Some Thoughts on the Electoral College


The American Revolution embodied, despite the misgivings of many of its leaders, some profoundly radical ideas. Rebelling against the world’s most powerful monarchy and replacing its authority with a clutch of homegrown republican governments (of varying effectiveness) was as fundamental a political change as one could imagine in the 1770s and early 1780s. It’s hard to see that from our contemporary vantage point, however; looking backwards through the French and–especially–the Haitian Revolutions, the revolution that created the United States looks tentative, even skittish, by comparison. Yet it’s also evident that the American Revolution and its early republican aftermath fell far short of fulfilling the truly radical potential inherent within the process of declaring independence from Britain and establishing a republic in place of an imperial sovereignty. Most glaringly, the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality was notable more for who it excluded in practice–women, indigenous Americans, people of color both enslaved and free–than anything else.

And yet.

The idea that a society could be governed by a written constitutional framework, rather than a monarchy “limited” by vague appeals to precedent and faith, was and is an idea freighted with enormous democratic potential. And even though many white revolutionaries tried their hardest to circumscribe the ideals of liberty and equality along racial and gendered lines, those borders could be porous indeed. The radical proposition of individual liberty shorn of aristocratic or religious requirements helped drive much of the social and political change of young republic’s first century. For all the dysfunction their structure created, the Articles of Confederation were still the embodiment of a political faith in popular sovereignty bounded as little as possible by centralized authority. The consummation of independence in the 1780s, and the first efforts at creating a workable republic, was a political moment in which all sorts of radical vintages had been uncorked. It only remained for them to be poured.

And yet.

The corks were put back in. The Constitution that replaced the Articles of Confederation may have been a more practical, “workable” system of government, but it was also a pre-emptive counter-revolution against the popular democratic movements that were proliferating, and threatening to coalesce, in the 1780s. Shays’s Rebellion in 1786 was only the most dramatic instance of resistance to government of “the better sort.” Anxious elites up and down the eastern seaboard saw numerous threats to their vision of order and the hegemonic strain of patrician racial patriarchy upon which that vision rested. The flood of settlers into the transmontane West endangered the political and financial plans of eastern elites, not least in its upending the carefully-laid plans of well-placed land speculators. The wave of emancipations that spread throughout northern states alarmed not only anxious southern slaveholders, but elites throughout the country who fretted that property rights in general might now come under siege. The political dysfunction under the Articles was interpreted by this cadre of Those Who Knew Better not as the product of poor design, but of an influx of unqualified “democrats” who might have been as self-interested as the elite Founding Fathers™ but lacked enough interest or skill to hide it as well.

We are so used to the standard historical narrative of this being a “critical era,” in which the young “nation” was “saved” from the ineffective Articles of Confederation only through the divine intervention of the Founding Fathers™ and their Constitution, that we forget that this political switch was by any objective definition a coup d’etat. Step out of the realm of hagiography and feel-good history to examine the record, and you realize pretty quickly that Michael Klarman had it right when he titled his excellent new synthesis of the 1780s and 1790s The Framers’ Coup.  [1]

The Constitution of the United States–promulgated in secret by a cabal that exceeded its congressional mandate and foisted on the country via a ratification system that was specifically built to be stacked in favor of its proponents–was many things, but the climax of popular democracy was not one of them. The window for realization of the truly radical potential of the American Revolution slammed shut in the fall of 1787.

What’s amazing about the Constitution is that one can easily trace in its various provisions the specific ways in which the Framers were freaked out about the current state of American political culture. It’s remarkable, really, to see a group of revolutionary-era leaders try so desperately to walk back much of what their revolution purported to be for. Yes, the creation of a republic was still a profoundly significant and unusual political move for the late eighteenth century, but the really remarkable aspect of the Constitution is the series of hedged bets that run throughout the entire framework. We see this most clearly with slavery–in particular, the belligerent intransigence of the southern delegates determined to beat back any threat (real or perceived) to their states’ rights to enslave others. The anomalous nature of chattel slavery in a republic at least theoretically dedicated to individual liberty was too obvious even for a room full of elite white males, many of them personally invested in the institution, to ignore; clearly, slavery needed active and sustained guarantees in order for it to survive. And the Framers, with only token grumbling, did its bidding, and enshrined despotism within their republican charter. [2]

