Pendhamma Sindhusen is an independent political columnist and analyst.
The electoral college system for electing an American president has been subject to thorough scrutiny and intense controversy ever since the inception of its concept. For 5 times in history, hitherto, has a president been elected without winning the popular vote. Donald Trump’s thunderstriking triumph in 2016 was the latest of them and, like its counterparts from 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000, it startled many to start contemplating upon abolishing the electoral college and instituting a national popular vote system in lieu. Now, with the mood of an election season still extant, such contemplation is in the air again. However, despite all the polemics against it, the electoral college proves to be crucial, and as one could argue, it is the optimal means of electing US presidents.
To understand why, one needs to look back as far as 2 centuries ago when the founding fathers first wrote the US Constitution. At that time, a fresh memory of fighting against tyranny of the British monarchy was everywhere, and the founders were keen to instate every measure possible to prevent tyranny from ever originating in America. They knew a pure democracy — direct elections, which are what the anti-electoral college movement is crusading for — would be a trojan horse for it. A popular exemplification of that suggests hypothesizing a situation in which 2 wolves and a sheep vote on their dinner. Of course, the sheep would end up a victim and while the whole procedure is punctiliously democratic, it results in inequity. This is precisely what James Madison dubbed “the tyranny of the majority” and what the founders were extremely cautious about as they framed the Constitution.
The founders also knew that acting upon pure democracy often begets impulse and that impulse instigates inaneness and insanity. A didactic case for this is the fiasco in Pennsylvania after the state ratified its constitution in 1776, establishing a unicameral state legislature. The legislature was totally unfettered by any check-and-balance system and it often ended up making detrimental decisions. For example, while it did some good by issuing a long-term phase-out of slavery in the state, it revoked a bank charter, shut down the College of Philadelphia for “an evident hostility”, seized properties of pacifists and suspected British sympathizers and criminalized such trivial conducts as profanity, cursing and drunkenness. Coincidentally, the Constitutional Convention was organized right in the Quaker state and the founders had a firsthand view of this vice of an unadulterated democracy.
Accordingly, the vast majority of them opted to delineate the nascent nation as a federal republic and introduce the electoral college system, defeating propositions from some like Pennsylvanian jurist James Wilson for the president to be elected directly by the people. By designating each state with different numbers of electoral votes based on Congressional delegations (vaguely reflective upon population size) and requiring one to receive the majority of total electoral votes to be elected president, they ensured a more equitable representation of Americans across the land and established a more judicious system sustained till today.
Now, many detractors of the system would point out that candidates only concentrate their efforts on “swing states”. In that case, they would be correct. One can search in vain for a footage of Trump visiting the deep red South Carolina or Hillary Clinton visiting the solidly blue New England in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign season. But what they miss is that swing states have been fluidly changing as time goes by. Arizona, Georgia and Texas perfectly epitomize that. All of them were reliably Republican as recently as in 2012, and Trump in 2016 did not have to struggle to dominate them. But in this year’s election, they were all toss-up states. Biden has even won both. If history tells us something, it is that neither party can ignore the “safe” states for too long.
What is more, the electoral college system renders it onerous for elections to be stolen. Voter fraud, or any kind of ballot manipulation for that matter, must be perpetrated in the right states so that the outcome can be capsized. It would take an extensive, well-coordinated and well-informed network to accomplish such a feat. But if the election were decided solely by the national popular vote, a vote stolen anywhere could affect the outcome and election-stealing would become much simpler.
The founding fathers of America meticulously designed the electoral college to be apropos to the character of the nation as a federal republic. It is a bulwark against the tyranny and ochlocracy they rightly envisioned under a direct democracy. Its fortuitous corollaries like discouraging voter fraud and preventing any voting bloc from ever being ignored prove beneficial. It is in place today because it needs to. To dismantle this ingenious invention as many advocate for would not only be wrong — it would be inimical to the Union.
Meanwhile, there are also unanticipated advantages inherent to the electoral college system. One is it encourages “coalition-building”. To portray this, imagine a presidential candidate specifically appealing to one demographic group while neglecting others still capable of winning the race in a national popular vote system. That would be highly unlikely with the electoral college. Especially in the present environment where the demographics of the electorate is progressively diversifying, it is merely impossible to court only, say, white voters while abandoning voters of other races and win enough electoral votes to become president, despite the fact that whites still account for a significant majority of all registered voters. Likewise, a candidate cannot only pivot their campaign around major cities like NYC, Chicago and LA and dismiss the concerns of farmers in Iowa and manufacturing workers in Rust Belt states in the electoral college system, even though those populous cities combined could provide for them a popular vote plurality or majority.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Pendhamma Sindhusen