—Sean Trende, “RealClearPolitics”
“just eight years ago, Democrats had total control of Washington—assuming Republicans will be in power forever is folly.”
—Mark Hemingway, “Federalist”
The Democratic fit over Clinton losing to Trump in the electoral college is a bit overdone. What happened in 2016 — the electoral college winner losing the popular vote by 2.8 million — may never happen again.
But an electoral college makes sense. We are, after all, the United States of America. Our motto is E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one.”
It’s the only way our nation became one in 1787. The states weren’t going to give up all their sovereignty to a national government. That’s why the Senate, where each state has two votes no matter its size, is half of Congress. That’s why the Constitution’s Xth Amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” [emphasis added]
That’s why the electoral college grants votes for president to the states, acting individually and separately. In deference to popular will, the electoral college weighs the power of each state’s vote by population size, so that California has 55 electoral votes and Wyoming 3. But California is still just one of 50.
As conservative Mark Hemingway wrote:
Nearly the entire premise of the U.S. Constitution—including the Electoral College—is setting up a system of government such that in a large country with as many striking regional and political differences as ours, one state can’t dominate the rest. Clinton’s margin of victory in California was 4.3 million votes. The rest of the country has good reason not to want national elections to be determined by California alone.Hemingway reminded us how rapidly the political winds shift (see quotation above). Today, progressives fret about the wasted power of votes cast by big city Democrats. Yet progressive Jonathan Bernstein took a longer view when he wrote:
The big, urban states traditionally did very well in the electoral college. . . . New York used to be a major swing state; California also was very contested once it became large, and even Texas had a run as a competitive state with big cities for a while. For whatever reason, all of that has slipped some over the last twenty or thirty years . . . Still, all else equal, a presidential candidate would rather pander to a large state with lots of winner-take-all electoral votes than a small one, which should tend, over time, to balance out the small-state advantage in the Senate. [emphasis added]In the 2016 election, almost all experts believed a Trump victory impossible unless he carried Florida’s 29 electoral votes. So both candidates campaigned heavily in the large, swing, Sunshine State.
One possible electoral college reform would be to replace the current winner-take-all state electoral vote calculation with allocations based on how candidates did in each congressional district. The National Archives describes how such a system would work, pointing to Maine, which currently so allocates its four electoral votes:
Maine . . . awards one Electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote. It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one Electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one Electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large Electoral votes.Progressive Mark Joseph Stern, in “Slate,” doesn’t like such a system, saying it would “favor Republicans, who have long sought to carve up purple states to deprive Democrats of electoral votes.”
Stern agrees with Bernstein’s reluctance to give up the impact big states earn through the electoral college’s “winner-take-all” state-by-state allocation.
The progressive “Daily Kos” is currently mapping the congressional districts won by Trump and Clinton. Results so far suggest Trump would have won if electoral votes were allocated by congressional district. Today, the “Daily Kos” tally is 147 congressional districts for Trump, 140 for Clinton, with 148 districts, mostly in Trump states, yet to be determined.
Arthur Lieber, in the progressive “Occasional Planet,” adds a strong note of sobriety to any electoral college reform short of abolishing the electoral college outright:
proportional electoral voting by state. . . would clearly be a much more democratic process. However, this method would only work if all fifty states agreed to allocate their electors proportionally. The likelihood of that would be less than that of passing a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with the popular vote.Conservative Peter J. Wallison argues the electoral college’s benefit is “to settle the question of legitimacy,” since the winner becomes president, even without a popular plurality or majority:
In the election of 1992, Bill Clinton received a majority of electoral votes and was the duly elected president, despite the fact that he received only a plurality (43%) of the popular votes [see here]. In fact, Bill Clinton did not win a majority of the popular vote in either of his elections, yet there was never any doubt—because he won an Electoral College majority—that he had the legitimacy to speak for the American people.Chicago Tribune conservative John Kass defends in stark terms the electoral college as a protector of minority rights. Kass proclaims that
abolishing the Electoral College to satisfy a party's power demands would usher in “The Hunger Games.”
Getting rid of the Electoral College would provide pure "majority rules" democracy, but not freedom. And minority rights as protected by our republic would disappear.
I've been reminded of the famous anecdote of the two wolves and the lamb voting on what to have for dinner. The wolves had the votes.
"What do you think you're doing?" cried the lamb. "What of minority rights?"
"Majority rules," said one wolf.
"We're hungry," said the other wolf. "I mean, I could eat a horse, but I'll settle for lamb.”