The Collegian
Saturday, January 16, 2021

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OPINION: In Defense of the Electoral College

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

In 2016, Donald Trump became president of the United States without winning the popular vote. This reignited a concern for our method of electing a president, particularly among Trump’s critics. The argument posed by critics is intuitive: one person, one vote, and the candidate with the most votes should win. But although such a popular vote system appeals to our democratic instinct, we should preserve the Electoral College, because it induces coalition building. Candidates must amass a varied block of voter support.

The Electoral College requires candidates to appeal to several regions of the country. Candidates must appeal to the manufacturing workers of the Rust Belt, while also appealing to the farmers of Iowa. If they spend too much time on any one particular state, they hurt their chances of reaching the requisite 270 electoral votes. Winning 51% of California’s popular vote is effectively the same as winning 100%. So candidates diversify their resources, focusing on many states and regions rather than a few populous ones.

If we abolish the Electoral College, though, candidates would be wise to target mainly the coasts, where much of the country’s population is concentrated. And in doing so, they would ignore what has been derogatively deemed “flyover country.” The residents of “flyover country” are the ones who have been left behind economically due to automation and outsourcing. The Electoral College gives them representation they otherwise would not have in our democracy.

Furthermore, this coalition-building empowers racial and ethnic minorities. In key swing states that attract the most electoral attention, Hispanic and Black Americans make up vital voting blocs that candidates must appeal to in order to win. For example, 26.4% of Floridians identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 32.6% of Georgians identify as Black or African American. Any candidate intent on winning either state must make an effort to address the concerns of these communities, which tend to overlap with the concerns of these communities at the national level. 

In other words, when you need to win Florida, you need to appeal to Hispanic Americans. And when you need to win Georgia, you need to appeal to Black Americans. This applies to the many increasingly racially and ethnically diverse swing states that are being joined by southern states, such as Texas, Arizona and North Carolina.

Even President Trump, considered by many as divisive on race, has responded to the incentive to appeal to racial and ethnic minorities. Improving on Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012, which came up short, Trump garnered more votes among people of color. And since his victory in 2016, Trump’s administration has emphasized his achievements for the Hispanic and Black American communities. Moreover, Trump attempted to soften his image on race amid the Republican National Convention this year, which contributed to an improvement in his approval rating among minority voters. So, if even Trump feels the need to appeal to minority voters in the Electoral College system, less divisive candidates certainly will as well. 

But if we switch over to a national popular vote, Hispanic Americans will only constitute 18.5% of the electorate and Black Americans only 13.4%. Candidates wouldn’t focus as much on these communities, diluting the political power of Hispanic and Black Americans because candidates wouldn’t need to win the Electoral College’s key swing states where minority communities make up a significant portion of the electorate. This is why Vernon Jordan, a civil rights leader, testified in a 1979 congressional hearing: “Take away the Electoral College and the importance of being Black melts away. Blacks, instead of being crucial to victory in major states, simply become 10 percent of the electorate, with reduced impact.”

The Electoral College also has the practical advantage of decentralization. Our federal electoral process has always been a decentralized affair. Each state (and the District of Columbia) manages its own presidential election every four years on the first Tuesday of November using different procedural rules. This allows for local experimentation, such as voting by mail, which has proven critical in our battle with COVID-19. 

But if we nationalize our electoral process, procedural rules will necessarily have to be standardized to ensure that everyone has the same access to the voting booth. The one person, one vote standard will not be met unless, for example, ex-felons in Texas are subject to the same restrictions as ex-felons in California. Individual states will no longer be able to decide what constitutes fair access. The federal government will decide, thereby diminishing the sovereignty of states. 

Another practical advantage of our Electoral College is that it discourages widespread voter fraud. Currently, a fraudulent vote is only counted in the state in which it is cast. And so, it can only compromise one particular state’s election. But in a national popular vote system, voter fraud anywhere would directly affect the outcome of the national election. This would present a drastic increase in the benefit for a potential wrongdoer. Every fraudulent vote would alter the final result.

Moreover, the Electoral College limits recounts. When the presidential race is close in one state, the trailing candidate only challenges the results of that one state. In a popular vote system, however, if candidates lose the popular vote by a slim margin, they’d be wise to challenge the results of every district and state with irregularities. This is because any additional vote obtainable anywhere throughout the country would help — regardless of whether it would affect the winning outcome in any particular state. 

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Notwithstanding the advantages of the Electoral College, critics are right to point out that the Electoral College is inconsistent with majoritarianism and proportional representation. But this line of reasoning ignores our broader constitutional structure. Although majority rule is an important value, it is not our only value. The U.S. has several institutions with anti-majoritarian elements aimed at enhancing and protecting the minority. Chief Justice John Roberts has even gone so far as to say that proportional representation “has never been accepted as a political principle in the history of this country.”

One prominent example of anti-majoritarianism is the Bill of Rights, which protects our most cherished freedoms from what Alexis de Tocqueville aptly coined the “tyranny of the majority.” And another prominent example is the Senate, where Vermont has the same voting power as California. Although senators must win the popular vote in their home states, party control of the chamber doesn’t require a majority. In 2016, Democrats led in all senate races across the nation by over 18 million votes in aggregate, and yet suffered two losses and failed to win a majority of seats. 

In fact, our system of not requiring leaders to win the popular vote is not unique. In 2019, the leading parties — and hence the prime ministers — of Australia and Canada won neither a majority nor a plurality of the popular vote. Instead, they were forced to form coalitions. Admittedly, this is not an exact parallel because Australia and Canada have a multi-party system, while the U.S. has a two-party system. But the fact remains: the current chief executives of Australia and Canada, like the chief executive of the U.S., did not win the popular vote. 

So let’s not blow up the Electoral College. It induces coalition building and comes with practical advantages. True, it doesn’t give us proportional representation. But that is not our only value. And in light of its virtues, there is reasonable justification for it that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss.

Contact opinions writer George Estrada at george.estrada@richmond.edu.

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