The Electoral College is not democratic — nor should it be
The Electoral College is under attack. While the Supreme Court is deciding whether a state can punish faithless electors, Congress is considering amending the Constitution to eliminate or revise the Electoral College. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to bypass the Electoral College without amending the Constitution. Surveys show that such efforts have broad citizen support.
Why do these very different groups want to modify or abolish the Electoral College? Because it is fundamentally undemocratic. But it was deliberately created that way.
At least four times in our history, including twice in the past two decades, the candidate who won the most popular votes did not become president. In 2016, although Hillary Clinton didn’t win a majority of the popular vote, she received more votes than Donald Trump. But Trump became president since he won the Electoral College, 304 votes to 227.
This result occurred because, according to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, Americans do not vote directly for the president. Instead, citizens in each state vote for electors, and the number of electors in each state is equal to the total of each state’s two senators and representatives. This procedure results in low-population states such as Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming having a disproportionate effect on presidential elections. In other words, if you live in Wyoming, your vote has a greater weight in electing the president than if you lived in California. A clearly undemocratic system — but undemocratic with an important purpose.
Throughout history, pure democracies — whatever the majority wants, it gets — have tended to devolve into tyrannical governments. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party; but by the superior power of an interested and overbearing majority.”
The Constitution is an attempt to reduce the danger of a tyrannical majority by avoiding the concentration of political power or sovereignty. Horizontally, political power was divided among the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Vertically, such power was divided among the national and state governments and the people.
The biggest challenge caused by the vertical division of political power was how to prevent the majority that controls the great resources and power of the national government from using carrots or sticks to reduce the states or the people themselves to subservience. To this end, the Constitution incorporates several deliberately undemocratic components. To protect people from an overbearing majority, the Bill of Rights limits the government’s ability to make certain laws even if a majority wants them. Another such undemocratic institution is the Senate, where every state regardless of size has two votes. The Electoral College serves a similar purpose: It restrains the power of the majority.
The big states such as California, Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania have the population and economic weight to take care of themselves. But without equal representation in the Senate and disproportionate voting weight in the Electoral College, the small states with low populations and small economies gradually would become wholly owned subsidiaries of the national government.
Without the Electoral College, a relatively small number of states — in an extreme case, as few as seven — could elect a president and control the executive branch of the national government. How confident should we be that these few large states would act in the national interest, as opposed to focusing almost exclusively on their narrow state interests? However, with the Electoral College, even if one presidential candidate was able to win the Electoral College votes of the people of the seven largest states — a majority of the U.S. population — he or she still would need an additional 61 Electoral College votes to win. A presidential campaign that focuses exclusively on the largest states will lose.
Like the Senate, the Electoral College gives small states leverage. And through the political logrolling that drives campaigns and elects presidents, this leverage helps small states maintain their vibrant independence on matters big and small. The Electoral College, like the Senate and Bill of Rights, is an undemocratic institution carefully crafted to preserve the vertical division of political power among the national government, the states and the people to prevent the tyranny of the majority.
Unfortunately, strong public sentiments can overwhelm even the best institutional arrangements. A modern example occurred during the panic following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. With widespread popular support, former President Franklin Roosevelt incarcerated about 120,000 Japanese Americans for the “crime” of being Japanese Americans.
Excellent institutions are necessary — but not sufficient — for the long-term success of this more than 230-year-old democratic republic. A virtuous citizenry also is essential.
Frank R. Gunter, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Lehigh University and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.