“Saturday Night Live” last weekend took a jab at the Electoral College, suggesting it exists as a way to thwart the popular will of the people. The skit featured a snowman who shows viewers three American households in California, South Carolina, and Georgia debating the impeachment of Donald Trump. It ends with the snowman declaring their debates are pointless and their votes do not matter.
“They live in states where their votes don’t matter,” the snowman says, “because none of them live in the three states that will decide our election. They’ll debate the issues all year long, but then it all comes down to 1,000 people in Wisconsin who won’t even think about the election until the morning of. And that’s the magic of the Electoral College.”
Now . . . yes, we’re talking about a dumb comedy show. And there is a recent, ignoble tradition of overly earnest news organizations “fact-checking” SNL sketches. There is nothing worse than a killjoy sucking the air out of a good joke.
Nevertheless, this weekend’s sketch reflects one of the common complaints regarding the Electoral College and on the surface it might seem like a fair one. The Framers of the Constitution, however, were concerned not with just inputs but also with outputs (behaviors promoted by the electoral college and the type of person chosen to be president) as well as with the historic fragility of the republican form of government.
The Framers and the Electoral College
Despite claims to the contrary, the Electoral College is not an obstacle to the expression of the popular will. The Electoral College apportions votes to the states in proportion to the number of seats they have in Congress, with each state receiving a minimum of three votes. Electors have typically cast their ballots for the winner of the popular vote.
The Founders established the Electoral College to achieve several ends. First, the Electoral College channels and shapes popular sentiment so that it better secures the natural rights of all citizens.
Second, this system reinforces a clear two-party system that encourages interests groups and parties to build broad coalitions.
Third, this system requires every candidate to campaign for the support of most of the same voters.
Fourth, it reflects the federal nature of the Union.
The Electoral College Avoids the Tyranny of the Majority
There are limits to majoritarianism. The American public would be wise to remember the words of Thomas Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.”
Majoritarianism is not enough to secure justice or the national interest. A majority based on the coastal populace would be likely to ignore if not harm the interests of the heartland and could easily jeopardize their natural rights.
The Electoral College Reinforces the Two-Party System
This system favors two parties who are able to campaign for their candidate. While the parties have become weak in recent decades (and one of the most necessary structural reforms is strengthening the role of the parties) this system still favors them. Parties are able to establish a platform, campaign among their base, and secure victory encouraged both by the Electoral College and the winner-take-all method of voting. The two party system is important for its role in creating broad coalitions of voters.
The Electoral College Forces Candidates to Create a National Majority
The Electoral College forces candidates to campaign across the country. Candidates are unable to garner votes in just urban areas or suburban areas or rural areas or the coasts or the heartland. This forces candidates to take into consideration the interests of the whole country, not just the narrow interests of the base of their party.
The president has the duty to govern for the common good and campaigning across the country forces him to become familiar with the interests of particular regions and states. States such as California and Washington have very different interests—the technology industry is large in both states—from Kansas, a rural state with a significant agriculture industry.
It is important that the president have a broad base of support across an array of diverse regions, states,and cities. Winning a supermajority in one region of the nation is not sufficient to win the election; candidates must appeal to interests outside the region. The Electoral College system forces candidates to do so.
The Electoral College Reflects the Federalism of the Constitution
The United States is a union of states. The Electoral College reflects and protects state interests. Again, the interests of the citizens of Nebraska are not the same as those from California or New York. The Electoral College system forces candidates, interest groups, and political parties to take into consideration the interests of Americans who do not live in the most populous states.
While larger states do have an advantage the three Electoral College vote minimum that every state has insures at least some representation of the will of less populated states. It also has the advantage of being tied to the structure of government established by the Constitution and reflects the distinctiveness of each state.
The states existed long before the American Revolution, through the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitutional Convention. It is vital to remember that this is a union of states and that if this had not been respected at the Constitutional Convention it is unlikely the union would have occurred at all. Eliminating the Electoral College would simply be a step to abolishing federalism, a bulwark principle of the Constitution and one vital to protecting the liberty of individuals.
Changing or abolishing the Electoral College would drastically change the regime and the nature of politics in America.
For a start, it would dissolve the connection between the county and state units of the political parties. It would reduce the need for state caucuses and primaries while promoting the power of political operatives without loyalty or connections to localities. Their loyalties instead will be to individual candidates or campaigns. It would encourage and enable candidates to campaign in the biggest cities and most populated states while ignoring the rest of the country.
The Electoral College is Worthy of Honor and Praise
The Electoral College secures the rights of individuals respecting the consent of the governed. The system modifies, refines, and at times even checks majority passions in order to make the popular will more deliberate and compatible with individual rights.
The system is a means to an end, an end the Founders were very clear about. It was intended to minimize the passions and poor impulses of the electorate and protect the nation from the inherent problems of democracy, problems about which the Founders were all too well aware from their reading of Plutarch. Therefore, the Electoral College is worthy of a vigorous defense because it is necessary to the preservation of our constitutional system.
Which is a roundabout way of saying, let’s stick with the system the Framers designed and kindly reject civic guidance from a past-its-prime late-night comedy show.