There are many political debates ongoing in America of various intensity and value. However, the most one sided and clear cut is that regarding the electoral college. This archaic and bizarre system is undemocratic and serves no useful purpose. I considered writing an article on the topic years ago, but I figured the reasons for its abolition were so obvious that there was no need.
So, imagine my surprise reading the various attempts to defend the electoral college and claims it actually serves a useful purpose. The most striking thing about these arguments is how awful and illogical they are. I know it’s not polite to insult people who disagree with you, but some arguments are so awful that there’s no point treating them seriously. Some of the defences are so bad they make it clear the speaker has no idea how politics work.
Prevents mob rule
This is the most common argument used but I’ve never seen anyone define what “mob rule” actually means or how the electoral college prevents it. What is the difference between mob rule and just opinions I don’t like? I could argue Donald Trump is an example of a demagogue using mob rule, but how does the electoral college block him? In fact, there was a weak attempt to convince the electoral voters to ignore what the voters in their states said and instead vote against Trump. Most people, even most Democrats, rejected this as undemocratic and tantamount to cheating by ignoring voters because they made the wrong choice. Yet some people argue this is the entire reason why the electoral college exists, to be a council of wise elders who know better than the “mob.”
Without it, candidates would only campaign in cities
It is often claimed that with a popular vote, the top two or three cities or states would decide the result. This is a woefully bad argument made by people who don’t know how politics works. First of all, it’s impossible for New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to dominate the popular vote because they only comprise 5% of the population. Even if you count all cities combined, it’s not mathematically possible for just urban voters to dominate the rest of the country. Secondly, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how politics works. Politicians always claim to represent all voters, they never focus on just one group even if that’s where most of their support comes from. For example, Texas doesn’t have an electoral college yet when Beto O’Rourke ran for senator, he didn’t just stick to urban areas, instead he promised to visit all 99 counties in the state. There was no electoral requirement for him to do so, yet he did it because politicians love to present themselves as representing everyone, and would never be dumb enough to just campaign in one area.
Implicit in many of these arguments is that urban votes are somehow worth less than rural voters. Sometimes it is even explicitly expressed that urban voters are too radical or liberal, or that only rural voters are “real Americans”. Most defenders speak of California as if full of awful people who should never have any political influence. They also tend to speak of California as if it was just one big city of Democrats but ignore the millions of Republicans and rural voters who live there.
Without it, no one would ever campaign in rural areas
The primary defence for the electoral college is that without it, politicians wouldn’t campaign in small states like the Mid-West – yet this doesn’t happen at the moment! During the 2016 campaign, candidates almost never held any rallies there. Although a popular vote would make every vote count, in the electoral college, the Mid-West is so consistently Republican that their votes can be taken for granted so there is nothing to be gained from campaigning there. In the 2016 campaign, 94% of campaign events by either the presidential or vice-presidential candidates were to just 12 states and a majority were in only 4 states. 24 states never received any campaign visits. Even when they campaigned in the states, it was almost always in the large cities. So when the candidates campaigned in Pennsylvania, it was mainly concentrated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, there was little campaigning in rural areas.
America isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic
This is one of those arguments that sounds really intellectual until you look into it and realise it’s pure nonsense. “Democracy” and “republic” are not mutually exclusive terms, America is both a democracy and a republic. A democracy is where the government is elected by the people and a republic is where the head of state is elected. As you can see these are very similar terms and most republics are also democracies, although a few democracies are monarchies instead of republics (like Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands etc).
It is also obviously false to say America is not a democracy. Why do you think people vote in elections? Imagine if these elections were suspended, would people shrug their shoulders and say “well, America never was a democracy.” Have you noticed people never use this argument is any other situation? What if Trump’s election was nullified and instead someone who didn’t even run for election was made president? I mean, if America isn’t a democracy then the president doesn’t need to be elected by voting.
A slight variant on this argument is to say America is not a direct democracy but rather a representative democracy. But again, this doesn’t make a difference as all representative means is the President represents people instead of having them vote in a referendum on each issue.
