As those of you who regularly visit this web site or my Facebook page know, I don’t often post political statements. There are two reasons I don’t. The first is because most people who visit the sites are either family or personal friends of mine who are already well aware of my political views, or people who are mostly interested in me as an author. The second reason is even simpler. If there is a more monumental waste of time than arguing politics on the internet—especially Facebook—I have yet to find it. (Watching paint dry comes a distant second.)
That said, occasionally I get annoyed enough to break my usual rule, and after some months of the campaigning that’s been going on for next year’s presidential election, I have reached that point with respect to one subject.
THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE, about which historical ignorance, incapacity to reason, blindness to reality driven by ideology and just plain stupidity have produced an ocean of twaddle.
It should be blindingly obvious by now that the Electoral College is at best an antiquated institution which never matched the vision of it held by the Founding Fathers and has become an impediment to modern government. In times past, the reason most people shrugged off its grotesque features was because in practice it didn’t seem to make much difference. In the first two centuries of the nation’s existence, a candidate won the Electoral College while losing the so-called “popular vote” only three times (in 1824, 1876 and 1888). But it has happened twice in the past five elections (2000 and 2016), so now it has become a major topic of debate.
[NOTA BENE: I put the phrase “popular vote” in quotation marks because the term is a silly redundancy. By definition, the “vote” is the will of the majority, i.e., the “populi” There is no other kind of vote EXCEPT a “popular vote.”]
Those who support maintaining the Electoral College almost always begin with a sonorous statement: “This is a republic, not a democracy”—thereby exhibiting that they don’t know what either a republic or a democracy is in the first place. I will attempt to educate them.
The term “democracy” simply means “rule by the people.” In other words, it refers solely to what you might call the content of the government, not the specific organizational form that might take. Historically, there have been essentially two forms in which democracy can be effected: what’s called “direct democracy” and a republican structure. In a direct democracy, the voters themselves enact the laws. In a republic, the voters choose representatives who enact the laws. The voters have no direct control over the making of those laws, or over the implementation of them by the executive. What they retain is the power, at periodic intervals, to change their representatives if they are dissatisfied with the ones they have.
In the context of a dispute concerning the Electoral College, the phrase “this is a republic, not a democracy” is simply asinine. OF COURSE, the United States is a republic. EVERY democratic polity above a certain (very small) size has to be a republic because the scale of modern societies is far too large to be governed by direct democracy.
What people who prattle “this is a republic, not a democracy” as if it had any bearing at all on the question of the Electoral College are saying is that the United States is the ONLY republic in existence because we are the only nation that uses an Electoral College to select its executive.
Huh? It will certainly come as a surprise to well over a hundred nations in the world to learn that they are governed by “direct democracy,” not as a republic. Try spouting this nonsense at a session of Parliament (the United Kingdom), Bundestag (Germany), Parlement (France), Folketing (Denmark), Eduskunta (Finland)…
Never mind, it gets ridiculous. EVERY DEMOCRATIC NATION IN THE WORLD IS A REPUBLIC—but the only one which has an Electoral College is the United States.
So let’s dispense with that nonsense. The next proposition advanced by those who support the Electoral College is that it protects small states—small meaning “least populous”—from the tyranny of those states which have a large population. And they almost always add “as was intended by the Founding Fathers.”
Historically, this is ignorant twaddle. The Senate does, indeed, benefit small states and was designed that way. But the size of states has almost nothing to do with the Electoral College, either in theory or—as we will see in a moment—in practice. The Founding Fathers were, in general, distrustful of the political judgment of the populace as a whole—whether they were citizens of large or small states, it didn’t matter—so they created two institutions to buffer the federal government against the passing whims of the moment.
The Senate as originally designed was not elected by popular vote—whether in small states or big ones. That distinction was irrelevant. The Senate was indirectly elected by the legislatures of the various states. That only changed with the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913.
The second buffer against the populace as a whole was the Electoral College. The idea was to create a body of the nation’s elite who would be the ones to choose the president, rather than having that office filled by the populace voting as a whole. THE SIZE OF THE VARIOUS STATES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.
In practice, the Electoral College never functioned the way it was envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The reason was that the Constitution leaves it up to the various states to decide exactly how the Electoral College votes will be apportioned. In the first few decades of the nation’s existence, the specific procedures fluctuated, but by 1836 almost all states had settled on the winner-take-all rule, by which whoever wins the popular vote in each state gets all of that state’s Electoral College votes.
Notice, by the way, that this makes a mockery of the claim made today by its advocates that the EC somehow sidesteps the evils of majority rule. No, it doesn’t. It simply replaces the “evil” of national majority rule with the “evil” of majority rule in 50 different states. It’s still majority rule.
