George Will: American democracy and the Electoral College
Among the recent garbled effusions from today's temporary president — cheer up; they are all temporary — was one that concerned something about which he might not have thought as deeply as the subject merits. During an episode of government of, by and for “Fox & Friends,” he said: He won the 2016 election “easily” but wishes the electoral vote system were replaced by direct election of presidents by popular vote. He favors this “because” — if you were expecting him to offer reasons drawn from political philosophy or constitutional theory, grow up — “to me, it's much easier to win the popular vote.”
He added, accidentally stubbing his toe on a truth, that running for president without the Electoral College would involve “a totally different campaign.” Which, he does not realize, is one reason for retaining the Electoral College.
The president's interest in all this comes from his festering grievance about losing the popular vote by five times more votes than George W. Bush lost it to Al Gore in 2000. Evidently he supposes that under a pure popular-vote system he would have campaigned in, say, indigo California, thereby reducing his opponent's huge margin of victory there (30 points). Perhaps. But his California campaigning might have increased her turnout, which was probably reduced by the lack of campaigning there. Who knows?
This we do know: Presidential majorities are built by the Electoral College as it has evolved, adapting to the two-party system. The Electoral College gives the parties a distribution incentive for achieving geographical and ideological breadth while assembling a coalition of states . The electoral vote system, combined with the winner-take-all allocation of the votes in 48 of the 50 states (all but Maine and Nebraska), serves, as scholar Herbert Storing said, “to drive all interests into one of two great parties.” This discourages a destabilizing proliferation of small ideological parties and encourages the two parties “to cast their nets very widely.”
In 1967, an American Bar Association commission, which recommended replacing the Electoral College with a direct popular vote, strangely criticized the electoral vote system for being “ambiguous.” Actually, in close elections, including 2016's, the electoral vote system provides what political scientist Martin Diamond called “useful amplification.” In 1960, John Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote but 56.4 percent of the electoral vote (303-219). In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote but 67.8 percent of the electoral vote (365-173).
America is a “mitigated” democracy (this adjective is from James Madison, the foremost translator of democracy into institutional architecture), in which, for example, Wyoming's U.S. senators represent just 1.5 percent of the number of people that California's senators represent. American democracy, as in the Electoral College, accommodates considerations more complex than simpleminded majoritarianism.
The president might be astonished to learn that people were thinking deeply about the Electoral College long before the subject crossed his mind. Which it did because he managed to lose the popular vote to one of the two least-popular major-party nominees in American history, the other being today's temporary president.
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.