For over two hundred years of US Presidential elections only
one time did a candidate win the popular vote but fail to be chosen as
President by the Electoral College, Democrat Samuel Tilden in 1876. But then
came the 21st
Century and in the last five Presidential elections
this anomaly has happened twice. If you think this is a fair way to choose our
Presidents then you do not truly believe in representative democracy; and you
probably live in a state like Wyoming.
In addressing this problem here, I think it is necessary to
go into a fair amount of history. If you do not have the time or patience to
read through this, you can cut to the chase by going to the last paragraph
which links to the most probable way the Electoral College will be effectively
There were basically two reasons the Electoral College came
into being, one unanimously elitist and one compromisingly elitist. The
colonies, the Revolution and the resulting US Constitution were all run by
wealthy and powerful white male elites. These men would not give the vote to
black slaves, women and many poor and uneducated white males. The elitists
decided even those who would be allowed to vote were not capable of doing so
intelligently, supposedly because they were so tied to their immediate locale
they could not have knowledge of national candidates for President and Vice
President and they were so uneducated and inexperienced as to be incapable of
discernment. So the elites decided the voters would vote for their local elite
who would then make the final decision on the President and Vice President.
This was the unanimous elitist reason.
The thirteen colonies had great differences in size,
population, slaves, wealth and means of production; but they wanted to unite
for mutual protection and benefit. The elitist compromise was a legislative
branch of government with two chambers. The Representative chamber would be
composed of people actually chosen directly by the voters in a local district
of a state, with the number of districts determined based on population and
adjusted after every ten year census, and with each state getting at least one
Representative regardless of how small the state population.
The second chamber would be called the Senate. The smaller
states did not want to get trampled by the bigger states so they won a
compromise to have each state get two Senators in that chamber. The elitists
also decided the voters were not even sharp enough to be able to select
Senators statewide, so the Senators instead would be chosen by state
legislatures who in turn had been elected at the local state district level. If
this sounds a bit like trickle up democracy, it is. The people eventually wised
up and the Constitution was amended in 1913 to allow voters to directly elect
US Senators, a change that did not favor any one State over another.
In the Electoral College, each state gets a vote equal to
its number of Senators and Representatives, so the smaller states have a
disproportionate voice in choosing the President. This was a compromise the
large state elites were willing to make, because the office of the Presidency
was expected to be a weaker branch of government, with more power concentrated
in the Congress and particularly in the House of Representatives. Over time the
Presidency has become more powerful than anticipated and the Congress continues
to try to rein it in, especially when controlled by a different political party
than the President.
The original concept of the benevolent elites looking out
for their local voters quickly ran into the reality of partisan politics. The
method of conducting elections and choosing electors was left to the states. State
political parties soon were able to devise state legislative schemes for
getting electors to pledge to vote for a particular party Presidential
candidate, typically the candidate gaining the most votes state wide. This was
usually done on a winner takes all basis, though rarely some states award
electoral votes by Congressional district. Thus the Electoral College morphed
into the current mechanical way of whoever wins a state being awarded all the
electoral votes of that state.
There has been talk of changing the Electoral College to
drop the 100 Senator votes. However, those with power rarely give it up
voluntarily, so the small states will not agree to surrender their Senatorial
Electoral College advantage. But even if the 100 Senator votes had not been
included in the 2016 Electoral College, Hillary Clinton would still have lost.
Ironically the US as the oldest representative democracy in
the world and the self-proclaimed shining city on the hill is the only country
in the world with the concept of a "popular vote". All other countries
simply have elections with a "winning vote", whoever gets the most
votes is elected. No other country has been foolish enough to emulate our
Demographers and political pundits tell us the Electoral
College now works to the advantage of democrats because they control so many
states with larger populations. But the results from recent elections tell us
otherwise. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven
Presidential elections, but only won the Electoral College four of those times.
In the long term the demographers are undoubtedly correct, which should be a
persuasive argument to get Republicans ultimately to agree to scrap the
Having the President elected by popular vote should make
more people inclined to vote in Presidential elections; as it is now, some
people feel voting for President is a waste of time if their state is solidly
in the column of one party or the other. Choosing the President by national
popular vote should make us feel more united in choosing our President,
diluting the feelings of regional differences and the disillusionment of not
having a say on President if you are a minority in your own state.
Some political scientists argue that small states having a
greater voice in the Electoral College creates some sort of healthy diversity.
I totally reject that idea; in a representative democracy those elected are
representing people not acreage. It is bad enough we are stuck with a Senate
giving unequal representation because of the dated compromise that was made to
form the union, The way both chambers of Congress are elected is overdue for
re-evaluation, something I hope to be visiting in future Sense postings. Trump
now says if there was no Electoral College he would have campaigned more heavily
in populous states and won more popular votes. Maybe, or maybe his campaigning
more would have produced even more Hillary votes. The point is we will never
know until we change the rules to be truly democratic.
Fortunately there is a workaround to effectively put the
Electoral College out of business. It is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
. In a nutshell under the Compact individual states can vote
to require their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote.
When enough states to compose an Electoral College majority have approved the
compact, it will become effective and we will have Presidents chosen by the
actual wining vote of the people. The Compact arose out of the 2000 election
and to date has been adopted by states totaling 61.1% of the number of
Electoral votes needed to elect our President. So far only Democrat states have
adopted the Compact. As demographics swing more states Democrat, the prospects
for the Compact will grow. The DNC should make this a priority agenda item. Maybe
once the Compact kicks in, the small states will agree that since they have no
Electoral power advantage left to lose we might as well "clean up"
the Constitution by eliminating the College altogether.