There isn’t a single good argument for keeping the electoral college

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.”

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Typical pro-Electoral College cartoon

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.

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This is trying desperately to depict the blue areas as a small section of society, yet it has just stated that is half the population. Why should someone’s vote count for less just because of where they live?

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.

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Republicans drastically changed their position once they realised the electoral college benefited them

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?

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13 thoughts on “There isn’t a single good argument for keeping the electoral college”

  1. Very well done .. for an Irishmam! :o) Actually better than most Americans could so. A little distance is often helpful.

    The Electoral College was one of several anti-democratic aspects our founding fathers included in the Constitution. They were absolutely afraid of a popular democracy. There were very wary of the “middling sorts” (tradesman, businessmen, artisans, oh my!) getting involved in politics. They surely could be bought of by the wealthy and then what would we have? Only the well-to-do elites could perform the jobs as they saw them. Only they had the financial support, the necessary education, the temperment, yada, yada, yada to do a good job. Not a generation later, of course, the middling sorts were in those offices.

    And, today, rich or poor, our politicians seem to be bought and paid for by the uber-wealthy.

  2. I agree with the points that you make in our article, but you left out one important element, both historically and currently. The Electoral College was created as part of a number of actions by the Founding Fathers, in order to protect slavery and enforce the political dominance of the states and politicians that supported slavery. This was particularly clear and effective, because the slave states wielded electoral votes and membership in the House of Representatives, based on the number of slaves, even though slaves could not vote. Each slave added 3/5ths of a vote to the voting power of each voter in the slave states. These voters were almost exclusively white men.

    Thirteen of the first fifteen presidents either actively promoted, aided, or tolerated the protection of slavery. After Lincoln was elected, although he did NOT promise to abolish slavery, the Confederate States seceded before he even took office, in a preemptive strike to protect slavery.

    In the current era, there is a strong correlation between those who support the Electoral College and those who revere the Confederacy. The philosophy is the same, too, in believing that ‘our’ votes should count more than those of other groups, and it is right that ‘those people’ shouldn’t get to vote, or have their votes count, to the same extent.

  3. Eliminating the EC through a Constitutional amendment would
    likely have one very unfortunate consequence, however, and that would be to put elections under control of the federal government. The mechanism of the EC is what made it possible to keep elections a matter for states to decide.

    Would Congress ever be inclined to experiment with a different system of voting as Maine is now doing? It really seems unlikely.

    Fortunately there is another way and that would be the National Popular Vote initiative. This initiative does not require any change to the Constitution and not even an act of Congress. It eliminates the problems of the EC without actually eliminating the EC itself and without jeprodising state control.

    1. I support the National Popular Vote initiave, and I agree with Paul that it is a simpler and more reliable way to get the desired result. I disagree with Paul, when he says that eliminating the Electoral College via Constitutional Amendment would ‘put elections under control of the federal government.’ It all depends on the wording of the Amendment, but there is no reason for an Amendment ending the Electoral College to have a significant influence on other aspects of voting, and the current state vs. federal balance of authority in defining voting procedures.

      The federal government already defines and regulates a number of things about elections at the federal, state, and local levels. That need not change. Of course, the states have done an inconsistent and often poor job of implementing democracy and assuring fairness, over the last 240 years. Right now, the executive branch of the federal government looks like a greater menace to fair elections, along with the Russian and Facebook branches.

      1. It is at the discretion of the Supreme Court to decide what a Constitutional Amendment means.

        The Constitution does not itself mention voting by citizens and there is little mention of it in the Amendments either. But the 14th and 15th amendments were written, basically to ensure that the right to vote was not restricted (on the basis of race).

        That seems to be why the Supreme Court decision Bush v Gore was written on the basis that somehow a re-count of the votes in Florida would discriminate against Bush. It is very difficult to predict how a future court might decide to interpret yet another mention of voting, but a complicated amendment like this could be perilous.

  4. You seem to have forgotten that it’s in the Constitution. Therefore, it will take 3/4 of the states or Congress to pass such a change. So.. forgot about that part. Go back to civics class

    1. Lane, the National Popular Vote initiave, or more properly, the ‘National Popular Vote Interstate Compact’, is a plan to enact the election of the President according to the popular vote, but without changing the Constitution and without eliminating the Electoral College. How will that work?

      Each state has the right to decide how they cast their Electoral votes. Historically, most states have given all their electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in that state. Some have split the electoral votes in proportion to the votes received in the state by each candidate. Fairly recently, 15 voting units, representing 189 electoral votes, have now agreed to give all of their Electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes at the national level, if and when the members of the Compact reach 270 Electoral votes. At or above that threshold of 270 Electoral votes, it doesn’t matter what the other states do with their votes. The winner of the popular vote will for President will win the election. There are more details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Interstate_Compact

      This probably wasn’t taught in any civics class, at least until a few years ago, but it may reach the 270 vote threshold in the next few years.

  5. Great article. The EC is a relic of a time when the Central Government ruled a federation of states (which were considered countries). It’s debatable when the Federal Government ceased ruling a federation, and became a national government; however, I like to think the Civil War is the clearest transition point.

    Senators used to be elected by the state governments rather than popular vote for the same reason. But since the states don’t [mostly] act like their own countries any more….

    This is also why no states have an EC. The states were never tiny federations, but their own sovereign entities. If any ‘countries’ founded after the US had originally set themselves up as federations, perhaps there would be other examples of ECs. This model, however, seems to be unique to one geographical area.

  6. While I am no fan of the electoral college either, our bifurcation of sovereignty between the federal government and the states tends to exalt local interests over national interests. This would not be so terrible if the states were relatively on equal footing, but they are not. We have a large number of states with low population that have outsize influence on national policy matters. They will not give up that influence without receiving something in return, and “a stronger USA” is not enough incentive.

  7. Actually, the best argument for keeping the Electoral College is the very one you seem to reject. I love Donald Trump and want him to still be President. That’s a good enough reason for me!

  8. The “EC prevents the tyranny of the majority” argument is my favorite. It implies that, first, only a tyranny of the minority is acceptable (since a minority can only win the EC but not the popular vote), and second, tyranny of the majority is acceptable and doesn’t need to be prevented if the majority wins the EC along with the popular vote, which happens like 90% of the time – because the Founding Fathers in their eternal genius codified it and therefore it is all a part of their divine plan.

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