FACT & COMMENT
How to save U.S. politics.
Critics of the much-maligned Electoral College overlook one of its fundamental virtues: tamping down dangerously divisive politics. Advocates of replacing this “18th-century anachronism” with a straight popular vote implicitly assume the current two-party system would remain intact and that the candidate with the most individual votes—instead of electoral votes—would win the White House. That’s the way things work for every other elected office in the U.S.; why wouldn’t it be so for the most important one of all?
But the basic two-party arrangement we take for granted exists only because of the Electoral College. To win the presidency, a candidate has to appeal to people across the country. A nationwide coalition is essential to gaining a majority in the Electoral College. A narrow sectional or special-interest base simply won’t cut it. That’s why our parties are collections of many diverse interests and backgrounds, reflecting the character of this continental nation whose citizens, or forebears, have come from all corners of the world and reflect a wide array of cultures and beliefs. It’s why supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties are so often uneasy with one another. GOP voters in the Northeast, for instance, who tend to emphasize economic issues such as low taxes, are put off by social conservatives.
The system puts a premium on moderation. Yes, candidates can advocate bold programs, but they have to do so in ways that don’t alienate more tepid members of their party, not to mention independent voters. A radical idea usually goes through what might be called a marinating process, during which time people become accustomed to the notion, and even then it has often become a watered-down version of the original.
The Electoral College’s systemic bias for softening the rough, potentially dangerous edges of national politics has enabled us for over two centuries to debate and resolve even bitterly contentious issues without tearing apart the country and leaving wounds that can fester for generations. The exception, of course, was the issue of slavery. Otherwise, the tendency to move toward moderation and inclusion has held.
Look at the Democrats. The party has indeed lunged to the left, but behold what’s happened to its presidential wannabes who most faithfully parroted the extreme views of far-left activists on such matters as rigid anti-individual identity politics or an immediate government takeover of health care: They’ve floundered or have tried to soften the sharpness of their views. Elizabeth Warren’s once expanding bubble deflated once she had to explain how she was going to pay for all the “free stuff ” she was promising. Party members were also put off by her harsh negativity.
If one of the parties does veer far from the existing center, it will suffer a shattering defeat, as the Democrats did in 1972 when they nominated a far-left candidate who ended up carrying only one state and the District of Columbia.
Along the same lines, because candidates have to wage nationwide campaigns to win, the Electoral College forces these contenders to become familiar with local and regional issues they might otherwise overlook, most particularly in battleground states. The current arrangement does more to give a voice to minorities, people whose support could be crucial in key states.
Today’s parties are state and local organizations. Each runs its own show its own way. Sure, there are national committees, but they are essentially fundraising entities for congressional and gubernatorial candidates—and their party’s presidential candidate. Every four years local parties come together to formally nominate a presidential candidate, who then is automatically put on the ballot in every state in the union (and the District of Columbia). In contrast, independent candidates for our ultimate office have to go through an expensive, laborious process to get on all the ballots. Few manage to do so. Each state has its own rules—some easy, others extremely difficult.
A direct popular vote for president would shatter this political ecosystem that’s uniquely suited to America.
Individuals and special-interest organizations would continuously create their own parties. For example, would Mike Bloomberg—who at various times during his political career has been a Democrat, a Republican and an independent—even bother to try to fetch the Democratic nomination for president? Of course not. With his resources, he would do it on his own.
Unlike the two-party system the Electoral College fosters today, there would be numerous candidates competing in a national election. More basic and ominous is that in contrast to the moderating bias of the Electoral College, a direct popular-vote system would put a premium on inflaming passions to gin up support for candidates in a crowded field.
Of course, if no aspirant reached a certain threshold—and what level should that be: 40%? 50%?—there would have to be a runoff. Since there would be so many candidates vying to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one could easily envision elections in which the runoff would be between two extremist
candidates who each received, say, 10% of the vote in the first round. To win a runoff, contenders would have to bargain with the field’s losers for support in the final round. The horse-trading and outright payoffs this new system would encourage would make today’s political bargaining look tame in comparison.
Then, of course, you would have crucial, nitty-gritty details to resolve. Who would police the 175,000 voting districts to avoid chicanery? Who would ensure that absentee ballots were not tampered with? All of this could involve a major expansion in the central government’s power. Each state today has its own rules for voting. Some states, for example, encourage early voting; others do not. Under a direct-voting system, these rules would have to be uniform—again, another extension of Washington’s power.
Democrats hate the Electoral College because in both the 2000 and 2016 elections they lost the White House even though their candidates received more popular votes than their GOP opponents. This ignores the fact that if the College hadn’t existed during those contests, the candidates would have waged entirely different kinds of campaigns. Donald Trump, for instance, would not have taken precious time near the end of the campaign to visit Maine in the hope of garnering an electoral vote in a congressional district (which he did).
Our Founders knew exactly what they were doing when they created the Electoral College. We ignore their wisdom at our peril.