Now that the long, ridiculous campaign for “Hamilton Electors” to flip the presidential election has ended, so has the debate over why the electoral college exists. For our collective sanity, this is a good thing — rarely are debates less edifying and more circular than this one. Every argument for the existence of a state-by-state voting system that has gone against the popular vote five times plays out like this:
Q: Why do we have an electoral college?
A: Because the founders wanted us to.
A: Because that would turn the election into a campaign to ramp up city/coastal turn out, leaving small-state voters in the dirt.
There are the makings of an actual argument here, but for weeks it was stuck in this pattern. Now that the stakes are gone, let's litigate the last part — the idea that a system based on the popular vote would turn our elections into a race to pull out the most votes from New York and California. What I never hear brought up as a counterpoint is that plenty of countries elect presidents, and none of them use an electoral college system.
Want to see how presidential elections work if people don't have to hunt in swing states? Lucky for you, we have hundreds of case studies, and the quick answer is “they work pretty well.” In countries with free and fair elections, presidential races look a lot like our own, with candidates stumping everywhere to drive up favorable turnout and flip voters their way.
Start with France, which is ramping up for a new presidential election in 2017. On the surface it has the same regional bias challenges that electoral college lovers see here. One in 8 Americans lives in California; one in 5 French voters lives in the Paris metro area.
And yet, in 2012, the French campaign ranged across the entire country. Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to drive up turnout in strongholds like Marseille; François Hollande, who beat him, campaigned in industrial towns that had suffered in the Great Recession. His final stop took him to Charleville-Mezieres, which you might call the Johnstown, Pa., of France — if it weren't actually smaller than Johnstown. And in 2017, Hollande is so toxic that he won't even run, demonstrating just how much a country's support can swing, even if a big city looms large culturally and electorally.
When I've thrown the example of France out there, or the examples of Mexico and South Korea, electoral college die-hards have pointed out that those countries are relatively (well, relative to the United States) small and ethnically coherent. Fair enough; let's turn to the presidential systems of Brazil and Indonesia. Like us, the Brazilians have quadrennial elections and limit presidents to two consecutive terms. Like us, voters in both countries sprawl far past the crowded cities.
Guess what? Presidential candidates find themselves stumping everywhere. There are swing states in Brazil, like Minas Gerais, and they're showered with attention. But each vote in the swing state counts toward the popular vote; watching who wins it is just taking stock of a bellwether. In Indonesia, the six provinces on Java cast close to 60 percent of the total vote. Current president Joko Widodo had an advantage there, as the outgoing mayor of Jakarta. But his 2014 election was relatively close — and five years earlier, his party had lost in a landslide. There is no geographic “lock.” To win, you need to campaign.
Indonesia's a useful example of how elections can work because it actually has more voters than the United States. Not as many people — around 256 million to our 320 million. But turnout in Indonesia, which has held democratic elections only since 1999, is much higher. Former Indonesia president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has received more votes — close to 74 million — than anyone else in the history of democracy. (When progressives perk themselves up by saying Hillary Clinton received more votes than any “white man in history,” they are technically correct.*)
None of these democracies is as old as the American republic. Not even close. We're operating on the world's oldest Constitution, and look, nobody wants to scotch things so that the record goes to Norway.
But it's pig-ignorant to say that a big, complicated country lets itself be run by the big population centers if it goes to a popular vote. Plenty of countries pull it off. So could this one. Just 12 years ago, in this country, George W. Bush was wiped out in every urban area outside of Texas, and won the presidency and popular vote.
There are some first principles arguments to make in defense of the electoral college, about the sovereignty of each state in the union. But we already have a Senate that weights each state equally, and each member of it, since 1914, has been elected according to the popular vote. There is only one office in this country you can win without the popular support of most voters, and it happens to be the most powerful one in the world.
There are four years before this will matter again, and there's absolutely no hint that it will change. But it might be telling that when we've advised a country on how to write a constitution, we have never told them to copy the electoral college. Nor have we told them to let state legislators draw their own boundaries. In 2012 our system elected a House of Representatives that lost the popular vote and in 2016 it elected a president that lost it, too. That has massive distorting effects on how our country works. For all our gifts, it's something no other presidential democracy has to worry about.
(*It's a fun quirk of history that the American who's received the most votes for president ever, Barack Obama, also lived in Indonesia for a while, and was the focus of conspiracy theories that he was still an Indonesian citizen.)