The Founding Fathers wanted it
The Founding Fathers were ordinary people not Gods with divine knowledge. I have no idea why some people treat them as infallible and every word they said as gospel. It’s ridiculous to hear people claim they foreseen all future problems America would have and designed a perfect system to avoid it, as if they had magical problems. In reality, they had no idea how the democracy would function as it was a completely new idea that hadn’t existed since Ancient Greece. They misunderstood many parts, such as believing political parties would never form.
But if we must keep the Constitution in its original form and never change it, then why are women allowed to vote? None of the Founding Fathers supported this, so why was this change allowed? Originally, only white people could become citizens and vote, so if the Founding Fathers know best, should we allow that? Also, only property owners over the age of 21 could vote, so chances are, if you’re reading this, the Founding Fathers didn’t want you to vote. Yet all the changes we’ve made since then have shown that maybe a group of rich white men who accept slavery, aren’t perfect moral guides.
Even they themselves realised they made mistakes. Originally, the president was whoever won the most electoral votes and the runner up became the vice president. As you can imagine this was a terrible idea and it was quickly abolished. They never claimed their rules were set in stone and unchangeable for eternity, even they knew their system wasn’t perfect.
It leads to more moderate candidates
This is one of the daftest ideas, but I have seen people claim that the electoral college somehow moderates people. It’s claimed that if it was just up to the popular vote, each party would only appeal to their base and not try to win new votes. Instead the electoral college forces them to appeal in a geographically diverse manner to the whole country.
Anyone who thinks politicians won’t automatically try to win new votes clearly knows nothing about politics. It’s also pure nonsense because neither party is large enough to win just by appealing to their own voters. It is also completely debunked by experience. The electoral college gave the election to Trump instead of Clinton and no one can possibly argue Trump was the more moderate of the two. The same for 2000, where the popular vote was won by the centrist Al Gore but the electoral college by the more extreme George Bush. There’s no evidence whatsoever that the electoral college leads to more moderate candidates.
It promotes national instead of local interests
Actually, it does the complete opposite. This is similar to the above, anyone who can count knows that no local interest will impact a popular vote election. However, there are many groups that are tiny on a national level but are disproportionately represented in certain swing states. For example, Cuban-Americans are a tiny number of the overall American population, but because they are heavily concentrated in Florida, a crucial swing state, they have huge influence over America’s foreign policy towards Cuba.
Abolishing it would help Democrats
Let’s be honest, this is the main reason for keeping it. Republicans are sometimes explicit in opposing abolition just for electoral gain, while claiming that actually the Democrats are doing the same. Four times in the past (1876, 1888, 2000, 2016), someone won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, and every time a Democrat lost and a Republican won. Donald Trump was even a strong opponent of the electoral college when he mistakenly believed Romney won the popular vote in 2012. He called for a “revolution” against the “phoney” electoral college, which was a “disaster for democracy” and a “great and disgusting injustice”. Had he lost the electoral vote in 2016 he would more than likely have claimed the election was rigged against him. However, once the system worked in his favour he became a strong supporter and opinion polls show many Republicans flipped with him.
At the end of the day, deciding elections based on land doesn’t make any sense. There are a dozen other arbitrary ways of dividing the country that make as little sense. Why not an electoral college based on eye colour, to stop those brown eyes from dominating the rest of us? Why not a racial college to prevent white people dominating the election and to force candidates to seek support among all races? Why not an electoral college based on income and class to ensure the voice of the poor and working class is heard? Why not one based on age or educational level?
The easiest and clearest refutation to the idea that the electoral college is necessary is to just look around. No other country in the world has ever had an electoral college like America’s despite the precedent existing for over 200 years. So, we can just look at these cases and see that none of the fears of a catastrophe without the electoral college come true. Nine months ago, I voted in the Irish presidential election (whose winner was decided solely on the popular vote), yet the result was not tyranny of the majority. The winning candidate did not merely stick to the large cities and neglect rural areas, in fact he won in every single county. You can also look at the presidential election in France and not see any of the fears come true.
If that’s too international for you, just look at state elections. Why does no one call for an electoral college to elect governors and senators, why is the popular vote good enough for them but not the president? Do we not need an electoral college to ensure they don’t ignore rural voters and prevent mob rule? Even within the electoral college, the electoral votes of each state are decided by popular votes, why isn’t there an electoral college within each state?