Hillary Clinton won our vote.
“Our” meaning the choice of us the people of the United States of America. Everyone agrees that she won the plurality of the votes we cast leading up to Tuesday, 8 November.
But because of the Electoral College, our choice was distorted, and a man who was demonstrably the preference of fewer Americans will take the Presidency. Under some analyses, the distortion will be strikingly large, turning a 1-2% loss in our vote into a 20% win in the Electoral College. This isn’t the way democracies are supposed to work. As the Declaration of Independence says, the hallmark of legitimate governments is “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Without that consent, governmental powers are unjust.
I wrote about this problem with the U.S. Constitution in 2008 and again in 2012. As I said in the latter posting, I expressed the same worry shortly before the election of 2000, when the Electoral College hadn’t overruled the popular vote in more than a century and the hypothetical under discussion would actually favor my candidate. That would be illegitimate, I said.
So I’m not one of those complacent hypocrites who condemns the Electoral College when it doesn’t go his way and then happily accepts its results when it does.
With the passage of the Twelfth Amendment blocking the Electors from meeting as a deliberative body able to discuss issues and forge deals, the benefits of representative democracy no longer applied. The Electoral College hung on simply as a vestige of the Constitutional Convention’s compromises to preserve the inflated influence of slaveholders and small states.
Now we’ve had two elections over sixteen years in which the Electoral College frustrated our national choice. Not as bad as two over twelve years in the late nineteenth century, but bad enough that we should realize this isn’t a very rare problem we can safely ignore.
Many politicians have incentives to do nothing. All five of the candidates who won pluralities but were kept from the Presidency have been Democrats, but that party, its policies, and its bases have changed greatly over the last two centuries. The Electoral College’s two most recent distortions are the only ones that derive from the current party rivalries. In 2000 and 2016 the Republican Party found the system rigged in its favor, and its partisans are reluctant to give up that advantage.
Furthermore, since the Electoral College preserves disproportionate power for smaller-population states, those states’ legislatures also have incentives to avoid fixing the system. The National Popular Vote initiative is an easier fix than a constitutional amendment, but still requires legislatures to give up their extra power.
Nonetheless, we need to fix the U.S. Presidential election to ensure that the Electoral College ratifies rather than overturns our national vote. That will ensure our government retains full legitimacy. So the big question is whether enough American politicians will be willing to sacrifice some short-term, unfair advantages for the good of our nation as a whole.