To any sensible person, the Electoral College is a severely flawed method of electing our president. It is a system founded on black slavery, a system where the person with the second-most votes can win, where electors can change their minds (and legally give the presidency to Hillary Clinton next month), where your vote is meaningless if you’re in a state dominated by voters who support the other party, where white voters have disproportionate decision-making power compared to black voters, where small states and swing states have disproportionate power, and so on, all problems discussed in a previous article.
The defenses of this nonsense are usually threadbare. Let us first consider the common sentiment that replacing the Electoral College with a popular vote will lead to cities having disproportionate power over rural areas of the nation.
The obvious must be stated first. This argument is typically posited by conservatives concerned that because a majority of Americans today live in cities, and cities tend to be more liberal than small towns, this will mean liberal rule. The concern for rural America is actually a concern for Republican power. Conservatives are scared that if every person’s vote is of equal worth — as it would be with a popular vote — that they would lose.
Equality is often a threat to someone’s power, and conservatives’ fears are not baseless. In the last seven elections, from 1992 to 2016, the Democrats won the popular vote six times. They only won the White House four times, of course, because the Electoral College handed the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. So conservatives are worried that if the Electoral College vanishes and each citizen has a vote of equal power, their days are numbered. Better to preserve an anti-democratic system than benefits you than reform your platform and policies to change people’s minds and strengthen your support.
However, Republicans are still capable of running competitive elections. They only lost the popular vote to Al Gore by half a million votes, they beat John Kerry by 3 million votes, and will lose to Hillary Clinton by only 1-2 million votes. Plus, conservatives are still the largest ideological group in the U.S. (37% of citizens, versus 35% being moderates and 24% being liberals). There is every reason to think Republicans can remain competitive if they modify their views to attract more moderates.
So while all this is a blatant scramble to not be consigned to the dustbin of history because the nation is becoming too diverse and liberal, it should be noted that insisting cities will have too much power and that small towns will be voiceless makes little sense. Under a popular vote, each person’s vote is of equal weight and importance, regardless and independent of where you live. 63% of Americans live in cities (the percentage is higher in statistics that include towns with populations of a few hundred or few thousand people), so it is true that most voters will be living and voting in cities, but it cannot be said the small town voter has a weaker voice than the city dweller. Their votes have identical sway over who will be president (the same cannot be said of all voters under the Electoral College).
No conservative looks with dismay at the direct election of his Democratic governor or congresswoman and says, “She only won because the small towns don’t have a voice! We have to find a way to diminish the power of the big cities!” Why? Because one understands that the vote of the rural citizen is worth the same as the vote of an urban citizen, but if there happens to be more people living in cities in your state, or if liberals had higher turnout this time around, so be it. That’s the freedom to live where you wish, believe what you wish, and have a vote worth the same as everyone else’s, in a competition of ideas and personalities — in short, democracy. (Keep reading, all you “We’re not a democracy” types.)
Now, it is true that where candidates campaign will change dramatically with the implementation of a popular vote. Conservatives insist that candidates will spend most of their time in the big cities and ignore rural places (how this is any worse than candidates spending most of their time in swing states and ignoring safe states under the Electoral College system is rarely explained). It is true, big cities will likely be the main targets of campaign stops and ads. You can reach more people that way (to a degree it’s already done by candidates now, predictably). However, with a significant number of Americans still living outside big cities, attention will still be paid to rural voters — especially, one might assume, by the Republican candidate. Nearly 40% of the nation living in small towns and small cities isn’t something wisely ignored. Wherever the parties shift most of their attention, there is every reason to think blue candidates will want to solidify their win by courting blue voters in small towns and red candidates will want to ensure theirs by courting red voters in big cities. Even if the rural voting bloc didn’t matter and couldn’t sway the election (it would and could), one might ask how a handful of big cities alone determining the outcome of the election is so much worse than a few swing states (Ohio, Florida, etc.) doing the same in the Electoral College system.
The notion that presidents will only serve the interests of cities because they are all that matters to reelection seems about as likely as presidents only serving the interests of swing states under the current system. Not that favoritism never occurs in this way, but again, one wonders how one is so much worse than the other. More likely, the usual will happen: promises will be made to both cities and small towns to garner votes and will then be broken immediately.
Overall, a national popular vote will look exactly the same as it does under the Electoral College today, it will just have meaning. Rural voters and urban voters, liberal voters and conservative voters, will all compete in the electoral marketplace. The winner will garner several million votes more and will take the White House.
This is quite literally how every single other political position in the nation that requires citizen voting is filled, from your governors and congressmen to your state legislators and county sheriff. No one complains that X area has too many people and too many liberals and argues a system should fix this. No one screams, “Tyranny of the majority! Mob rule!” They say, “She got the most votes, seems fair.”
Likewise, no one complains that democratically choosing your governor leads to totalitarianism in your state! We now turn to the argument that a popular vote for president leads to despotism — this is a real argument — which is even easier to dispel.
First, “We’re a republic, not a democracy!” doesn’t justify a severely flawed system, nor does invoking the names of the Founding Fathers. The Founders were not perfect, and many of the policies and institutions they decreed in the Constitution are now gone. For example, our senators were elected by the state legislatures, not we the people, until 1913 (Amendment 17 overturned clauses from Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution). Today we take voting for senators for granted, but for over a century that was not a right the common voter had. The Three-Fifths Compromise (the Enumeration Clause of the Constitution), which valued slaves less than full people for political representation purposes, is gone, and today blacks, women, and people without property can vote thanks to amendments. There were no term limits for the president until 1951 (Amendment 22) — apparently an executive without term limits didn’t give the Founders nightmares of tyranny.
Some people would prefer more democracy, and don’t cling to tradition — especially tradition as awful as the Electoral College — for its own sake. Some want positive changes to the way government functions, to build and improve upon what the Founders started.
There is little reason to think the direct election of the president will push a nation toward dictatorship. Why? Because many other advanced, free nations choose their executive through direct elections, and they haven’t fallen into despotism. Why is that? Because even with a direct election, they still have checks and balances.
Changing our method of choosing the president wouldn’t wipe out the other branches of government. The president would still not be able to write his own laws. Congress and the Supreme Court could still overrule her veto. Congressmen could still impeach her. There would still be term limits. The systems that are in place that check a president’s whim would be the same under a popular vote as under the Electoral College.
France has had direct elections since 1965 (de Gaulle). Finland since 1994 (Ahtisaari). Portugal since 1918 (Pais). Poland since 1990 (Wałęsa). Why aren’t these nations run by despots by now? Why isn’t Austria, Ireland, Iceland, and others? Why do even conservative institutes rank nations like Ireland, Finland, Iceland, and Austria higher up on a “Human Freedom Index” than the United States? How is this possible, if direct elections of the executives lead to tyranny and the loss of personal freedoms?
Well, it’s because popular elections of presidents are not incompatible with checks and balances, with free societies, and so on. There are many factors that lead to dictatorship and ruin, but simply giving the White House to whomever gets the most votes, rather than voting for electors who vote for us, is not necessarily one of them. As long as a nation preserves checks and balances between the branches of State, how the politicians are appointed can be changed without the U.S. falling into tyranny.
A third counterpoint requires but two sentences.
If you believe the Electoral College is necessary to prevent an uneducated populace from putting an unqualified, dangerous candidate in the White House, remember November 8, 2016. And Trump may not be either of those things in your mind, but some day another candidate may come along who will be.