The change was motivated entirely by partisan calculation. Adopting the winner-take-all method enhanced the political power of whichever party dominated any given state. And once a few states started doing it, all the others soon followed suit so that they wouldn’t lose their own partisan influence. None of this had anything to do with the “intent of the Founding Fathers.” In his letter to George Hay in 1823, James Madison stated that few of the men who framed the Constitution had envisioned such a development
But whether they’d foreseen it or not—much less advocated it, which none of them did—once the winner-take-all method was adopted, every state became locked into it because for any one state to change its method would be to weaken its partisan position in the nation’s governance. If California, for instance, were to adopt a more representative method—apportioning the EC votes to whichever candidates won the majority in each separate congressional district, for instance—the Democratic Party would lose a lot of its power because there would be no guarantee that a Republican-majority state would do the same.
Leaving aside the historical ignorance involved, the claim that “the Electoral College protects the small states against the tyranny of the states with big populations!” is just plain stupid.
No, it doesn’t. In fact, it does the exact opposite—it disproportionately disenfranchises the least populous states. Because of the winner-take-all method that the EC actually uses—never mind what the Founding Fathers wanted; that’s ancient history, dead and gone—the only states that matter in a presidential election are the so-called “swing states.” Size is completely irrelevant to the calculation. “Can State X be won over to our candidate?” If not, to hell with that state, whatever its population is—and all candidates will make the same calculation because even for the candidate sure to win that state’s EC votes, the state itself is irrelevant.
In practice, in the real world, states with small populations tend to be more politically homogenous than states with large populations. That means that almost no small state is a “swing state.” So their vote simply doesn’t matter. They are for all practical purposes disenfranchised in presidential elections.
These eight states have the smallest populations in the nation:
Nobody cares what the people in those eight states think during a presidential election. In all likelihood, no candidate of any party—certainly not the two major parties—will even bother to campaign for one day in any of those states. Why waste the time and money? Everybody knows from the start how the majority in each of those states is going to vote and therefore all of the EC votes are a foregone conclusion. Wyoming, Alaska, the Dakotas and Montana will give their electoral votes to the Republicans; Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island to the Democrats. Yawn. Subtract them from the equation. Nobody cares what they think.
Let’s flip it around. In every presidential election, at least two-thirds of the states are irrelevant to the election. The exact number and composition fluctuates a bit from one election to the next, but as a rule the number of “swing states”—which are the only ones which actually make a difference in the election—is around fifteen.
In the upcoming 2020 presidential election, the following sixteen states are most likely to be either one of the swing states or close enough that the major candidates will actively campaign in them. I’m ranking them in the order of their population size:
North Carolina (9)
New Mexico (32)
New Hampshire (44)
Maine really shouldn’t be part of this list because it’s one of the two states in the US which don’t follow the winner-take-all rule. (The other is Nebraska.)
Of the remaining states, eight of them—more than half of the total—are among the fifteen most populous states in the country, and eleven of them are among the top half of the nation measured by population. There are only five ranked in the lowest half of the states and only one—New Hampshire—in the lowest third.
Think about that. Fully ONE-THIRD OF THE NATION’S STATES—specifically, the one-third in which all small states are included—have only four meaningful Electoral College votes among them, those of New Hampshire. (California has 55, by the way.)
The disparity is just as bad if we measure it by EC votes rather than population ranking. These fifteen swing states represent 188 votes in the Electoral College—about 35% of the total. Of that 188 votes, the six states among the ten most populous states in the nation hold 114 of them, i.e., about 60%.
To put it another way, of the votes which will ACTUALLY MATTER in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, 60% of them will come from six of the ten most populous states in the nation and only 2% will come from states among the seventeen least populous states in the nation.
After considering the above, anyone who still thinks the Electoral College somehow favors small states over big one is…
The most polite term I can come up with is “mathematically challenged.” The more accurate one is “damn fool”. “Blithering idiot” is tempting but probably a bit too harsh. (A bit.)
The reason people on the right continue to vociferously support the Electoral College is because, as usual, they are politically short-sighted. “Penny-wise and pound-foolish,” as the saying goes. Since the Republican Party gained the advantage in the last two elections in which the winner of the EC vote was also the loser of the “popular vote”—Gawd, what a ridiculous term—they think this is somehow ordained by nature.
Actually, it isn’t. In the long run, maintaining the Electoral College will work to the advantage of the Democratic Party.
The reason should be obvious. As I just got through demonstrating, large states dominate the Electoral College, and it is in the large states that the demographic changes that are affecting the nation and will continue to do so are the most concentrated. It is in the large states that most minorities and most immigrants gravitate toward, as do young people and those with a college education. It is also in the large states—especially the big cities—where most economic growth takes place. Given that the Republican Party has staked its future on solidifying its base among the white, rural and older part of the US population, it is going to increasingly lose its position in the nation’s ten largest states—with, sooner or later, disastrous consequences for it. Once a political party gains a decided partisan advantage in any given state, the advantage tends to get locked in—especially by the Electoral College.
