Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Conservatives: Think before you defend the electoral college

March 21, 2019 at 4:39 PM

(David Zalubowski/AP)

Conservatives have predictably denounced the call from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to abolish the electoral college. They should rethink their opposition. It is in conservatism’s long-term interest to trade the college for a major reform of our voting system that works for both parties.

The electoral college was created by the Founding Fathers to solve the problem of how to elect a national executive at a time when national identity was weak. The solution was elegant: Award each state a number of electors according to their representation in both houses of Congress, giving small states slightly more power per person than large states, and granting each state authority to choose their electors as they saw fit. This preserved state autonomy and allowed for the selection of a powerful national leader.

Note that there is no constitutional mandate for any electors to be selected by popular vote. That tradition grew as the nation’s taste for widespread democracy grew. By 1832, every state except South Carolina awarded its electors according to the popular vote for president, although not all states followed the winner-take-all custom that emerged later. Since 1868, every state has awarded its electors in some fashion to the winner of that state’s popular presidential tally.

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With criticism flying about the electoral college, here's what you need to know about our system for electing the president and why the "Hamilton electors" don't like it. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The rise of this democratic sentiment has, over time, created the sense that democratic legitimacy flows from the expressed judgment of the people. This sentiment gave rise to the 17th Amendment, which instituted direct election of the Senate. So long as the electoral college merely amplified the popular vote’s determination, the college was not seen as illegitimate.

The current political circumstances, however, have changed that dramatically. President Trump won in 2016 because his political coalition was efficiently distributed among states with a majority in the college. Moreover, the durability of that coalition despite withering criticism creates the strong possibility that he could be reelected in 2020 while losing the popular vote by an even greater margin. His successor in 2024 could win while losing the popular vote by still greater margins.

That simply cannot stand over time. The majority of Americans will not consent to being ruled by a minority, nor should they. Whatever the republican theory of the founding generation, public opinion now conflates republican government with liberal democracy, and democracy cannot long endure the rule of the majority by a minority.

Continued endorsement of this system by conservatives and the Republican Party will, over time, convince a crucial segment of Americans, especially the young coming of age during this debate, that conservatives do not favor democracy. Forget the slanderous cries of “racist” and “fascist” frequently hurled by the left; if conservatives come to be seen as opposed to democracy itself, Americans will reject their cause.

Conservatives should also favor a change because of the perverse incentives the electoral college creates. We cannot change our country without a majority of people behind us. But the electoral college system encourages a president such as Trump to double down on a base-only strategy that maximizes the political power of important minority groups such as blue-collar whites. This prevents conservatives and Republicans from making the broader appeal necessary to win majority support, rendering their quest to change the country fruitless.

Conservatives should instead advocate a series of constitutional amendments that could settle this long-standing problem while also addressing other concerns. If the Constitution is to be amended to elect the president via a popular vote, conservatives should develop national voter legislation so that all people in all states have the same rights and opportunities. This means conservatives should include as part of the constitutional amendment a voting process that meets liberal desires for things such as automatic enrollment and early voting joined with conservative desires for ballot integrity, voter-ID mandates and requiring each voter registration to list a valid Social Security number. This would be a classic compromise in that each side would get something it valued highly.

Traditionalists will howl at these ideas, but they should think again. Conservatives should bend before they break. The electoral college won’t serve as a reliable bulwark in the face of a determined and enraged majority. This proposed compromise gives conservatives the guarantees they need to feel secure while ensuring that U.S. democratic traditions remain intact.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The electoral college is an abomination, and Democrats should keep talking about it

Seth Moulton: Abolish the filibuster and the electoral college

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The electoral college is the worst of both worlds. It’s time for it to go.

George F. Will: The electoral college is an excellent system

Alexandra Petri: Does the electoral college spark joy?


Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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