Democrats and others have been making noise about eliminating the Electoral College for a few years now. Elizabeth Warren’s recent call to do so is just one among many. As a practical matter, the effort is currently centered around a “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.” States that participate pledge to award their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote in presidential elections. It would go into effect if states representing at least 270 electoral college votes sign onto the pact; currently states representing 181 votes have signed on.
The Electoral College essentially means that votes are cast for presidential candidates on a state-by-state basis and that each state gets as many votes as it has members in congress (i.e. two Senators plus however many members it has in the House, which itself is determined by the state’s population). The Electoral College is defined in the U.S. Constitution in Article 2, Section 1 and modified in Amendment 12. Of note is that the method of choosing electors (i.e. those chosen by the state to vote for president on the state’s behalf) is not specified, although the use of the popular vote within a state is used by custom to determine for whom they should vote.
Eliminating the Electoral College, either through this “pact” or through a Constitutional amendment, would mean the end of our Republic. Why do I say this?
Let’s start with the practical effect of the Electoral College. It ensures that everyone actually gets a voice in presidential elections. Look at the map here of the 2016 election. It is a county-by-county view of how the vote went; counties voting for Trump are red, those voting for Clinton are blue. Blue tends to be concentrated on the West Coast, large cities, and the Northeast. Red tends to be everywhere else. There are also many states that tend to be one or the other color, although there are more predominantly red states than blue.
From the site:
Overall Trump won approximately 2,600 counties to Clinton’s 500, or about 84% of the geographic United States. However, Clinton won 88 of of the 100 largest counties (including Washington D.C.). Without these 100 largest counties she would have lost by 11.5 million votes.https://brilliantmaps.com/2016-county-election-map/
This map illustrates the benefits of the Electoral College. Clinton won the popular vote over Trump, but most of the geography of the country voted for Trump (as well as, obviously, the majority of the electoral votes). To eliminate the electoral system would mean that most of the country would have little say in who the president is, since the outcome of presidential elections would be subject to the decisions of a few populous cities on the coasts. The Democrats favor this change because they tend to have more support in urban areas.
However, if the Electoral College is eliminated, how long before the people in those large swaths of red begin to question the legitimacy of the federal government since they have no say over who leads the Executive branch? This country was founded by people who were tired of supporting a governmental system in which they had little representation. The Electoral College was put in place to ensure that larger states or population areas could not control the rest of the country and that people in each state got a say.
That’s the practical side of the equation. The other part of it pertains to the theoretical underpinnings of our form of government itself.
The federal system of government we have enshrined in the Constitution was formed by sovereign states who agreed to delegate certain powers to the common federal government. The American Revolution was fought by independent British colonies, each with their own royal charter, who later became states upon independence. It is significant that in international affairs a “state” is a sovereign country (we tend to thing of “states” akin to administrative units, but that is not what a state is). Following independence, the states formed a confederation under the Articles of Confederation, but found this arrangement provided too weak of a central government, so they later formed a federal system under the Constitution. There was much debate on both sides on whether the states should adopt the new Constitution (the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers make fascinating reading as to the Founders’ thoughts on this matter).
Thus, the states – through the U.S. Constitution – decided to delegate certain powers to the new federal government. Those powers not specifically delegated were retained by the states or by the people (clearly spelled out in the 10th Amendment). The Constitution is meant to constrain the federal government while protecting the rights of the states and the people.
Thus, the United States is a “they,” not an “it” (some languages, like French, make this clearer than English – Les États-Unis). The American Civil War served to eliminate some of this distinction, since it led to the rise in the strength of the federal government along with a federal standing army. In addition, the adoption of the 17th Amendment further eroded the power of the states. Eliminating the Electoral College would be the last nail in the coffin of state sovereignty.
The Founders feared a strong central government as well as popular voting. That is why they sought to have checks and balances on the central government through the three branches of government and why they introduced a layer of abstraction between the people and the government, with representatives and various processes of choosing them in the middle. The Founders were students of history and saw the demise of democratic governments (like ancient Athens which descended into tyranny at the hands of the mob) as well as republican governments without enough checks in place (such as the Roman Republic, which eventually led to tyranny due to powerful political families catering to the whims of the mob).
The entire American system of government is thus predicated upon the belief that, in the words of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” The Constitution divides government, dilutes popular influence over it, and ensures that each state gets a say in how the federal government is constituted. One of the last remaining vestiges of state sovereignty with respect to federal elections is the Electoral College. Eliminate it and you eliminate the claim that the federal government has on being a limited government with certain powers delegated to it by the states. It would only then be a matter of time before its legitimacy is called into greater question.