The electoral college: The cause of a tragedy

Donald Trump’s election is, as The New Yorker put it, a national tragedy. What was the cause of this tragedy?

Political commentators have said that the liberal democratic establishment—pollsters, the media, the DNC—underestimated America’s population of resentful, non-college educated individuals, as well as the turnout Trump could entice from this group. Further, pollsters may have underestimated the amount of middle class voters that Trump would claim through his statements against Obamacare.

But Clinton won the popular vote, so the immediate cause of Trump’s election is the United States’ continued use of the electoral college.

In fact, this election is the second in the last five in which the Democrats won the popular vote but lost the election. Why does the electoral college impose upon Americans what the majority of voters do not want?

Originally, this system was designed to both enfranchise and sublimate the ‘sense of the people.’ This meant it sought to represent the people’s choice for president while shielding the presidency from an unqualified candidate who may gain a 51 percent popular majority through populist campaigns.

This is because, while the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld the democratic principle of one person, one vote, the framers of the constitution found that voters in their time were often uninformed in policy areas relevant to electing a president.

Thus, the framers created the electoral college, a system by which the often uninformed individuals would vote for educated and informed electors, who would cast the actual ballot.

The trade-off was that the system would undermine one person, one vote by weighing individuals’ votes differently based on the state in which they lived.

But electors’ votes have long been formalities, and have almost never deviated from the voters’ choices. Twenty-eight states even have laws against ‘faithless electors,’ or electors voting against the voters’ choices.

As such, according to most experts, including a Colby professor with whom I spoke, the electoral college does not and likely never did effectively fulfill its stated purpose of shielding the government from an unqualified candidate who channels populist whim.

Thus, the electoral college is not a reasonable trade off, because it undermines one person, one vote by differently weighting votes by the state in which they were cast, without sublimating ‘the sense of the people’ or otherwise defending the government from an unqualified candidate.

Experts find that the true checks on candidates’ qualifications are the selection and nomination processes, which occur within political parties. Of course, a party could nominate an unqualified candidate whom it finds most likely to win. But in such cases, the electoral college often enables rather than blocks the unqualified candidate.

November 8 provides a clear example. The popular vote chose an ex-Senator and Secretary of State with a record of reasonable policy positions. But the electoral college selected a real estate salesman and reality TV actor who campaigned on little more than nativist buzzwords and thin bravado.

Noting that the electoral college does not effectively shield the government from unqualified candidates, modern proponents of the electoral college do not cite the framers’ original arguments.

The primary modern argument in favor of the electoral college, advanced by Gary L. Gregg II, an electoral college expert at the University of Louisville, is that a popular vote may cause a national recount, which Gregg said to the New York Times would be a ‘national nightmare.’

But George C. Edwards III, Distinguished Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University and author of Why The Electoral College is Bad for America, finds that this argument “does not bear scrutiny.”

This is because vote recounts are warranted when the margin is less than one percent, so only six elections in U.S. history, and possibly the 2016 election, would be eligible. As such, these are relatively unsubstantial inefficiencies that may be expected to occur in about 13.3 percent of elections, and thus are not a reason to use a system that unjustifiably undermines democracy for the reasons stated above.

Further, historically, a national recount would have been warranted under a popular vote system about as often as the winner of the popular vote has lost the electoral college vote due to the system’s different weighting of individuals’ votes by state.

Thus, having to recount votes in 13.3 percent of elections is not reason to maintain a system that, equally often, has misrepresented American voters due to unequally weighting votes. Moreover, even when the electoral college aligns with the popular vote, it still pointlessly adds another layer of voting.

For these reasons, I think the U.S. should switch to a Nationwide Interstate Popular Vote Compact (NIPVC): an agreement among states to award all their respective electoral college votes (ECVs) to the winner of the popular vote. This would be a first step towards switching to a nationwide popular vote system.

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