If the Electoral College was meant as a firewall against populism, it has failed, twice in this century, and twice for the worse. (Note: the data in this chart is out of date; see the updated version.)
Notice the pattern? The electoral vote amplified the differences in the popular vote, except when the race was close, when it reversed the outcome. A tight outcome is the condition you might expect when there’s a populist, heated race, driven by emotion. The two times when the electoral vote recently went against the popular vote, we ended up with a President that appealed more to fear, mistrust, and disorder than to unity and deliberation.
I’m not claiming that the Electoral College always reverses close outcomes, simply that it’s a destabilizing factor that can clearly err on the side of disenfranchising the will of the voters.
I wrote before on some problems with the Electoral College. It’s an undemocratic institution that’s skews our politics. It has not only outlived its usefulness, but it’s causing actual harm to our society. It’s undermining faith in our process of governing, it’s confusing, and it’s time for it to go.
Placebo against populism
Was the Electoral College even meant to prevent populism in the first place? Yes. Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers #68, “The Mode of Electing the President”:
It was equally desirable, that the 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.
It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.
In other words, the Founders wanted to have a select group of “discerning” leaders (ostensibly chosen by their fellow citizens e.g. land-owners) pick the President, on behalf of each state, to prevent a populist demagogue from riling up the citizenry and getting elected on a wave of emotion. They were to gather and vote in each individual state, separate from those from other states, to prevent collusion, group-think, and civic influence.
Let’s set aside for now that this is elitist; the problem I’m focusing on is that it’s ineffective.
The Electoral College was designed at a time when only 6% of the population (the land-owners) could vote, when communication between states was slow and difficult, and when the feedback loop between officials and the public was even slower. That has all changed. America needs to change with it.
Couldn’t the Electoral College still prevent Trump from becoming President?
Theoretically, yes. There are 26 states where the Electors are unbound; that is, where the Elector can vote for whomever they wish, regardless of how their state voted. 16 of those states (Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) voted for Trump. Any of those Electors could decide to vote for someone else, either someone more traditionally Republican, or one of the third-party candidates, or even Hillary or Bernie. There are 157 electoral votes in those 16 states, more than enough to change the outcome of the election. But will any of them change their vote? Highly unlikely.
Ironically, they would be accused of ignoring the will of the people, even though Clinton won the popular vote.
How do we get rid of the Electoral College?
Wouldn’t we need Congress to make an amendment to the Constitution? Wouldn’t that take forever, if it’s even possible? No. We can do this on our own, without a Constitutional Amendment. We can work in our individual states to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). Once it’s law in enough states to add up to 270 electoral votes, then we’ve effectively worked around the Electoral College, and it could be the harmless, doddering old ceremony that it should be.
Maybe the popular vote might still be bad. But it’s hard to imagine the outcome being worse than 2016.
Update, 15 January 2016
Now that the dust has settled, the votes have been counted and recounted, and the electoral college has proven its inability to serve its sole purpose, I thought I’d revisit this post with an updated dataviz showing the final numbers.
As you can see, the popular vote margin is even more pronounced for Clinton and against Trump, but the Electoral College vote is still dramatically skewed in the opposite direction.
This is gerrymandering writ large, vote-concentration at the national level. Like gerrymandering, this is concentrating electoral constituency to favor one class of voters.
The Electoral College is an institution founded in compromise with slave owners, and it continues to work against the most disadvantaged.