This brings us to the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was the Framers’ answer to a dilemma containing the very real potential to stymie their work. Everyone in the Philadelphia convention knew that their new system ought to have an executive branch, and they also knew that the first person to fill said branch would undoubtedly be the Convention’s president, the aristocratic Virginia slaveholding planter George Washington–the closest thing the new nation had to a King. Clearly, the executive–a President–would possess a fairly wide range of powers. But if this new framework of government was to be a republic, the President would have to actually be elected, not receive the office through inheritance or appointment. Those were the rules. The problem, though, is that the Framers didn’t trust the vast majority of the people who would potentially be doing that electing; they refused to believe their fellow citizens possessed the necessary acumen to make the “correct” choice when it came to the presidency. The Electoral College was the clumsy solution to this dilemma faced by men who wanted to create a republican form of government with as few actual republican features as possible.

To be sure, the arguments for the Electoral College both during the Convention and the ensuing ratification debates were fairly ingenious. The Electoral College was transitory, its defenders argued; it went out of existence once it performed its function, and thus the President would be beholden to no extant body when he took office. The Electoral College preserved the political voice of the small states, as it reflected the structure of Congress (a hybrid of proportional and equal representation) determined by the “Great Compromise” that had essentially saved the convention from dissolving before it could produce something with which the Framers could enact their coup. Also, the general consensus among the Framers was that the Electoral College would probably never bestow a majority of its votes on one individual anyway, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives more often than not–probably all for the better, given that whole distrust-of-the-masses thing. And, though this was a point more often winkingly implied than explicitly stated, the Electoral College would protect (indeed, incentivize) slavery and slaveholding. Because a state received a number of Electors concomitant to the size of its congressional delegation, and that delegation’s numbers were augmented for the slave states via the three-fifths compromise, the slaveholding states formed a bloc whose outsized influence in presidential elections would be difficult to resist (future elections would vindicate this argument; just ask John Adams).

It’s hard to deny–impossible if you actually read the historical record–that the Electoral College was an attempt to avoid the democratic implications involved in creating an elected executive. It’s a particularly egregious antidemocratic kludge in a document full of antidemocratic kludges. Hell, James Madison proposed the system as a way around the “difficulty…of a serious nature” that southerners would encounter trying to protect their interests against a more populous tier of non-slaveholding states (see his speech on July 19). And the subsequent history of presidential elections has borne that out. If you have assumed that whoever gets the most votes wins the election, the Electoral College is here to disabuse you of your democratic naivete. There have been five presidential elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not become President by virtue of the Electoral College system, including this most recent election, where Hillary Clinton will not become president in spite of the fact that she won the popular vote by a larger margin than, for example, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon did in their electoral victories. And even though the three-fifths compromise no longer affects a state’s number of Electoral College votes, the legacy of slavery in terms of race-based voter disfranchisement still haunts the electoral process, in particular when those efforts in pivotal “swing states” like Wisconsin and North Carolina tip the Electoral College balance like they did in this canvass.

So why do we still have this blatantly undemocratic (even when measured by the generally undemocratic standard of the Constitution) farce as the method we use to “elect” the President? Viewed from the perspective of other societies, our process makes no sense, mostly because of how it ends up with the Electoral College where, basically, a new vote is taken on the sort-of-serious-but-still-probationary first vote. First and foremost, it’s in the Constitution, and it’s insanely difficult to change the Constitution, even when the proposed change expands the scope of rights and embodies seemingly unopposable principles. As the current movement to amend the Thirteenth Amendment in order to strike out the “punishment clause” (turns out that slavery is still legal, y’all) is finding out, prying injustice out of enshrined constitutional language is really hard work. Second, the small-versus-large debate still resides in American politics. Just as the small states’ fear of being overwhelmed by the large states was insurmountable in 1787, giving us a somewhat malapportioned bicameral legislature to placate those fears, so too do today’s small states push back hard against the abolition of the Electoral College. On the surface, theirs is a pretty compelling argument: make the presidential election a strictly popular vote, and no candidate will ever visit a non-coastal, non-urban area again. According to this logic, we need the Electoral College to protect the rural, “flyover state” minority’s voice in our presidential election.

