In Defense Of The Electoral College

Be careful what you wish for; you may get it. Disappointed Democrats are talking again about discarding the Electoral College, and many voters of other stripes seem sympathetic. However,  it is a change that requires very careful deliberation. As always, we must watch out for the rule of unintended consequences.

It’s understandable that Hillary Clinton voters are upset that she lost the election, even though more people voted for her than voted for Donald Trump. No doubt this must seem like a horrible and frustrating rerun for those who also supported Al Gore when he lost in 2000. We’ve been conditioned since we voted for our classroom president in third grade to believe that “the person who gets the most votes wins.”  But our constitutional system is more complicated than that, and for good reasons.

The Electoral College, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, is an extension of the Great Compromise that balanced the interests of the large states and the small states. The Framers understood the risks associated with “the tyranny of the majority.” If a handful of big groups or states always get their way, without the many smaller voices at least having a seat at the table, the resentments will grow and grow. The Great Compromise and the Electoral College give the smaller states a chance, at least, to be heard. Getting a majority of the Electoral College votes requires assembling a coalition of diverse interests large and small. The presidential candidates must reach out to small and big states, representing many different cultures and economies, to fashion a majority that better represents a true cross-section of the nation.  The Framers believed this process would create a more stable, long-lasting nation.

The truth is, there is no such thing as a national popular vote. It isn’t discussed in the Constitution. The states have the authority to choose their electors any way they want. In the early decades of the nation, most states left it to their legislatures to choose their presidential electors. It was many years before all the states eventually left the choice to the voters. The national popular vote is merely an interesting statistic; it is the aggregate total of 51 separate elections in the states and the District of Columbia. You might be surprised to learn that the candidates themselves aren’t trying to win the national popular vote. If they were, they’d be using entirely different campaign strategies than they currently employ.

There is already a movement afoot to discard the Electoral College by legally side-stepping it. Inspired by the Bush-Gore election results in 2000, some states are agreeing to require their electors vote for the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the state’s own vote. If enough states -- representing at least 270 Electoral Votes -- sign on to the idea, it will effectively render the Electoral College meaningless. So far, those on board include the states with the nation’s biggest cities – California, Illinois and New York. That’s hardly a surprise; a national popular vote would make it a waste of resources for candidates to campaign in those pesky small states and force them to strategically spend all their time and money in – you guessed it – New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Middle America would truly be rendered “Fly-Over Country.”

Hillary Clinton lost the election because she failed to hold together the Obama coalition in the Mid-West. Men and women in the industrial heartland who voted twice for Barack Obama changed sides. Clinton wasn’t somehow cheated out of the presidency; she simply didn’t stitch together the constituencies she needed  for victory.  Her coalition was deep, so she got more votes. Donald Trump’s coalition was broader, so he won the election.


NewsRadio WHAM1180 News Anchor Todd Halliday has a degree in American Studies from Towson University. He’s heard mornings on NewsRadio WHAM1180 in Rochester, NY.