Since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, democrats have been arguing for the abolition of the Electoral College, which handed Donald Trump the presidency. The liberal loss to George W. Bush in a likewise 2000 scenario further fuels their argument.
This bickering to abolish the Electoral College system includes the following fodder: governors are elected by one person, one vote, so the president should be elected the same way; direct election would encourage states to get creative about boosting turnout; the popular vote shows us who the people truly want to be the president.
Ultimately, I find these arguments unconvincing for several reasons.
First, the popular vote win means nothing when campaigns go into an election understanding the rules of the game: to come out ahead in the Electoral College system. In other words, campaign managers would handle the campaign in a different manner if they knew they were working for the popular vote. For example, Kellyanne Conway and Co. sent Trump and family members to Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida in the months and weeks leading up to election day. Their internal polling suggested that these states were “flippable” due to the persistent economic downturn, the lack of good-paying jobs, and the globalization of manufacturing. If the republicans thought they were running for the popular vote, they would have sent Trump et al. to city centers with large populations such as Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Chicago.
To state it another way, liberals argue for the abolition of the Electoral College system because they believe Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would have been elected president in 2000 and 2016 if that popular vote were the one that counted. But these debates always miss the obvious. There is no guarantee Gore or Hillary would have won if the campaigns knew going into the operation that they were competing for the popular vote. The strategies would be completely transformed, and the candidates would spend their time and advertising dollars in alternate destinations – perhaps still winning the election.
The second reason that we must retain the Electoral College system has already been alluded to above. Candidates, campaigns, issues would be concentrated in urban centers if the presidential election were based on the popular vote. This point means that rural, less populated areas would not have their concerns addressed, discussed, debated. Those problems would be irrelevant in the sense that urban issues would drive the political dialogue – because that’s where all the people live. Cattle ranchers in Oklahoma, buffalo ranchers in Minnesota, farmers in Iowa, potato farmers in Idaho – all would have their voices silenced or ignored.
According to Richard A. Posner “In Defense of the Electoral College,” “The Electoral College requires a presidential candidate to have transregional appeal. No region (South, Northeast, etc.) has enough electoral votes to elect a president. So a solid regional favorite, such as Romney was in the South, has no incentive to campaign heavily in those states, for he gains no electoral votes by increasing his plurality in states that he knows he will win. This is a desirable result because a candidate with only regional appeal is unlikely to be a successful president. The residents of the other regions are likely to feel disfranchised – to feel that their votes do not count, that the new president will have no regard for their interests, that he really isn’t their president.” As Allen Guelzo and James Hulme likewise note, the electoral college makes “a place for the states as well as the people in electing the president by giving them a say at different points in a federal process and preventing big-city populations from dominating the election of a president.”
In “Save Federalism, Save the Electoral College,” Vito Mussomeli identifies three additional reasons as to why some may argue for the eradication of the Electoral College, “1) the Founders did not envision a Republic encompassing so extensive a land mass as we have today, 2) they did not and could not take into consideration the growth of political parties which most found abhorrent, and 3) they did not foresee one day Americans would not look at themselves as part of their State but only part of a National government.” None of these arguments override my two stable defenses: a shift to direct election does not guarantee a change in results; candidates would campaign differently. Secondly, people from the “red states” deserve to have their issues discussed, their voices heard in terms of the national conversation as well as legislation. Lastly, following Posner, the Electoral College system forces a presidential candidate to have a transregional appeal, assuring she or he may have strengths in a variety of areas.
Dismantling federalism may also be a slippery slope. Remember, you don’t vote directly on any of the legislation congress considers. You elect representatives to do that work. If we dissemble the Electoral College might we likewise deconstruct other aspects of our representative government? Should everything transform into direct election?
We must consider that direct election in a nation of this size with such diverse concerns may bring on more change than liberals who yearn for a Hillary Clinton presidency might be able to imagine. In the words of Mussomeli, “America’s establishments must be careful what they wish for.” Nationalism over states rights has been an issue long contested in this great union. Endowing each state with representatives in the Electoral College ensures that states suffering from economic or other ills will be heard during the presidential election. Abolishing the Electoral College assures they will not.