As the 2020 presidential election rears its head over America, so does the bitter tension and frustration that arose from the aftermath of the 2016 election. After 2016’s Election Day, businessman President Trump claimed the presidency through the Electoral College, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defeated Trump through the popular vote. This situation reignited a nationwide debate about the efficacy of the Electoral College. And that very same debate has reappeared as the 2020 election begins.
Mainstream Democratic candidates vying for the presidency — including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt. — have expressed some desire to outright abolish the Electoral College. Other Democrats like entrepreneur Andrew Yang admit that the Electoral College is antiquated to some extent. With this growing opinion on the Electoral College, it is important to recognize not only its origins, but also how the Electoral College still fulfills its purpose within the current American political battlefield.
In Doug Linder’s “The Electoral College Debate,” he recognizes that the Electoral College provides states “a role … in the selection of the president, (reminding) us of their importance in our federal system.” Some would argue that the Electoral College is counterintuitive to the democratic values of the United States. Linder cites in the same article, a “a vote by a resident of Wyoming counts about four times more — electorally — than a vote by a California resident.”
Though true in the context of the electorate, that does not mean that small states like Wyoming hold disproportionate and absolute federal power over larger states like California. The entire framework of the U.S. as a democratic republic was designed to divide power, and the Electoral College and the presidency are only allocated a slice of that power. The electorate champions America as a republic, and institutions like the House of Representatives champion America as a democracy. The outright failure to recognize or even consider why the Electoral College distributes power to states in such a way demonstrates a limited understanding that American politics expands far beyond the presidency.
Look back to the 2016 election. In an infographic published by The New York Times, it showed that Clinton won the popular vote by “2.2 million” votes even though “her votes were very concentrated in only a few states.” She spent little time in Michigan, never visited Wisconsin, and focused on Pennsylvania where she still lost. She lost those states by a collective total of roughly 73,000 votes. Imagine if the United States operated on a popular system, also known as a direct democracy. Clinton would have secured the presidency by concentrating her efforts in the East and West Coasts.
The idea that a popular system would be more fair than the Electoral College is absurd. Direct democracy as an idea is morally antithetical to the values of civil rights and equality. The French Revolution first decided on their system of government to be a direct democracy, and look at the results: a tyrannical and politically invincible majority terrorizing and censoring the concerns of the minority. With direct democracy, the majority would have unmatched power to silence the minority, hypothetically controlling the presidency and at least one house of Congress. The Electoral College gives the minority and disenfranchised the opportunity to control how their society around them operates without fear of being politically sidelined.
This debate will surely continue as “a 2018 report on America’s future political demography found four realistic scenarios in which Democrats win the national popular vote but lose the Electoral College because of the geography of the electorate.” With more Democrats than Republicans preferring a popular vote rather than the Electoral College, 81 percent and 51 percent, respectively, it would be reasonable to assume that if any of these scenarios occur, it could lead to more fervent calls to drastically alter or even outright abolish the Electoral College.
However, these knee-jerk reactions to default to a supposedly more “democratic” popular vote lack both political and moral foresight, possibly opening the door for dangerous factions and leaders to seize power in America. The Electoral College does not hinder the democratic process; it emboldens it. It serves as a reassurance that the politically weak and deprived have the opportunity to protect their civil rights and community. A shock to the system — whether that is spontaneous transformations or immediate abolition — would entail an inimical and rapid erosion to the founding doctrines of the United States, sideline political minorities and create a far more polarized and divisive political landscape in the future.
Joshua Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.