But this is just the 21st-century version of southern delegates arguing that additional protections were needed for their “peculiar institution,” or they would walk away from the table. It’s another instance of a faction seeking to put limits on the democratic process by cloaking itself in the mantle of a righteously defending minority rights, all to protect prerogatives that shouldn’t be allowed to exist in the first place in our democratic polity. Today’s defenders of the Electoral College argue that “rural voices” need to be protected from an urbanizing majority. Using Jeffersonian imagery to uphold agrarian virtue in the face of supposedly sinister urban values, they paint a superficial and inaccurate picture that would crumble under the slightest examination if the myth of the “noble yeoman farmer” weren’t so pervasive as to prevent that scrutiny.[3] “Rural America” gave us Thomas Jefferson, but also gave us the Ku Klux Klan. “Urban America” gave us Donald Trump, but also gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt. Neither has a monopoly on political virtue, then or now. To uphold the Electoral College as the noble protector of the voice of some idyllic rural Athens, then, is to be willfully ignorant of both the history and present condition of our society. It’s also not in accordance with the actual demographics of our country, where hyper-partisanship has created such narrow margins that candidates cannot write off entire swaths of the electorate, but rather have to chase every vote, no matter where it’s located, to prevail.

But most essentially, no matter how one defends it, there is no escaping the fact that the Electoral College is a fundamentally anti-democratic institution. Put simply: it doesn’t just threaten, it guarantees, a situation where votes do not count equally with one another. In the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College, a swing state can have more influence in an election than a state where a large majority of the population supports one candidate. If Candidate A wins a swing state by a razor-thin margin, and thus gets all that state’s Electoral College votes, that state’s votes have far more of an impact than a much larger state that may have voted by a 3-1 margin for candidate B (In 2016, A could be Arizona and B could be California, for example). Moreover, with the Senate’s formula of equal representation, more lightly-populated states like Wyoming have one congressional representative (and thus one Electoral College vote) per 200,000 people, while a state like California, whose population is exponentially larger, has one congressional representative (and thus one Electoral College vote) per 670,000 people. In a democratic society, “one person, one vote” is the operative standard. But the Electoral College instead gives us “One person, one vote, unless it’s a Wyoming person, and then it’s one person, three votes.”[4] That’s an awful way to run a democracy.

The argument against the Electoral College, then, boils down to a simple question: do We, The People, want our most important political decision determined by our own actual vote? Or would we rather place it in the hands of a system explicitly designed to thwart popular democracy and to protect interests–like slavery–so retrograde that they would not under normal circumstances find sanction in a republic dedicated to the propositions of liberty and equality?

The question seems like a simple one. But given the message sent by large swaths of the American electorate in the past few weeks, I don’t see it being answered in favor of democracy any time soon.

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  1. [1]This is not a new argument, of course. Charles Beard, however maladroitly, punctured the bubble of the “Assembly of Demigods” and ascribed self-interest and anti-democratic tendencies as the prime movers of the Constitutional Convention; more recently, Woody Holton has improved and refined this interpretation into a powerful argument that needs to be reckoned with.
  2. [2]Yes, I’m arguing that the Constitution was proslavery in both intent and action, no matter what some Very Important Historians might say.
  3. [3]I live in Iowa. I get the argument’s power, trust me. But it’s still a myth.
  4. [4]You can hit me with the pedantic “well, actually, we live in a republic, nor a democracy” all you want, but even in a republic [technically, representative democracy] this skewed regional basis for whose votes “count” for more is fundamentally anti-republican. I’ve read a metric ton of republican political thought, from Machiavelli’s Discourses to all of the Enlightenment’s Greatest Hits, and don’t recall an endorsement of a variably-weighted system of suffrage within a body politic.Probably because it ain’t there. I’ll keep looking, though.