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The Democratic race for president is becoming one long history lesson about our nation’s original sin. First the candidates debated reparations for the descendants of slavery and Jim Crow. Now Elizabeth Warren wants to abolish the Electoral College, which arose in part from, and embedded itself in our politics largely due to, slavery.
Its defenders don’t admit that, of course. They prefer not to discuss it, which is one of several reasons why Warren’s stance is on the money.
Don’t be put off by the likely chorus of “amens” from Warren’s competitors as they try to pander to the Democratic left: Entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s brave if misguided dissent notwithstanding, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are singing for the College's abolition, while Kamala Harris says she is “open” to the idea.
Ditching the Electoral College is sound on the merits (even apart from its connection to slavery, which I’ll get to below). First, let’s dispense with self-serving defenses for retention from Trump supporters (who know their man would have lost without it) and from small states (who know candidates wouldn’t bother to visit them if they had no electoral votes to bob for). Those states’ interests are guarded in the Senate, where Wyoming -- our least populous state — has as much representation as California, our most populous one.
More substantively, Alexander Hamilton argued in "Federalist 68":
[that the president’s] “immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
Those of us with conservative instincts revere Hamilton. But today’s hoi polloi aren’t unavoidably leg-ironed in civic ignorance as he feared. That’s one result of the rise of political parties, with their widely known principles and voter drives; the spread of mandatory public education (however flawed); and the invention of mass media for communicating current events (however jostled by fake news).
Keep in mind that, in several ways, we’ve already mothballed Hamilton’s vision that only the select should elect. Within my lifetime (in 1972, to be precise), we stripped political leaders of the right to nominate presidential candidates and vested it in rank and file voters, via the expansion of primaries.
[Presidents] should be chosen by a majority of the entire nation’s voters, exercising their franchise.
I’m unaware of any serious objection to nomination by primaries by lovers of the Electoral College. Nor do they object to the long-ago decision to ditch the election of senators by legislatures, handing off that responsibility to each state’s voters.
That leaves two serious defenses of the Electoral College. The first touts the fact that candidates must appeal to diverse sections of the country, not just populous states. Resident Boston Globe conservative Jeff Jacoby commends the College for killing the candidacies of those “who write off whole constituencies of Americans — Mitt Romney’s ‘47 percent,’ Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables.’”
Jacoby is candidly comfortable with the (nationally) undemocratic election result that can result. Most Americans, including me, aren’t. The president and vice president are the only two politicians in the country chosen by the entire nation. They should be chosen by a majority of the entire nation’s voters, exercising their franchise.
This opinion is hardly new. Altering the Electoral College has been the subject of more proposed constitutional amendments over the last two centuries than any other topic.
Altering the Electoral College has been the subject of more proposed constitutional amendments over the last two centuries than any other topic
The second defense involves the hypothetical catastrophe of a close popular vote requiring a national presidential recount. Aside from the mathematical unlikelihood, this objection melts when you consider that states already have the wherewithal, individually, to recount their own votes. That’s why Al Gore wanted a Florida recount in the disputed 2000 race.
What Jacoby and other thoughtful defenders don’t discuss is the role racism played in creating the Electoral College. From another founder, James Madison:
The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.
Translation: With southern states denying slaves the right to vote, the South lacked the (white) population of the North -- which in a direct election could impose its presidential choice. Madison, of Virginia, proposed an Electoral College in which the South could have its slaves and count them, too. Each would be worth three-fifths of a person: enough to make Virginia the Electoral College king.
Subsequent developments tweaked but kept the College — its advantage to the South from having humans in chains wasn’t lost on northerners. A Massachusetts congressman groused in 1803 that the census of slaves would add “18 electors of president and vice president at the next election” from southern states.
Disgruntlement with this set-up is simmering. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that would require their electors to support the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. Those laws would take effect once states with the minimum majority of Electoral College votes (270) enact similar legislation. The 13 states signed on so far possess 181 electoral votes.
This end-run is a likelier pathway to abolition than the alternative route of a constitutional amendment. Ironically, if the Electoral College dies, it may be killed — by the states.
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