It’s important for those who favor the popular election of our presidents to separate their arguments for direct democracy from the outcome of a particular contest.
My colleague George F. Will’s recent column in defense of the electoral college offers an excellent opportunity to make a case that has nothing to do with the election of Donald Trump.
After all, Will, admirably and eloquently, insisted that Trump was unworthy of nomination or election. So our disagreement relates entirely to his insistence that we should stick with an approach to choosing presidents that, twice in the past 16 years, overrode the wishes of Americans, as measured by the popular vote.
Will brushes aside these outcomes. “Two is 40 percent of five elections, which scandalizes only those who make a fetish of simpleminded majoritarianism.”
But when is a belief in majoritarian democracy a “fetish” or “simpleminded,” and when is it just a belief in democracy? The current system makes a fetish of majoritarianism (or, to coin an awkward but more accurate word, pluralitarianism) at the state level, but it’s held meaningless nationally. Who is fetishizing what?
Part of the answer, of course, is that majoritarianism or pluralitarianism are not fetishes at all. They are how we run just about every other election in our country. If the people get to choose the state treasurer or the county recorder of deeds by popular vote, why should they be deprived of a direct say in who will occupy the country’s most important office?
According to Will, electoral college majorities are very special because they promote a particularly virtuous way of attaining power. “They are built,” he writes, “by a two-party system that assembles them in accordance with the electoral college’s distribution incentive for geographical breadth in a coalition of states.”
But “geographical breadth” is a relative term. The existing rules encourage candidates to campaign in 10 or 12 swing states and skip the rest. Where’s the breadth? The winner is picked not by the laws of elections but by the serendipity of the casino. If you’re lucky to hit the right numbers, narrowly, in a few states, you can override your opponent’s big margins in other states.
True, Will notes happily, the electoral college gave the presidency to Abraham Lincoln although Lincoln won just 39.9 percent of the popular vote. But there was no “geographical breadth” to Lincoln’s victory. He carried not a single state south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Will and I can both retrospectively cheer Lincoln’s election, but an outcome we happen to like doesn’t vindicate the process.
And at least Lincoln won a plurality of the total vote, beating the No. 2 finisher, Stephen A. Douglas, by 10 percentage points. Will notes that 1860 was among the 18 of 48 elections since 1824 that produced presidents who won less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Yet in all but five of those, the winner got the most votes. Nonetheless, to be consistent with my leanings toward majoritarianism, I’d favor a popular vote with an instant runoff in which voters could rank their choices. The transfer of second-preference ballots would eventually produce a majority winner.
The way we do things now, Will says, “quarantines electoral disputes” by confining them to one or, at most, a few states. I suppose, but not many of us felt “quarantined” in 2000 from the impact of Florida’s electoral mayhem.
A favorite metaphorical defense of the electoral college is that the winner of the World Series is determined by games won, not runs scored. But in the electoral college, some games (and votes) count more than others. California gets one elector for every 713,637 people, Wyoming one for every 195,167.
And consider a different metaphor. I doubt that Will, a fine writer about baseball, would want the national pastime to mimic tennis. Imagine basing the winner of a game not on the number of runs scored but the number of innings won, and with some innings counting more than others.
But the question of how a democratic republic should work is not a game. Will says that the electoral college has “evolved” since the 18th century. Well, yes, we now have the worst of both worlds: The electoral college is no longer the deliberative body envisioned by the founders, but it still thwarts the wishes of the majority. Will does not explain why only “political hypochondriacs” think that the winner of the most votes should prevail. In the absence of one, we should complete our evolution toward democracy and elect our presidents directly.
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