The Electoral College Is Not What Its Defenders Say It Is

Conservatives claim that our current system protects every voter’s voice. Here’s why it does the exact opposite.

Perhaps sensing that it represents their best chance to win the White House in 2020 and beyond, or because four states have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact this year, conservatives have recently come out in droves to defend the Electoral College. Many of their arguments cannot withstand even the mildest scrutiny.

George Will and former Congressman Raul Labrador say the Electoral College encourages presidential candidates to campaign nationally and prevents small states from being ignored. But in 2016 Trump and Hillary Clinton made 57 percent of their post-primary appearances in just four of the ten most populous states—Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Far from encouraging a national campaign, the Electoral College has consistently narrowed candidates’ focus to the biggest swing states in any given election.

Congressman Dan Crenshaw argued last week that the Electoral College prevents a “tyranny” in which 51 percent of Americans impose their will over the other 49 percent. But a system of government in which an elected executive is checked by two other co-equal branches is not a tyranny. If it were, every American would already be living under the tyrannical rule of our state governors. More importantly, why would letting the 49 percent impose their will on the 51 percent be any less tyrannical?

Other arguments for the Electoral College are more cunning, but just as specious. For example, many politicians and pundits argue that a national popular vote would unfairly “silence” rural voters. By framing it that way, they imply that the Electoral College preserves equality and that a popular vote is the enemy of it. In truth, the Electoral College creates inequality by giving voters in sparsely populated states more influence than voters in densely populated ones. If protecting every voter’s voice is one of our goals, a popular vote is actually the best way to achieve it.

No doubt much of the right-wing fervor to defend the Electoral College is motivated by the desire to win elections. Polls show that Democrats have long supported a national popular vote, while Republican support dropped from 54 percent to 19 percent after the 2016 election.

But more than partisanship or a misunderstanding of the concept of tyranny, the defense of the Electoral College, at its core, is based on a lie—the idea that places like states, cities, or counties have opinions, and that the Electoral College is the best way to represent those opinions. This is clear from the way defenders talk about the institution.

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst said that “if we eliminate the Electoral College rural states would be silenced.” The National Review suggested that the Electoral College prevents “New York and California from imposing their will on the rest of the country.” Crenshaw tweeted that “people living in rural areas have different problems than people living in cities” and implied that a popular vote would lead to their problems being ignored. But this line of argument is wrong for two reasons.

First, states (or cities or counties) are land masses, not people. They don’t have voices to be silenced. Therefore, there is no such thing as a rural state’s opinion or New York’s will. A state’s political identity is derived solely on the people who live there. Second, to the extent that states have residents with voices and opinions, no state is so homogenous that awarding all of its electoral votes to whichever candidate wins a majority or plurality of voters accurately represents that state’s political views.

Consider Ernst’s home state of Iowa. In 2016, 51.2 percent of Iowans supported Trump while 48.8 percent supported Clinton or other candidates. If Iowa were a person, it’s opinion would be described as mixed or undecided. A truly accurate representation of Iowa’s “opinion” would reflect that a slim majority supported Trump, but that more than 40 percent supported Clinton as well.

Instead, Trump won all six of Iowa’s electoral votes. On an electoral map, the state is designated entirely as red, as if the other 48.8 percent of Iowa voters don’t exist. Rather than effectively representing Iowan’s voices, the Electoral College distorted them by artificially enhancing the impact of voters in the majority, and artificially diminishing the influence of voters in the minority. That is what the Electoral College does in every state (except Maine and Nebraska, which split their electoral votes between congressional districts and the state’s overall total). It takes hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans with diverse opinions within a state, but then lets a majority or plurality of the state’s voters control how every electoral vote is awarded. In other words, it creates the false impression that a state is red or blue when, in truth, every state is closer to purple.

Opponents may try to argue that a popular vote does the same thing, but that’s not true. With a popular vote, citizens vote directly for candidates and every vote is counted toward the ultimate total. Under the Electoral College, however, electors act as an intermediary between voters and candidates. Citizens still vote, but electors cast aside votes for minority candidates before awarding their electoral votes, leaving many or even most of their state’s voters behind. Iowa is not even the worst example.

In 2016, Trump or Clinton won all the electoral votes in thirteen states where neither candidate received 50 percent of the vote. In 1992, when Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot mounted national campaigns, Clinton won all the electoral votes in four states where he did not even receive 40 percent of the vote. If Ernst or other Electoral College defenders truly cared about representation, they would be deeply troubled by that. But we have become so accustomed to talking about states as if they are human-like individual entities—and the idea of “red states” and “blue states”—that we forget how fundamentally inaccurate those designations are.

That same fallacy—of talking about places as if they are people—is the foundation of nearly every other “argument” in favor of the Electoral College. It is behind the false notion that, without the Electoral College, New York and California would decide every election, as if the two states are thugs trying to shout down forty-eight people who disagree with them. Rather, they are two of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse states in the country, with more than seven million Trump voters in their “sea of blue.” The fallacy also leads to the division of “rural voters” and “urban voters” as if they are two diametrically opposed groups.  While it is true that people living in the same area may share some problems in common, that doesn’t mean they all agree on how to solve those problems, or who should solve them. Once the fallacy is exposed, it becomes clear that the Electoral College doesn’t even serve the interests that supposedly justify its existence.

The Electoral College does not prevent small states from being ignored. It encourages candidates to spend nearly all their time in swing states, most of which are among the most populous, like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The Electoral College does not protect us from tyranny. It creates tyranny by magnifying the influence of voters in the majority in every state. And of course, it has given us a president who did not win the most votes in two of the last five presidential elections. Even if you argue that the Electoral College preserves our federalist system or states’ rights, a popular vote more accurately represents the will of a state’s voters than a winner-take-all Electoral College system.

It’s easy to get entangled in an overly conceptual debate about the Electoral College, especially when so many of its defenders rely on esoteric arguments or rhetorical tricks to make their case. But once you cut through the sophistry, the case for replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote is clear.

Every vote in the country should carry equal weight regardless of where it comes from. Rural and urban communities should be represented in the exact proportion to which people live in those communities. There is no justifiable reason a voter in Colorado or New Hampshire should be more likely to swing an election than a voter in Wyoming or Oklahoma, just because the former are more politically divided. Sooner or later, either by constitutional amendment or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, fairness will prevail. When it does, every vote in the presidential election will finally be valued exactly as it should.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform and increasing civic engagement.