In defense of the Electoral College

William Dean, Contributing Writer

The Electoral College is unpopular. Historically unpopular in fact, with 89% of Democrats and 68% of Independents supporting its abolition, according to a recent Gallup poll. Republicans are the only major political party to support the Electoral College’s existence, with less than 25% of its members saying they want “to amend the Constitution so the candidate who receives the most total votes nationwide wins the election.”

Graphic by Connor Lawless

On its face, the proposition seems like an easy one to support. Why shouldn’t the person with the most votes win? This method is by far the most popular form of governance in the world and seems to be the most fair.

The desire to change our elections to a simple majority creates an outsized focus on the inputs of our system and leaves its output as little more than an afterthought. As is too common with a revolutionary spirit, the desire for change puts rose-tinted glasses on the future. Promises of a better world and the realization of true democracy overshadow the consequences of abolishing America’s second-oldest national institution.

Thanks to the vast influence of the British Empire, a parliamentary system can be found on all six inhabited continents. In this system, the chief executive is chosen by the Parliament, similar to our House of Representatives voting for a president.

Such a system worried our founders, as there is no separation of the executive and legislative powers. Because Parliament appoints the prime minister, it can convene at any moment and with a simple majority, remove the prime minister through a vote of no confidence.

This is not to say that a presidential system is uncommon. Countries such as Ireland or Pakistan slightly modify the parliamentary system, adding a ceremonial president who acts as a cultural ambassador and does not hold power. Across South America and portions of Africa, the president is elected by popular vote.

However, these countries have a landmass and population usually comparable to two or three of our states. Their governance by a parliament or popularly elected president is more similar to a state governor than our president.

Because of our size and population, the United States faces a unique challenge. The guiding principle for governing this country has been subsidiarity which was most simply put by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno when he said “it is an injustice … to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

Combining federalism and a republic with an independent executive is by no means a common practice. Across the world, only three countries aside from the U.S. do so. Even among this small group, the U.S. is unique. Argentina, Brazil and Mexico hold popular elections for their president while America does not.

The founders sought to establish a thoroughly independent executive while at the same time obtaining consent from the governed states. In an age now dominated by national politics, the Electoral College remains an important way for localities to have a voice.

Today, national policy is increasingly written by the president through executive orders. If the president was elected in the same way that Congress is, then Congress’ purpose would vanish. The entire purpose of electing the House or Representatives by popular vote was to give the people the right to introduce legislation and thereby national policy. On the other hand, smaller states are given more power in presidential elections, so that their rights might not be trampled by a vindictive majority in higher population density areas.

Detractors will label the Electoral College as anti-democratic. There is no denying this, as it is the entire point of the institution. Voting for the chief law enforcement officer is an incredibly dangerous activity, which is why the Constitution assigns it to the state legislatures and not the fleeting whims of an easily divided citizenry.

Political talking heads will claim our system isn’t democratic enough, but what would removing the barriers to democracy look like? Inherent in the democratic system is the belief that a vote confers the will of the people. Do we want to apply this to the execution of the law?

Any attempt to impose limits on simple majority rule is an admission that the public does not always know what is best. Once that point is acknowledged, the issue then becomes determining where that line should be drawn. If the input that decides the presidency are changed, can we seriously expect the powers of the office to remain the same?

An election by popular vote would quickly give way to the president claiming they have the “will of the people” on his side, such was the way Rome went with Julius Caesar. With the most lethal military in the world subject to his orders and Congress effectively neutered, the president would become the jury and executioner. For those who don’t remember, giving one man the ability to create and enforce laws is called a dictatorship.

Hypothetically, imagine that the United Nations were an international government, able to pass legislation, enforce its will and undertake other normal government functions. If the U.N. secretary-general were elected by popular vote, it would surely be more democratic than a system with some intermediaries, but would it be fair?

The massive Asian countries like China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh would contain roughly half of the global voting population. Meanwhile, the small nations of the world would be effectively powerless to prevent these countries from imposing their will.

Does anyone honestly think that these countries would not go mad with power and try to crush their opponents? Of course they would. All politics are  power politics at the end of the day, and if this system were used for our country, disaster would ensue.

None of this is to suggest that the Electoral College is a perfect system. It is clunky and archaic. But is it broken? Absolutely not. The hidden privilege of America’s institutions is that power ambitions are put in direct opposition to equally powerful ambitions from different electorates.

Before the president is able to take power, he must receive the approval of multiple regions and cultures within the country. Under a democratic election, major population centers such as southern California, the Northeast and others could obtain a monopoly on the presidency through sheer numbers of votes.

Today, the Electoral College stands as the last bulwark defending political minority rights. Remove it and risk destroying any meaningful partisan opposition. For those tempted by this, remember that no group holds power forever.