The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions and the Electoral College
As he presided over the Constitutional Convention, George Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette on February 7, 1788 that “it appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the Delegates from so many different States… should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections.”
Earlier this week, the Electoral College’s electors met in statehouses across the country to cast their ballots for President of the United States. In a meaningful expression of democracy at work, they ratified their votes for President and, when all was said and done, Joe Biden received the 306 electoral he was expected to receive, officially making him President-Elect of the United States.
The day after the vote, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly congratulated the new President-Elect from the Senate Floor. Senator McConnell was gracious in defeat, acknowledging that “as of this morning, our country officially has a President-elect and a Vice President-elect” and saying emphatically “the Electoral College has spoken.” Liberals, of course, are also speaking glowingly of the Electoral College now that their candidate has won. CNN’s David Chalian, for example, said “it is sort of a day to step back and celebrate democracy, but it is also a day that has responsibility attached to it.” Pennsylvania’s Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar quoted President George H.W. Bush and said it showed that “the people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the democratic system.” In Michigan, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer said the result reflected their success in “securing a fair and accurate election.” Joe Biden himself said that “democracy prevailed.”
But Democrats have not always sung that same tune. Since 2016, in fact, support for abolishing the Electoral College has shot up among Democrats. Democrats once bragged that their stranglehold on California, New York, and Illinois automatically gave them 100 electoral votes. They assumed that union-heavy Midwestern states would follow suit and create an unbreakable electoral coalition for years. It was only after this “Blue Wall” fell at the same time as the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton, Democrats immediately began decrying the institution vocally. Remember that when Democrats lost in 2016, they mounted an intense effort to subvert the Electoral College. Christine Pelosi, daughter of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, served as an elector and demanded to receive intelligence briefings on potential Russian election interference in an effort to persuade Republican electors to change their vote. The New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman, for example, encouraged Trump supporters to “read history” and tweeted out a Washington Post op-ed titled “The Constitution lets the electoral college choose the winner. They should choose Clinton.” MSNBC’s Joy Reid shared the same article and her colleague Chris Hayes tweeted back in 2016, “Fun fact: states decide how to apportion their electors. They could give them all to, say, whichever candidate won majority of counties!” The key lesson, of course, is that Democrats are no more institutionalists than Republicans are. The Supreme Court, for example, was the paragon of excellence until Trump nominated three conservative justices to the bench. All of a sudden, Democrats began talking about the Court like it had became an unconscionable threat to democracy that could only be remedied by court-packing. The same is now true of the Senate. After just five years out of the majority in the Senate, Democrats all of a sudden demand the ascension of Puerto Rico and Washington, DC so that they can gain another four Democratic senators. Cloaked in the language of moral courage, Democratic rallying for Puerto Rican statehood is nothing but political shrewdness. The simple reality of the fact is that Democrats support the institutions that support them. This week’s plaudits for the Electoral College as a key part of the “democratic process” is just more evidence of that.
All of this distracts from the bigger picture. In these years of partisan strife, we’ve lost a sense of the meaning of our institutions. The Electoral College itself was the result of compromise at the Constitutional Convention, an effort to create a federal treaty between the states that represented all Americans fairly. In the cooling embers of our Revolution, the Electoral College was designed by the Founding Fathers to balance the interests of our states. It ensured that, today, farmers from Montana don’t feel disaffiliated by bankers in New York and that skiers in Vemont don’t feel oppressed by cowboys in Texas.
Every four years, we see some interesting arguments for abolishing the Electoral College. For example, the population of Manhattan up to 184th Street is roughly equal to the population of North and South Dakota. Likewise, half of American live in just 146 of around 3,000 counties around the country.
But those arguments ignore the very reason why the Electoral College was designed: it forces us to care about the concerns of people across the entirety of our country. In a country so focused on our big cities and cultural capitals, these rural areas would certainly be ignored if a national popular vote system encouraged politicians to play to their political bases in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington. The beauty of our system is that we periodically must turn back toward our heartland and hear the concerns of Americans all over our country. The example of Ohio illustrates how the Electoral College forces our national gaze inwards. In the 31 elections since 1896, Ohio has only failed to predict a winner three times – the 2020 election being the first miss since Ohioans supported Richard Nixon in 1960. The unifying value of the Electoral College is that it forces us to pay attention to Americans all across the country, from Democrats in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County to Republicans in the Florida Panhandle.
It is a little irony that, once again, Democratic leaders who generally come from large, urban states like New York and California have been the ones calling for the abolition of the Electoral College. During the Constitutional Convention itself, these large states also favored the direct election of the President. At least back then, though, they were more transparent about the fact that they were wrestling over power rather than cloaking their arguments in intellectually-fraught self-righteousness. But I wonder whether today’s Democratic leaders would have had much in common with their revolutionary ancestors. In fact, calling the Electoral College “anti-democratic” or saying it would violate “the will of the masses” would probably have been a selling point for the Founding Fathers. Indeed, the moderation of public passions was one of the most important parts of our constitutional design. In Federalist 49, for example, James Madison worried that “the passions, therefore, not the reason, of the public, would sit in judgment” without proper restraint. In that narrow sense the Electoral College, by spreading political power widely, has the added benefit of offering an opportunity for public moderation.
This again brings me to my broader point. It is a good thing that the Electoral College met yesterday and seamlessly selected a winner of the 2020 Presidential Election. You don’t have to be happy with the result – in any given election, about half of voters won’t be – but this week’s results demonstrate the enduring value of our institutions and that’s something we should all be grateful for.