There’s a lot of gnashing of teeth over this election, and it’s not likely to end any time soon. I’m hoping it won’t, because our whole system needs an overhaul. We need term limits, we need election reform, we need so much more.
Having said that, people are losing sight of why the Electoral College exists in the first place.
Think about Congress, the way it’s set up.
Members of the House of Representatives are allocated proportionally by population, and that allocation is readdressed every 10 years following the national census. Right now, the House has 435 members. Every state gets at least one rep, but the more populous your state is, the more reps you get. Wyoming has 1, California has 55. By its size and frequent turnover, the House is meant to represent the will of the people.
The Senate was originally meant to represent not the will of the people, but the interests of the States. Each state gets the same number of members – two each – and all laws passed (or repealed) must succeed in both parts of Congress. This was done explicitly to put a check on the power of the people, and if you know anything about our government, you know it’s filled with checks and balances intended to prevent any one component from holding too much power.
When they set up the election process, then, the Founding Fathers did so in such a way as to mimic the setup of Congress. The popular vote represents the will of the people. The electoral vote represents the interests of the states – to a certain extent. There was a huge debate by the Founding Fathers as to how the president should be selected. A good number of them wanted the president chosen by a popular vote; a similarly significant portion wanted Congress to select the president, which is similar to how England’s (and many other countries’) prime ministers are selected.
As with many things in our Constitution, the fighting led to a compromise, and that compromise was to include both things in the process. This compromise was fine at the outset of our representative republic, but it’s come under fire a lot lately. About 80% of Americans wanted to abolish the Electoral College in the late 1960s, and the desire to do so still polls in the 70% range on a regular basis.
In the 21st century, the Electoral College gives a voice to the people living in the flyover states. The United States is heavily urbanized, which puts a ton of people into a small number of states. Urban populations tend to skew left, while rural populations skew right. Because of this demographic distribution, the Democrats enjoy domination in most – if not all – of our urban areas like New York City and Los Angeles.
Clearly, it is possible to win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote, and as a result, five times in our history as a nation we’ve seen electoral victories without a popular vote win. Two of them have happened in my lifetime; George Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, and of course we all know Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Clinton’s mistake, perhaps, was failing to make a serious appeal to those so-called flyover states. Wyoming has but 3 electoral votes, but you put Wyoming together with the other flyovers and you’ve got a large block of electoral votes. That made it straightforward for Trump – all he had to do was focus on the states that could have gone either way, make Clinton look bad there, and ride the media’s wave of publicity and horror right into the White House thanks to the Electoral College.
We in this country tend to have an messianic view of the Founding Fathers, but we should always remember that the majority of them (if not all of them) were members of the 18th century elite. They were overwhelmingly wealthy and owned – in some cases – considerable amounts of land. Every last one of them was white, and every last one of them was male.
I often talk about social contract theory and its importance in the development of the ideologies that led to the formation of the United States. One of the themes running through social contract theory in the 18th century was a hearty distrust and even fear of the masses – the mob, many social contract theoreticians felt, was too dangerous to be allowed to hold any real power.
It is for this reason that the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College – to put a check on the will of the people by creating an institution that can put the brakes on a close election and sway things in favor of the established elite if and when necessary. State governments (especially in the 18th century) were not made up of everymen, and they were not made up of any women or people of color. They were made up of the elite, and it’s where our entrenched oligarchy got its start.
As the tool of the will of the states, then, the Electoral College became the tool of the wealthy elite and enables the ongoing manipulation of election results by the entrenched oligarchical elite we have come to know and love. It functions on fear and loathing, not equality and justice.
You may think I’m crazy, and that’s fine, but when elections are as close as this one and the one in 2000, the wealthy elite of this country can rely on the Electoral College to do their will and overcome the will of the people. At its heart, the Electoral College shows the distrust of the masses that the Founding Fathers held close, and you should never forget that.
The next four years are going to be pretty great for straight, nominally Christian white men and pretty bad for basically everybody else. White women might think they’re safe – hey, Trump loves white people, right? – but we’ll see if his racial ideas outweigh his gender ideas. When the post-Trump anti-white-male backlash descends, however, we’ll see just how hard he grabbed our collective pussy and what kind of damage he managed to do while he was down there.