaking directly to large television audiences.

There are legitimate concerns that the current balance of electoral-power grants will more often give control of the presidency and the Senate to a 48 percent minority over a 51 percent majority. There are several other ways to remedy this. One is to restore some of the freedom of the College’s electors, allowing them to grant victory to a popular vote majority winner. Another is to restore the primacy of Congress in our federal system. But advocates of eliminating the Electoral College have not yet thought through all the implications of their preferred reform.

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