Since Donald Trump won the White House without winning the popular vote, cries have risen that the electoral college should be abolished. Millions have signed an online petition urging electors to choose Hillary Clinton despite their states’ vote for Trump. This is a wrongheaded path for dissent. The electoral college shouldn’t be abolished. It enshrines an important principle — protection of the rights of a minority — in our Constitution. A popular majority unhappy with the presidential results should make its weight felt not by taking to the streets but by taking back electoral politics — relearning what it means to win elections for state legislatures, governorships and Congress.
It’s worth understanding the origins of the electoral college to see how it came to enshrine this principle in our political institutions. When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, they began with an elaborate debate on whether the government founded in 1776 had grounded its authority in the people as a whole or in the power of 13 independent state governments. The question was whether the new government had arisen to embrace a single national people or had been erected as merely a treaty among 13 nations, with distinguishable identities and cultures.
The men who met and argued in Philadelphia were not able to resolve the question. They compromised. They determined that one chamber of Congress (the House of Representatives) would be grounded in the people as a whole, while the second (the Senate) would rest on the authority of the state governments. The House would consist of delegations from each state sized in proportion to the population. The Senate, in contrast, would provide equal representation to each state — two delegates each, regardless of population. This design, which arose from the need to compromise, was also an expression of principle: the importance of protecting minority interests from being trampled by the majority.
The electoral college reflects the same desire. It was organized to include as its number of electors the combination of the number of senators and members of the House. It, too, has the protection of a minority interest built into its structure. Originally, the electoral college protected the interests of the smaller Northeastern states: Now the protection of minority interest works in favor of the less populous states of the nation’s midsection. For the first half of the 20th century, this interest worked in favor of the Southern states and served as a roadblock to civil rights protections for African Americans. But as with most of our political institutions, the fact that they have sometimes been used against the cause of justice does not mean that they might not at another moment be used for that cause. Democracies that aspire to embodying not only popular sovereignty but also justice must have structures for protecting minority interests. Anyone who cares to defend the interests of minorities should pause before calling for the abolition of the electoral college.
But what about the notion, now spreading widely, that the electoral college was intended to dilute African American influence?
This argument doesn’t get the history right. Southern states demanded popular representation, and wanted to include enslaved people in the census count that would determine the size of their congressional delegation, in order to maximize their political power. That’s what gave us the House (albeit with a decision to count each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person). This left the small Northern states feeling threatened, so they wanted equality among the states. That gave us the Senate. The Northern states were motivated by a desire to dilute Southern power, not to minimize African American influence, which in 1787 was nil. The irony is that the only reason California has as many electoral votes as it does now is because Southern states sought to gain political advantage from their population of enslaved people.
While the electoral college is weighted to overemphasize the voice of less populous states, popular majorities have many other avenues for pursuing power — a fact that Republicans have used to their advantage and that Democrats have too often ignored. Over the past 15 years, and the past eight especially, the Republican Party has obliterated the Democratic Party at the state level: in state legislatures, governorships and Congress. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Republicans will now hold 33 governorships, 31 secretaries of state, 69 of 99 legislative majorities and, of course, majorities in both houses of Congress.
This is not an accident. The Republican Party has been working hard and was buoyed by the tea party revolt, a revolution that took not to the streets but to electoral politics. Remember those crazy town halls about the health-care law in the summer of 2009? Tea partyers turned out in droves when members of Congress came home to see their constituents. Anyone who looked likely to be supporting the health-care legislation was treated to an especially unpleasant dose of constituent dissent. That was the beginning of the tea party drive to turn Democrats and moderate Republicans out of office and resulted in the evisceration of the Democrats’ congressional majority in 2010.
By contrast, since Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Democrats and the left have devoted the greater part of their political energies to street protests, petition drives and efforts to shame public officials into changing their stances on particular issues. Activists seem to have forgotten that real levers of power exist to be grasped in all the small elections that take place all over the country year after year. Democrats are already wringing their hands over the difficulty of making inroads in Congress in 2018, and it’s true that they may not get where they want by then. But then again, when Barack Obama swept in a Democratic Congress in 2008, no one expected that all would be lost by 2010.
If Democrats want to see things move in a different direction, all they need is their own blue tea party movement. But this requires capturing the energy in the streets and redirecting it to the nuts-and-bolts work of winning elections at the state level. That will be the only effective basis for rebuilding power and momentum at the federal level as well. But it surely doesn’t have to take a generation. That’s what we’ve learned from the incredible distance we’ve traveled between 2008 and the present.