Electoral College: Democratic or Discriminatory?

Opinions  /  by Kevin Xiao '19 and Rishi Bagaria '19  /  April 29, 2017

Jeffrey Tao '20 / The Lawrence

Protecting true democracy - Kevin Xiao '19

After the recent 2016 presidential election, critics have vilified the Electoral College as an unfair system that made Donald Trump president in spite of Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory. However, this system that has produced just five discrepancies between the popular and electoral vote in 58 elections over 240 years. While the Electoral College may seem partisan, in reality, the Founding Fathers established it to protect against discriminatory and tyrannical practices that would result with a direct popular vote.

It is important to remember that the current electoral system have no partisan bias by design, and to view it as a partisan instrument would be prejudicial. The Electoral College serves as an essential component of our government’s checks and balances. The Founders implemented the Electoral College specifically for this purpose: Electors selected by each state’s voters would cast individual ballots for the president. These electors would be charged with ensuring “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualification.” As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper no. 68, “The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.” Thus, the architects of the Constitution ensured that the fate of the presidency rested in good hands.

While some might argue the Electoral College failed when it elected Trump, the Electoral College protected against the “tyranny of majority” in this decision. As coined by French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America,” tyranny of the majority alludes to a system in which any political faction could gain a majority by a tiny margin and still oppress the minority unconditionally. The House of Representatives already operates this way, with direct elections and a dominant governing Rules Committee, and the Senate, having just abolished the filibuster on Supreme Court appointments, has also shown few misgivings about operating with outright majority rule. As James Madison contended in Federalist Paper no. 4, in popular governments, “measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” For the U.S. government, hailed for its steadfast defense of minority rights, the Electoral College represents one of the last standing institutions that actively opposes tyrannical majority rule.

While opponents of the Electoral College argue that the system distorts the American electorate’s interests, the Electoral College actually forces political factions to compromise on candidates and policies. According to Benjamin Zycher, an economics expert at the American Enterprise Institute, this system “offers [...] the benefit of forcing candidates and party platforms toward the middle of the political spectrum [...], thus increasing consensus and compromise and reducing political strife.” Forcing candidates to win a majority of electoral votes from all around the country, no candidate is able to win solely because of one concentrated bloc of voters; rather, the Electoral College prevents fringe candidates supported by a few densely-populated regions from gaining insurmountable political power. Without the Electoral College, presidential contenders would inevitably fan the flames of political radicalism and further polarize an already-divided nation.

James Madison once wrote, “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” For a system that has faithfully accomplished this task for more than 200 years, the Electoral College deserves nothing but praise.

Oppressing ethnic minorities - Rishi Bagaria '19

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump entered the White House in a historic and unique manner, securing 306 electoral votes. In terms of the popular vote, however, Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by around three million. The disparity between the results of the Electoral College and direct popular vote infuriated a large group of voters and put the Electoral College under intense scrutiny. Although some may argue that the Electoral College is a fair system with the backing of our Founding Fathers, the Electoral College has been transformed into a corrupt system which fails to ensure the one thing it promises: a true representation of the American people.

Voting is a constitutional right that gives the American people the power to express their views on how the country should be run. Thus, the best voting system will allow for the voices of all Americans to be heard by giving each citizen equal voting power and increasing voter participation. As Tia Ghose, senior writer for Live Science, explains, “Because only a few states are competitive in the Electoral College system, most presidential campaigns dump money into 10 swing states and spend almost no time campaigning in the other 40.” The nature of the Electoral College allows for candidates to focus solely on the 10-or-so “swing states” in the U.S. and thus fail to spend any time campaigning and focusing on issues that pertain to the remaining 40 states. This lack of equal voting power between the states creates the idea that “safe states” exist. Citizens in “safe states” develop a perception that their votes don’t ‘count’ because their state as a whole has no value to candidates, which leads to decreased voter turnout. According to Claire Daviss, author and member of FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization, “turnout in the 13 safe Republican states studied was lower than turnout in the remaining states in every presidential election since 1988.” In essence, if we continue to use the Electoral College system, voter apathy will increase, and swing states will continue to gain more voting power than safe states. With less people involved in the voting process, the government will become less representative of the actual interests of the American people, thus making the Electoral College a heavily flawed system.

In addition to promoting greater voter apathy, the Electoral College disenfranchises minorities since, in the Electoral College system, certain states’ vote take more precedence than others. Scott Lemieux, author and reporter for the New Republic, wrote that "in facilitating the election of Trump, the Electoral College has effectively disenfranchised racial minorities once again. The Electoral College underrepresented Clinton’s diverse, urban-centered coalition, and overrepresented Trump’s coalition, which is based around rural and suburban white people. Trump’s white nationalist demagoguery was unable to secure a plurality, let alone a majority, in a racially diverse country.” Essentially, swing states have an overrepresentation of white people, whereas the majority of minorities are located in the “safe states.” Thus, the Electoral College creates an unequal voting power that specifically gives white voters more of a say than minorities.

While the Electoral College is supposedly a key part of the American democracy, voter disenfranchisement is the most undemocratic thing that can occur in the election system, since it bars people from engaging in the democratic process. However, with the direct national popular vote, candidates will be pressed to focus on all minorities in the country, since there would be no concept of swing and safe states.

A direct, national popular vote would instantly amend the problem of safe and swing states, since candidates will have to focus on the nation as a whole to gain votes. In addition, a direct vote would allow for equal voting power, making the election process truly democratic. Simply put, the system that our founding fathers constructed to be the hallmark of democracy has been mutated into an unfair and undemocratic process and ought to be replaced with the true vote of the people.