The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The electoral college has serious problems. So do any alternatives.

A voter casts his ballot in San Francisco on Nov. 8. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Last week, I wrote about the origins of the electoral college. I said I would “hold off on the debate” over the electoral college’s merits “until Wednesday, anyway!”

Well, that debate has indeed been rekindled. As of Nov. 13, Hillary Clinton is almost certain to win the national popular vote; according to CNN, the current gap is more than 631,000 votes. But Donald Trump was on track to win more than 300 votes in the electoral college, comfortably more than the 270 required to be elected president.

Wait, why do we even have an electoral college?

Over time, more than 700 constitutional amendments to change the electoral college system have been proposed. But perhaps because the electoral college normally does track the popular vote, its would-be reformers have rarely gained much traction. Even the 2000 election, which, after all, carried the asterisk of Florida’s chad-borne chaos and court-denied recounts, did not generate sustained public debate about the electoral college.

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The argument for repealing the electoral college is straightforward

The main repeal argument is simple: that the electoral college is not directly democratic and thus violates the principle of “one person, one vote.” Some states’ residents are more equal than others’.

In 2012, for example, nearly 37 million people lived in California; about 13 million of them voted for president, determining the fate of 55 electoral votes. Wyoming had fewer than 570,000 residents and 249,000 voters, who allocated three electoral votes. The former voters had far more absolute power as a collective, of course — no political consultant would advise a candidate to try to win Wyoming and not California. Still, each Wyoming voter in 2012 was worth 2.87 California voters in terms of her individual share of her respective state’s electoral votes.

George Edwards III concludes that “the electoral college poses a … fundamental threat to American democracy. … It is difficult to find a contemporary theorist who argues that some people’s votes should count for more than other people’s votes.”

There are other objections, too. For instance, electors can vote for whomever they want. The framers of the Constitution hoped that the electors would be independent, well-informed about national policy and potential leaders. But these days electors are often chosen by party slate and not even identified to voters as individuals; independent judgment is actually disqualifying.

The idea of using party loyalists as electors is to make sure the state’s electoral votes follow its popular vote. But even so, “faithless electors” are a theoretical possibility and an occasional reality. Electors are often bound by state law to support the popular vote winner in their state, but while such laws are constitutional, it is far from clear that those laws could be enforced.

So why not change it?

Those who oppose repeal stress that the United States was designed not as a popular democracy but as a republic — a representative democracy. As detailed in my last post, the electoral college was a compromise, not a masterpiece of applied political theory. But it was not a random compromise. It fit the selection of the presidency into a federal system of separated and checked powers.

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Consistent with this, the electoral college watered down the ability of a geographically concentrated majority to impose its choice of chief executive on the rest of the country. The Constitution assumes majorities can tyrannize, that majorities can be factions that place their own interests above the nation’s. (Indeed, that is James Madison’s focus in his famous Federalist 10.) Regional interests do vary in a nation the size of the United States. The electoral college’s inducement to build cross-community coalitions in numerous states should press candidates to think about programs with broader appeal.

Further, while we talk about a national popular vote reflecting an electoral majority, it runs the risk of splintering the vote instead. Judith Best argues that the “magnifier” effect of the electoral college usefully converts popular pluralities — like that of Bill Clinton, twice — to authority-enhancing majorities, and forestalls the possibility that the House will wind up choosing the president.

A national plebiscite could readily attract many candidates. Would a four- or five-way race in which the winner got 30 percent or less be better? Darin DeWitt and Thomas Schwartz argue in the current issue of the political science journal PS that a plurality winner could readily be someone detested by the majority. Solving that problem raises additional structural questions. Would a minimum percentage be required to win? If so, what percentage? Would there be a runoff election? Some sort of ranked-choice voting?

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As this suggests, the electoral college narrows voters’ choices. Both proponents and opponents of the electoral college point out that its “winner-take-all” nature reinforces a two-party system. Opponents argue that this prevents alternate views from being aired; those who support third-party candidacies are urged not to “waste” their votes. Proponents say it leads to a more stable system and, again, clear winners.

The process of amending the Constitution is notoriously hard. As Julia Azari points out: “If the candidate and party in question had had enough energy and organization behind them to change the Constitution, they probably would have won the election in the first place.”

So some reformers have chosen midway points — for instance, the idea of allocating of electoral votes by congressional district, as in Nebraska or Maine. But with congressional districts drawn to benefit one party, such a strategy actually makes voters even less equal — because it distinguishes between voters within a state as well as across states. Limiting campaigning to intentionally homogenized districts will simply replicate the House — which in at least one recent presidential election has produced a solid House majority for a party receiving, yes, less than a plurality of the national vote.

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The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative is more ambitious, taking advantage of states’ free rein in choosing the way they assign their electors. NPV is an interstate compact that would require states to have their electors vote for the winner of the national popular vote, no matter who wins their own state. (For much more detail on the NPV, see the exchange between John Koza and DeWitt and Schwartz in the issue of PS mentioned above.)

The NPV is likely constitutional. But it too raises questions. What if states decide to leave the compact? The possibility of a candidate selected by a tiny plurality remains. And what if a spree of faithless electors results?

In short, as with any serious institutional reform, replacing the electoral college brings both rewards and risks

Some believe the rewards obviously win the day. If one thinks that plurality rule is the only legitimate form of democratic choice, then the electoral college cannot be legitimate. Edwards argues that although the framers’ choices violated political equality in various places, “it does not follow that these compromises are inviolate,” and that Americans have rightly democratized other aspects of the Constitution over time.

Others note that this year’s situation occurs rarely, and that cross-state coalition-building benefits governance. DeWitt and Schwartz warn, too, against unintended consequences, writing, “the greatest merit of the electoral college system as it has come to be implemented is the cost of replacing it.”

That cost could decrease if the divergence between electoral college result and popular vote becomes more frequent. Alternately, the political parties might broaden their reach to a wider range of voters, realigning the two modes of choice.

Either way, in the shorter term, voters upset by the outcome of a given national election can turn to activism at other levels of government. As President Obama told graduating students this spring, “That’s how we change our politics — by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us.”

A federal republic, after all, provides freedoms as well as frustrations.