The following is from a speech by Trent England, EVP of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
“Once upon a time, the Electoral College was not controversial. During the debates over ratifying the Constitution, Anti-Federalist opponents of ratification barely mentioned it. But by the mid-twentieth century, opponents of the Electoral College nearly convinced Congress to propose an amendment to scrap it. And today, more than a dozen states have joined in an attempt to hijack the Electoral College as a way to force a national popular vote for president.
“What changed along the way? And does it matter? After all, the critics of the Electoral College simply want to elect the president the way we elect most other officials. Every state governor is chosen by a statewide popular vote. Why not a national popular vote for president?
“Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 asked themselves the same question, but then rejected a national popular vote along with several other possible modes of presidential election.
“A deadlock for president would be decided by the House of Representatives, with one vote per state. Following that, in case of a deadlock for vice president, the Senate would decide. Also under the original system, the runner up became vice president.
“This last provision caused misery for President John Adams in 1796, when his nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, became his vice president. Four years later it nearly robbed Jefferson of the presidency when his unscrupulous running mate, Aaron Burr, tried to parlay an accidental deadlock into his own election by the House. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, fixed all this by requiring electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president.
“And there things stand, constitutionally at least. State legislatures have used their power to direct the manner of choosing electors in various ways: appointing them directly, holding elections by district, or holding statewide elections. Today, 48 states choose their presidential electors in a statewide, winner-take-all vote. Maine and Nebraska elect one elector based on each congressional district’s vote and the remaining two based on the statewide vote.
“It is easy for Americans to forget that when we vote for president, we are really voting for electors who have pledged to support the candidate we favor. Civics education is not what it used to be. Also, perhaps, the Electoral College is a victim of its own success. Most of the time, it shapes American politics in ways that are beneficial but hard to see. Its effects become news only when a candidate and his or her political party lose a hard-fought and narrowly decided election.
“So what are the beneficial effects of choosing our presidents through the Electoral College?
“Under the Electoral College system, presidential elections are decentralized, taking place in the states. Although some see this as a flaw, they oppose the Electoral College expressly because they want to increase federal power over elections—this decentralization, however, has proven to be of great value.
“For one thing, state boundaries serve a function analogous to that of watertight compartments on an ocean liner. Disputes over mistakes or fraud are contained within individual states. Illinois can recount its votes, for instance, without triggering a nationwide recount. This was an important factor in America’s messiest presidential election—which was not in 2000, but in 1876.
“That year marked the first time a presidential candidate won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. It was a time of organized suppression of black voters in the South, and there were fierce disputes over vote totals in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Each of those states sent Congress two sets of electoral vote totals, one favoring Republican Rutherford Hayes and the other Democrat Samuel Tilden. Just two days before Inauguration Day, Congress finished counting the votes—which included determining which votes to count—and declared Hayes the winner. There is no way to be certain today—nor was there probably a way to be certain at the time—which candidate actually won. At the very least, the Electoral College contained these disputes within individual states so that Congress could endeavor to sort it out. And it is arguable that the Electoral College prevented a fraudulent result.
“Four years later, the 1880 presidential election demonstrated another benefit of the Electoral College system: it can act to amplify the results of a presidential election. The popular vote margin that year was less than 10,000 votes—about one-tenth of one percent—yet Republican James Garfield won a resounding electoral victory, with 214 electoral votes to Democrat Winfield Hancock’s 155. There was no question who won, let alone any need for a recount. More recently, in 1992, the Electoral College boosted the legitimacy of Democrat Bill Clinton, who won with only 43 percent of the popular vote but received over 68 percent of the electoral vote.
“But there is no doubt that the greatest benefit of the Electoral College is the powerful incentive it creates against regionalism. Here, the presidential elections of 1888 and 1892 are most instructive. In 1888, incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland lost reelection despite receiving a popular vote plurality. He won this plurality because he won by very large margins in the overwhelmingly Democratic South. He won Texas alone by 146,461 votes, for instance, whereas his national popular vote margin was only 94,530. Altogether he won in six southern states with margins greater than 30 percent, while only tiny Vermont delivered a victory percentage of that size for Republican Benjamin Harrison.
“In other words, the Electoral College ensures that winning supermajorities in one region of the country is not sufficient to win the White House. After the Civil War, and especially after the end of Reconstruction, that meant that the Democratic Party had to appeal to interests outside the South to earn a majority in the Electoral College. And indeed, when Grover Cleveland ran again for president four years later in 1892, although he won by a smaller percentage of the popular vote, he won a resounding Electoral College majority by picking up New York, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and California in addition to winning the South.
“Whether we see it or not today, the Electoral College continues to push parties and presidential candidates to build broad coalitions. Critics say that swing states get too much attention, leaving voters in so-called safe states feeling left out. But the legitimacy of a political party rests on all of those safe states—on places that the party has already won over, allowing it to reach farther out. In 2000, for instance, George W. Bush needed every state that he won—not just Florida—to become president. Of course, the Electoral College does put a premium on the states in which the parties are most evenly divided. But would it really be better if the path to the presidency primarily meant driving up the vote total in the deepest red or deepest blue states?
“Few if any of these Democrats likely realize how similar their party’s position is to what it was in the late nineteenth century, with California representing today what the South was for their forebears. The Golden State accounted for 10.4 percent of presidential votes cast in 2016, while the southern states (from South Carolina down to Florida and across to Texas) accounted for 10.6 percent of presidential votes cast in 1888. Grover Cleveland won those southern states by nearly 39 percent, while Hillary Clinton won California by 30 percent. But rather than following Cleveland’s example of building a broader national coalition that could win in the Electoral College, today’s Democrats would rather simply change the rules.
“One danger of all these attacks on the Electoral College is, of course, that we lose the state-by-state system designed by the Framers and its protections against regionalism and fraud. This would alter our politics in some obvious ways—shifting power toward urban centers, for example—but also in ways we cannot know in advance. Would an increase in presidents who win by small pluralities lead to a rise of splinter parties and spoiler candidates? Would fears of election fraud in places like Chicago and Broward County lead to demands for greater federal control over elections?
“The more fundamental danger is that these attacks undermine the Constitution as a whole. Arguments that the Constitution is outmoded and that democracy is an end in itself are arguments that can just as easily be turned against any of the constitutional checks and balances that have preserved free government in America for well over two centuries. The measure of our fundamental law is not whether it actualizes the general will—that was the point of the French Revolution, not the American. The measure of our Constitution is whether it is effective at encouraging just, stable, and free government—government that protects the rights of its citizens.
“The Electoral College is effective at doing this. We need to preserve it, and we need to help our fellow Americans understand why it matters.”