Issue Briefs

The Case for keeping the Electoral College

The Case for keeping the Electoral College

Martin Sieff

December 17, 2016

One would expect the US Electoral College to be under more widespread attack after it delivered a second US president with a clear minority of the national vote in two out of the past five national elections.

And such arguments against this somewhat bizarre system for electing a president have predictably been raised among liberals and Democrats, since Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on November 8 lost the Electoral College and therefore the presidency, while she won the overall U.S. popular vote –and by a significant margin at that.

Strong support for the Electoral College

However, what is remarkable is how national support for the college and the antiquated way it functions has actually risen since the presidential election was held on November 8.

For the first time in almost half a century of Gallup polling on the subject, less than 50 percent of Americans say they want to scrap the Electoral College and elect their president though a popular vote. After Donald Trump’s victory, only 49 percent said they still wanted to scrap it.

Trump is now more popular

Part of this may reflect a widespread relief that President-elect Donald Trump has not yet provoked a major global crisis. Certainly Wall Street has responded to his election with exuberance, punching the Dow Jones Index clear through the 19,000 barrier. Now we are well on our way to Dow 20,000.

Part of this new support for the method we use to elect our president also clearly reflects the predictable after the vote spike in popularity that Trump has already enjoyed, just like every other President-elect and sudden incumbent to the office since 1945.

The fact that Trump has struck a relatively generous tone and has emphasized his desire to serve all Americans – especially thanking the Hispanic and African-American communities for the increased levels of support they gave him – has also helped calm the waters.

Why keep this old system?

Ian Buchanan, writing in the Duke Chronicle of Duke University on December 8, succinctly presented the traditional view that the Electoral College is a crucial mechanism for promoting the compromise and consensus without which democracy across a nation the size of the United States could not function:

“Two reasons, in particular, that buttress the case for Electoral College are its formation of swing states and its assurance of a legitimate mandate to govern. In a popular vote system, candidates would solely preach to their base, the metaphorical choir per se, in states like Texas and California. Whereas in the Electoral College, candidates must not only turn out their base but convince undecided voters in swing states across the nation of the viability of their message.”

Good reasons to keep the Electoral College

Another crucial underlying factor needs to be appreciated too – The Electoral College runs counter to the ideology and ideals of “pure” democracy in that it sometime negates the Popular Will of the clear Majority.

But it continues to perform a vital function in keeping the different regions and different prevalent regional interest groups, economic concerns, regional prejudices and perspectives of a huge continental nation in balance with each other.

In other words, the Electoral College is crucial to the continued unity and stability of the United States.

Give each state a voice

The Electoral College was originally designed to preserve the interests of individual states and to prevent small ones being repeatedly shut out by larger ones.

Historically, this arrangement has always given an inherent additional weight to the interests of small population states across the American Heartland.

That tendency was clearly on display in the 2016 results. Republican Donald Trump ran up clear margins of victory across so many Heartland states, and even throughout the rural areas of states like New York, despite the overwhelming support that the major urban centers in them gave to his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Clinton ran up enormous majorities in two of the four most populous states- California and New York. She lost Florida, which now has an equal number of Electoral College votes with New York, by a narrow though still clear margin. She did not come close in the second most populous state Texas, which remained overwhelmingly conservative.

Conservative heartland beats liberal costal states

What this means is that it was the conservative, nationalist and more traditionally religious Heartland that beat out the liberal, far more heterodox states of the East and West Coasts.

The problems of resolving conflicts between not just state but also regional interests were well understood by the Founding Fathers. The very first administration of George Washington was repeatedly rocked by the endless clashes between Thomas Jefferson representing the interests of the Southern states and Alexander Hamilton, the spokesman for the commercial and financial interests of the Northeast.

Rural South beats industrial North

As I document in my 2015 book Cycles of Change, a study of the patterns of US history from Jefferson to Barack Obama, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the first popularly elected president, effectively blocked the interests of New York, Boston and Philadelphia for generations.

Indeed, the policies followed by almost all of the first 15 US presidents strongly favored the interests of the South.

These included: rapid continental expansion, cheap or free land for white settlers, subjugation of the Native American nations and the vast expansion of slavery to produce cash crops, primarily cotton and tobacco.

I call this period, encompassing the two eras of Jefferson and Jackson, the age of Agrarian America.

It all changed with Lincoln

However, Abraham Lincoln’s fateful single term presidency through the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 permanently swung primary interests back to the financial and industrial concentrations of the Northeast. And these conditions have essential continued to the president day.

In Cycles of Change, I call the 72 years from the election of Lincoln to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt “The Era of Industrial America”.

During those years, ironically New York and the old concentrations of population and wealth on the East Coast, along with the rapidly rising West Coast, primarily California after 1900, were political financial bastions of wealth, conservativism and bases for the Republican Party.

Social radical and progressive forces were far more likely to win or influence local power across the more sparsely populated states of the West and upper Midwest.

With FDR Democrats win in urban areas

Only during the era of Democratic dominance launched by FDR’s election in 1932 that ended with the election of Richard Nixon did the Left and liberals finally start making common cause with the big city political machines to make the East Coast and the other major urban centers their political power base – a condition that has continued to this day.

In most cases Electoral College reinforced popular vote

All in all, through most of the elections over the past 192 years, the Electoral College has not functioned to thwart the political will, but to magnify it. This had the generally desirable effect of translating narrow margins in the overall popular vote into much more impressive sanctions based on the vote totals from individual states.

Since majorities, however small in each state, proved crucial, and neither major party wanted to risk the other one grabbing too much of a stranglehold over the machinery of collecting counting and certifying votes, this Electoral College system has maintained the emphasis on keeping the institutions of government efficient, honest and transparent at state levels.

Keep the system as is

There is certainly a case to be made for abolishing the Electoral College in favor of establishing a more widespread democracy in the US, but Karl Popper’s “Law of Unexpected Consequences” should point to resisting the arguments to do so.

In the American case, a more perfect democracy in practice would lead to a far more disaffected United States in the short term, and in the longer term, therefore, possibly to no United States at all.

Martin Sieff is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He is author most recently of Gathering Storm: The Seventh Era of American History and the Coming Crises That Will Lead to It.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.