The truth is that the Republican Party is no longer even trying to win a majority of the nation’s population to its program. Instead, it is trying to maintain its current dominance of the US government (the presidency, the judiciary and one of the two houses of Congress) by gaming the system. More and more, it is relying on voter suppression, gerrymandering, governing through the executive and the judiciary rather than the legislature—the right adores activist judges, as long as they’re rightwing—and what they perceive (falsely) as a permanent structural advantage given to them by the Electoral College.
Regardless of partisan advantage, we should eliminate the Electoral College. It distorts democracy, it provides none of the benefits the framers of the Constitution thought it would, and it automatically injects an element of rancor into a huge nation that already has plenty of rancor to go around.
There are two ways to do that. The best way would be to pass an amendment to the Constitution. However, given the partisan politics of the moment, the prospect of doing that is close to nil. The other way, which wouldn’t require amending the Constitution, is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which has been gaining support since it was introduced in 2007.
Remember that while the Electoral College itself is established by the Constitution, the power to determine how the votes are actually apportioned is left to the states.
Under the NPVIC plan, states would use that constitutional power to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once there’s support among enough states to make it work—i.e., once enough states that have a total of 270 votes in the Electoral College sign on. That sidesteps the partisan problem of one state on its own giving up the winner-take-all rule. .
As of July 2019, the proposal has been adopted by fifteen states and the District of Columbia, which together, have 196 electoral votes. That’s almost 3/4 of the 270 votes needed to give the compact legal force.
It’s an inelegant if ingenious approach, but I don’t care. By now, I’m so sick of the prattle on the subject of the Electoral College that I’d vote for getting rid of it by exorcism, if I thought it’d work.
To make the invocation of “this is a republic, not a democracy” even more ironic, the US is actually closer to a direct democracy than most other countries bar Switzerland, what with its plethora of elected positions and ballot referendums.
Mr Flint has made two serious errors in his electoral college analysis.
First, it is simply incorrect that the non-battleground states do not matter. The non-battleground states’ votes count just as much; they are simply predictable in advance. Being a battleground state buys you more political influence and attention and a lot of advertising money, but it doesn’t buy you extra votes in determining the actual winner. Think of it this way: if one candidate has 250 safe votes, and the other one has only 150 safe votes, then one candidate has an enormous advantage when we start counting battleground votes.
Mr Flint’s other mistake is to count “small states” as an arbitrary number of the smallest states in the union. There are not 8 small states. There are 34 small states. A state is “small” for this discussion if it gains electoral college votes disproportionate to its population, which is true for every state with more 1.96% of the population (i.e. 1/51, since DC gets counted here). That is every state smaller than Indiana.
Fundamentally, you do the small-state-EC-advantage wrong if you undercount them because the whole point is to give them an advantage in numbers.
Let’s consider, strictly as an approximation that is easy for me to do in the time I’m willing to spend here, that our counterfactual is not a pure popular vote election but an electoral college that distributes its votes solely on the basis of House districts, instead of giving the bonus two votes that every state gets for its senate seats. (DC gets knocked to one vote in this thought exercise.) In the 2016 election, Trump won 30 states and Clinton won 21 states, so we would remove 60 votes from Trump and 42 votes from Clinton, for a score of 244 to 185 for Clinton. In our world, among the battleground states, Clinton would have needed to switch PA, MI, and WI to change the election. In “no small state advantage world,” Clinton needs to swing 30 EVs, which she can get with just PA and MI.
In other words, the small-state advantage in 2016 gave Trump an entire Wisconsin’s head start when they started counting the votes that Flint erroneously says are the only ones that matter.
Another way to think of Mr Flint’s “battleground states are all that matter and they are disproportionately large states”: Nothing says that 15 states have to be unpredictable. Move voters around a bit between states and you could imagine a world with zero battleground states. But we would still have a (highly predictable) election, where, say, the Republicans are overwhelmingly favored to win with 275 EVs. Take away the extra weight that the EC gives to the 34 smaller-than-average states, and you change it to the Democrats being overwhelming favorites.
I know that Mr Flint’s livelihood depends on writing a bit over-the-top, but it is unfortunate that he has declared people to be “blithering idiots” if they cannot follow the math here, and then made such a non-mathematical argument.
(I do agree that almost all the arguments he knocks down at the beginning are “twaddle.”)
Many European countries are actually kingdoms, not republics. Democracies, but kingdoms. Great-Britain, Spain, Danemark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and last but not least the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
I understand that Mr Flint was a bit annoyed when he wrote this but ‘popular vote’ is neither a ridiculous nor a redundant term. A popular vote is a vote among the ‘populus’ or people, usually at large, and needs to be distinguished from votes among other, more restricted, groups such as , e.g. the ‘electors’ who form the Electoral College and express their preference in an electoral college vote. It would have been very awkward to write this whole blog without a handy way of distinguishing these two voting procedures. (In the same way US political discussion often wishes to distinguish the House vote from the Senate vote.)