Editorials: A college under seige
Losers want to trash the Electoral College, but reality says they can’t
All that most Americans know about the Electoral College is that it’s probably the only college in the country that might beat Alabama. But it has no student body in the stands chanting, “We’re No. 1!” and it celebrates homecoming only every four years, and nobody ever shows up. The Democrats have been clamoring to abolish it since the November election, but a new poll nevertheless shows it to be enjoying increased popularity.
Forty-seven percent of Americans now favor retaining the Electoral College, according to Gallup, and 49 percent favor electing the president by a popular vote. Approval of the Electoral College is up from 35 percent in 2011. The most ardent opponents of the old school are Democrats, 85 percent of whom want to abolish it. Just 19 percent of Republicans agree.
The Founding Fathers, federalists all, were determined that the president should be elected by the states. The states, as Ronald Reagan reminded us in his first inaugural address, established the federal government, not the other way around. The Electoral College is the way the Founders preserved the primacy of the states. Though every state now selects its electors by popular vote, the states are free to choose another method, such as enabling their legislatures to select the electors.
The losers this year are leading the charge for change, such as it is. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, has introduced a constitutional amendment to eliminate the college, and hundreds of thousands of Americans — some of them voters and many who no doubt are not — have signed online petitions in behalf of Mrs. Boxer’s amendment.
Al Gore, who lost the Electoral College but won the national popular vote in 2000, supported the college when late in that campaign it appeared briefly that he might lose the popular vote and win the electoral votes, has changed his tune. “[Moving to a popular vote] would stimulate public participation in the democratic process like nothing else we could possibly do,” Mr. Gore says now. “We’ve got to get back to harvesting the wisdom of crowds in the United States. We’ve got to get back to the conversation of democracy that allows good ideas to rise to the surface.”
The Founders were wary that it might be a mob harvesting the sound and the fury of a crowd. Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founders lately bequeathed fame by rap musicians, defended the Electoral College because it would be a source of stability, and that “an intermediate body of electors will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.”
The Founders, like other students of history, feared the destructive passions of the mob, as many of them regarded the masses. They had just thrown off a cold and selfish monarch, but they were afraid as well of an elite that regarded themselves as aristocrats eager to impose themselves and their wisdom (as they imagined it to be) on the will of the people. The Electoral College was the compromise, neither aristocratic nor a hundred percent democratic.
Because the college and the method of choosing the president is enshrined in the Constitution, it will required a constitutional amendment to eliminate it. Thirty-six states would be required to ratify it, but the important number is not 36, but 14, the number of states that could block ratification. With each of the states with one vote, California would carry no more weight in such a showdown vote than Rhode Island or Wyoming. The Electoral College would still be No. 1.