The Electoral College votes Monday, officially giving President-elect Joe Biden the votes needed to be sworn in on Jan. 20. Since President Donald Trump won the election in 2016, there’s been a renewed interest in possibly getting rid of the Electoral College and deciding presidential elections based solely on the popular vote. I have an alternative proposition: We can keep the Electoral College — but only if the U.S. gets rid of political parties. We can’t have both.
In two of the last five elections, the winners of the national popular vote lost the presidency.
The arguments for ditching the Electoral College are plentiful and well-trodden at this point. In two of the last five elections, the winners of the national popular vote lost the presidency, a subversion of the majority of the country’s votes. The Electoral College focuses the quadrennial contest on just a handful of swing states. It disenfranchises rural liberals and conservative urbanites in national elections.
In response, several rebuttals have cropped up against tossing the system in the dumpster. Seymour Spilerman, a professor emeritus of social sciences at Columbia University, used the 2000 election as an example of when, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Electoral College improved things in what was a close race nationwide. By keeping the focus on a handful of ballots in Florida, he wrote in The Washington Post, the U.S. dodged a recount in 51 different jurisdictions “requiring tabulation of the 101 million votes cast in the country, along with a consideration of the rejects, with their hanging chads, questionable signatures and issues of voter identity.”
Richard Lempert, a professor emeritus of law and sociology at the University of Michigan, also argued that the Electoral College helps cut down on election officials’ trying to meddle with the presidential race. In a 2016 blog post for the Brookings Institution, he laid out a hypothetical in which “a partisan, passionate, and not completely ethical election official in, say, Maryland or Mississippi” could play with the margin of victory in a national popular vote. These “passionate partisans would have reason to stuff the ballot boxes for their favored candidate while illegally misreporting or suppressing votes they do not want to count,” he argued.
Both cases say the Electoral College was put in place for a reason, as archaic as it may be. So let’s take that at face value and instead ask, “What went wrong?” A look at Alexander Hamilton’s original arguments for supporting the system in Federalist No. 68 offers a clue.
In Hamilton’s view, having the general population vote for the president would make demagoguery too easy for candidates. You also couldn’t trust a body that already exists to pick a president — its members would be too easy to target for corruption and bribery. A fixed institution would also leave a presidential hopeful willing to offer up a quid pro quo for its member’s votes.
The theory was that having a group whose members are chosen by the people to meet up in their own states, vote and then disband would provide the best protection against intrigue. But, as with the rest of the Constitution, the framers didn’t consider what might happen once political parties joined the fray.
The Electoral College that Hamilton describes, in which “there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue,” has basically never operated as designed. Instead, presidential candidates have been chosen to run on the general ballot in almost every election at party conventions, free to pander directly to their bases in the run-up.
Electors remain on the ballot — but voters on Election Day are voting for electors from either the Democratic or the Republican parties, who have promised to vote for their chosen candidates. As the National Conference of State Legislatures notes, “Electors generally are selected by the political party for their party loyalty, and many are party leaders, and thus not likely to vote other than for their party’s candidate.” And the Supreme Court just this year affirmed that as totally fine, ruling that “faithless electors” can’t go rogue and cast their votes for someone else.
So instead of being a group of people “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,” who the electors themselves are is almost pointless. (Did you know, for example, that both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton will be electors for New York this year?) Why go through this pantomime every four years?
The damage that parties have done to the system may be set to get worse. In theory, the Electoral College’s casting its ballots is what finally breaks the spell on the Republicans who’ve backed Trump’s inane, dangerous and ultimately quixotic quest to overturn the election results. Given how over half of the House GOP caucus signed their names to this utterly undemocratic effort, that’s not guaranteed — especially since Congress has one more job to do as far as the 2020 election is concerned.
Hamilton thought that at times there might be as many as five candidates who fail to get a majority, thus sending the choice to the House for a final pick. Trump has been urging GOP members of Congress to turn what has become a pro forma event — Congress’ certifying the votes transmitted from the states — into another sideshow, rejecting the slates of electors that were chosen and denying Biden a majority. That would then let the House’s delegations, in which Republicans have a slight majority, make their pick. It’s not going to happen — but the fact that we even have to think about it is worrying.
If electors were truly free to choose the person most fit for office, regardless of party, there might be something to the concept. As it stands, though, as a rubber stamp meant only to apportion out the vote into variables that are then plugged into an arcane algebra for parties to exploit, the system will remain broken. So pick one: the Electoral College or political parties — you can’t have both and a functioning democracy.