Morris: The Electoral College
by Leo Morris
Let’s cut to the chase on our current relapse into anti-Electoral College fever.
- No matter what high-minded reasons partisans espouse, many also all have selfish motivations for their positions. A great number of Electoral College opponents are liberals and/or Democrats who believe an end to the current system will ensure the election of liberals and/or Democrats to the presidency forever and ever. A great number of Electoral College supporters are conservatives and/or Republicans who believe maintaining the status quo will give conservatives and/or Republicans a better shot at the White House.
- The Electoral College isn’t going anywhere soon. It would take a constitutional amendment to get rid of it, a process the Founders purposely made difficult. When Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh tried to amend the college out of the Constitution in 1970, he was riding a wave of popular opinion, and in fact got his proposal through the House by a huge margin, but it died in the Senate. Even if a measure could make it out of Congress today, the idea that it could pass in three-quarters of the states is preposterous.
The only reason the issue is worthy of debate today is that supporters of a popular-vote presidency are busy trying to do an end run around the Constitution. A number of states have already endorsed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would require a state to award all its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, regardless of which one wins in that state.
The compact will take effect only if states with at least 270 electoral votes – the number needed to win the presidency – sign on. So far, 12 states with 181 electoral votes are on board, all of them but one (Colorado) having voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since at least 1992 – surprise, surprise. If the threshold is reached, the continued existence of the Electoral College in the Constitution will have been rendered pointless.
As someone on the conservative/libertarian side of the aisle, I think this would be a terrible development – again, surprise, surprise.
Democratic presidential contenders such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg rail against the Electoral College by insisting that it violates the principle that “every vote should count.” But if it’s wrong that almost half a state’s voters are “disenfranchised” (because their candidate didn’t win), how right is it that more than half would be disenfranchised if they voted for the national popular vote loser?
If that last paragraph sounded a little silly, it’s because the whole “every vote should count” dictum is superficial and misleading. In every election, whatever the process, each vote counts in one sense because it is a part of the process, but only the votes for the winning candidate really matter in any meaningful sense.
As it stands now, my vote for president counts because of both my status as a citizen of the United States and my standing as a citizen of Indiana. If we switch to a popular-vote system, my status as a Hoosier no longer matters. Only my status as a U.S. citizen matters.
And that is a bigger deal than opponents of the Electoral College are willing to acknowledge.
I sometimes think those of us on the right may be guilty of somewhat overstating our case that a popular-vote presidency would end federalism as we know it. For example, read Bayh’s article in the Spring 1977 issue of Valparaiso University Law Review. It’s well-researched and honestly presented, with points worth debating.
But ending the Electoral College, whether de jure with a constitutional amendment or de facto with a compact of states, would be one diminishment of the states and one enhancement of the central government, which would be a step away from federalism and a step toward a democracy. So, I think it would be fair to ask all participants in the argument which system they prefer and to give their reasons why.
The Founders chose federalism for the sound reason of trying to mitigate against the dangers of too much concentration of power inherent in strict majority rule. The delicate balance of authority between the states and the federal government was a vital component of that system. Given the abuses of power we can already see exist, how much worse would be if we weaken the system designed specifically to limit those abuses?
I will quote Alexander Bickel, echoing the seminal conservative philosopher Edmund Burke (as does Bayh, though not as favorably): “There are great virtues in a conservative attitude towards structural features of government. The sudden abandonment of institutions is an act that reverberates in ways no one can predict and many come to regret.”
That is the essence of conservatism, by the way (at least as I see it) – not to merely hold on to things because of tradition or a fear of change but to carefully examine what we have to determine what is worth keeping and what should be discarded.
Those clamoring to scuttle the Electoral College should be careful they are not rushing to discard something worth keeping. And if they won’t, then the rest of us must.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at email@example.com.