Following Donald Trump’s stunning presidential win last Tuesday there’s been a plethora of discussion about the pertinence and viability of the Electoral College, with some frustrated Americans calling for a new or amended electoral system.
Much of the consternation surrounding Trump’s win centers on the fact that, though he crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to secure the presidency, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote.
So, with so much frustration — angst that has led to nationwide protests in the streets — we decided to ask author and attorney Tara Ross, a supporter of the Electoral College system, why America’s Founding Father’s chose that system, and why she believes it’s the best way to select U.S. presidents. Here’s our Q&A:
FAITHWIRE: Critics want the Electoral College dismantled. How would you respond to them?
TARA ROSS: The sound bites against the Electoral College are easy, and they sound irrefutable. But more education reveals that the system is indispensable to our republic. The Electoral College’s unique blend of democracy and federalism (state-by-state voting) encourages presidential candidates to build national coalitions of voters. Candidates can’t focus too exclusively on certain demographics, regional majorities, or special interest groups. Polling large margins in isolated portions of the country will doom a candidacy to failure.
In fact, that’s precisely what happened to one candidate, Grover Cleveland, in 1888. He won huge landslides in six southern states, but didn’t do nearly as well in the rest of the country. He ended up winning the popular vote, but losing the electoral vote. Hillary Clinton made similar mistakes this year. She obtained a disproportionate amount of her support from California and New York—roughly 16% of her popular vote total came from those two states! The Electoral College incentivizes presidential candidates to build national coalitions. They can’t rely on six (or two) states to push them to victory.
FAITHWIRE: What would you say to critics who believe the popular vote should trump (pun unintended)?
TARA ROSS: Critics often claim that the Electoral College isn’t democratic enough, but such attacks misunderstand the system. The question is not “democracy” v. “no democracy.” The question is “democracy with federalism” (the Electoral College) versus “democracy without federalism” (a direct popular vote). In other words, will we hold one big, national election in this country? Or will we hold many smaller elections? As the system operates today, Americans participate in 51 purely democratic elections each and every presidential election year — one in each state and one in D.C.
These democratic, state-level elections determine which individuals (electors) will represent our states in the Electoral College vote among the states. Both individuals and states are represented in the process! This structure serves our country well because it encourages presidential candidates to create national coalitions, as described above. True, this year’s election has admittedly been a bit problematic in that regard, but the problem stems from the political primaries. Those primaries unfortunately veered from the healthy incentives that I’ve just described. Whereas the Electoral College encourages coalition-building, the primaries encouraged divisiveness.
And while the Electoral College requires candidates to win the support of a majority of states’ electors, the primaries did not require a majority of anything. Instead, bare pluralities were sufficient for victory. Hopefully, the primaries will be reformed to create incentives that are more in line with the Electoral College.
FAITHWIRE: Why do we have the Electoral College?
TARA ROSS: Our Founders had a dilemma on their hands: On the one hand, they wanted to create a self-governing society. They’d just fought a Revolution because they had no representation in Parliament! On the other hand, our Founders knew that pure, unfiltered democracies can be dangerous. In such a country, 51 percent of the people can rule the other 49 percent. All the time. Without question. In the heat of the moment, even bare or emotional majorities can impose their will upon the rest of the people. Such a system allows even large, reasonable minority groups to be tyrannized.
The Founders wanted to create a self-governing society, but they also wanted to protect political minorities from such dangerous dynamics. They solved their problem by drafting a Constitution that would incorporate the best elements of democracy (self-governance), republicanism (deliberation and compromise), and federalism (states acting on their own behalves). In other words, America is self-governing, but our Constitution also provides political minorities with tools so they can protect themselves from the tyranny of the majority. The Electoral College is simply one of these protective devices.
FAITHWIRE: What are the biggest misconceptions about the Electoral College?
TARA ROSS: People often believe that the Electoral College was created because of difficulties with communication or travel in the late 1700s. Thus, they think that we can abandon the system now that technology has improved. Such a perspective misunderstands the Founders’ thinking. The checks and balances in our Constitution were created because the Founders knew that people are imperfect.
Power corrupts. Government officials can be dishonest. The Founders wanted protections against the flaws of human nature. None of those reasons have changed! Humans are still flawed, imperfect beings. The Electoral College is still needed.
Listen to Ross discuss these issues at the 2:30-mark below:
FAITHWIRE: In your view will we ever abandon it?
TARA ROSS: I hope not! But there are many ongoing attempts to tear it down. Education about the system is our best defense and the surest way to protect it.
FAITHWIRE: Were you shocked by the Trump win?
TARA ROSS: I am a little surprised because of the erroneous polls, but not shocked. The overall dynamics this year suggested such an outcome was possible. As I noted above, the Electoral College requires coalition-building. The weird situation this year is that neither candidate was especially good at that. They both had extremely high unfavorables and polls said that most people wish they had a third choice. Historically, candidates like Hillary Clinton do not win. Also, as a matter of history, candidates like Donald Trump do not win.
These types of candidates usually get knocked out in landslides because of their inability to build coalitions. What happens, then, when both parties simultaneously nominate a person who can’t build coalitions? It lends unpredictability to the election. Clinton was in the news the most toward the end of the campaign, and those negative stories undoubtedly tore her down. In the end, the biggest coalition of people in this country was the coalition who was tired of corruption and the establishment in D.C. They wanted to shake things up. Trump benefited the most from that.
While Ross clearly favors the electoral college, critics claim it’s antiquated and gives too much power to smaller states. The college is made up of 538 electors; each state receives a combined number of electoral college votes equal to the number of House members that represent it as well as the two senators allocated to each state.
Most states have a winner-takes-all mentality, as I noted earlier this year in an article for Deseret News.
Critics say the system grants too much power to smaller states, and has led to scenarios (five elections since America’s founding, to be exact) in which the candidate who wins the popular vote can still lose in the Electoral College, as was the case with Trump and Clinton.
Read more about the critiques here and learn more about Ross’ books, including “Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.”
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