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Dec 23 2016
by Anna DiGiacomo

Why the United States Needs the Electoral College

By Anna DiGiacomo - Dec 23 2016

In a result that left much of America stunned, Donald Trump won the 2016 election due to an electoral blowout. Predictably, his election has reopened questions regarding America’s election process that haven’t truly been discussed since the 2000 election between Bush and Gore, namely, should we even be using the electoral college? For many are furious that a candidate who won the popular vote didn’t also win the big seat in the Oval Office. After all, the argument exists that if America is a country founded on democracy, then should the majority not decide who the president should be? Even Trump himself has said that the president should be elected through the popular vote, that a popular vote would be “more sensible”.

Yet Trump and others calling for the abolition of the electoral college fail to understand the chaos such an action would cause. A quick review of basic civics will remind people that America doesn’t exist as a democracy at all, no matter how often we say we are. The fact remains that the US is a constitutional republic, controlled in parts by the people, the state governments and the federal government. Although the people certainly reserve more power through the electoral process, they nevertheless don’t have direct control over legislation passed by their representatives. As such, the argument that presidents should be elected through a pure democratic process simply doesn’t stand up - America isn’t a pure democracy so officials aren’t elected purely democratically.

In fact, some would argue that there is nothing the founding fathers feared more than democracy. As Alexander Hamilton explained, “The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity”. Historically speaking, the founding fathers knew that pure democracies resulted in nothing short of mob rule, where the voices of the minority were drowned out in favor of the majority.

Recall the arguments that lead to the deal later dubbed “The Great Compromise”, an agreement made during the ratification of the Constitution. “The Great Compromise” lead to the creation of the two separate houses - the House of Representatives and the Senate. In short, it was agreed that state representation in the House of Representatives would reflect a state’s population while representation in the Senate would be equal for all states. This way, state size could be balanced with every state’s natural right to be heard.

This is the same idea that led to the creation of the electoral college - a system that would  ensure smaller states still carried a voice in determining the president of the United States. It is not a system of the past nor has the question of population versus state equality been solved - it never will. In short, the electoral college is a practical solution that will always be necessary under America’s constitutional system and this is why.

First, with any form of government comes the question of legitimacy - why does this person have the right to dictate my actions and why must I listen to them? Note that this very sentiment is being demonstrated today with the “Not My President” protests. Yet, the founding fathers answered this question quickly and definitively in the US Constitution; the person who receives the most of the electoral votes will become the president. It’s a cut and dry solution for a reason because the legitimacy of the president must be clear to maintain a functioning and coherent society.

The founding fathers were more than aware of the dangers a plurality or majority system posed. Consider the following “hypothetical situation”: Candidate A receives 43 percent of the popular vote, Candidate B receives 28 percent and Candidate C receives 29 percent. Under the pure majority system which many disappointed in the 2016 election support, there would be no victor as none of the candidates received a 51 percent majority. Even in the 2016 election where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, she still only managed to win the plurality at 48 percent - not the majority. This is because third parties will almost always win enough votes to prevent a single candidate from winning the majority. As such, unless third parties were to be unconstitutionally banned, a majority system simply cannot be implemented.

Furthermore, abandoning the electoral college for a simple plurality system would be just as disastrous. While an electoral system based on one candidate receiving more votes than another would solve the problem of winning a clear majority, it would also lead to a flood of candidates. Every group of every ideology would run candidates and simply hope that enough people supported it. As Peter Wallison explains, there would be pro-life and pro-choice parties; free-trade and anti-trade parties; and pro-immigration and anti-immigration parties - just to name a few. Unless America was to adopt a parliamentary system based on forming coalitions, similar to that of England, a plurality system could easily result in presidents elected with only 15 percent of the popular vote. This brings us all the way back to the question of legitimacy - does someone with so little support truly have the right to lead the country?

Naturally, other solutions could be devised. Some countries implement a run-off system where the top two candidates of an open race are picked to run against each other. However, to use the same examples listed in the above paragraph, this could result in voters choosing between the pro-life party and the pro-gun policy. This would hardly be representative to the issues people truly cared about and would once again open the question of legitimacy.

Additionally, opponents of the electoral college cite that placing emphasis on states rather than people results in candidates focusing more on pleasing swing states than the rest of the country. However, this argument is short sighted when one considers where most of the US population is centered. Is it “less fair” for smaller states to receive a slightly higher number of votes in relation to their population that more populous states or is it better that the nation’s leader be decided by a few urban centers in Texas, California and New York? The electoral college was designed to ensure that a diverse range of people from all across the country could be heard in the election. After all, urban centers which represent the majority of the country’s population hardly have the same concerns as those in rural counties. Additionally, as the 2016 election dramatically showed, the electoral college forces candidates to accommodate rural farmers and industrial factory workers in mid-America, not just the highly populated urban centers.

Map courtesy of thethoroughbredofsin via Imgur

All in all, with the exception 1860 where succession threats were more serious that #Calexit, the electoral college has seen power successfully transferred between various political administrations for over two hundred years. A rash call to dismantle the very system that has ensured political stability in this country by a few who are “upset” by the outcome is pure madness. Those who argue that Trump’s election is “unfair” and “undermines American ideals of democracy” are not only disillusioned about the country they in, they fail to understand the very system they want abolished or the simple implications of what they propose.

To read why the Electoral College should go, check out this Fresh U article

Lead Image: Stephen Melkhisethian via Flickr Creative Commons

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Anna DiGiacomo - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Anna is a freshman Strategic Communications major at UNC Chapel Hill. She played varsity soccer in high school and besieged the student body with libertarianism. She now spends her time annoying her roommate, catching Bruce Springsteen concerts and getting lost while pretending to camp. Follow her on Instagram @digiacomoa

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