Essex column: Hand-wringing about Electoral College misplaced
After Donald Trump won the presidency while finishing second in the nationwide popular vote, some people on the short end of this distinctly American phenomenon have questioned the validity of the Electoral College.
The popular vote winner has failed to become president twice in our last five elections, in 2000 and 2016, after that happened only three other times in history, 1824, 1876 and 1888.
That’s disconcerting to those unhappy with how our Constitution established selection of a president, but it’s a moot, purely academic discussion.
The Electoral College was created by the Founding Fathers because they didn’t really trust the majority will of the people, and whether it still serves its originally intended role or not, it’s here to stay.
The Founders worried about a couple of things, one being foreign (primarily British at the time) influence in choosing a president (not that something like that is a concern today, right?) and another being what James Madison called the rise of “factions” with narrow interests that might capture a popular majority. The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville summed up the latter sentiment as fearing “the tyranny of the majority.”
Alexander Hamilton wrote in “The Federalist Papers” that the Constitution “happily” made sure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
Thus, while voting allowed for “the sense of the people,” the Electoral College ensured that the ultimate choice of president would be decided “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.”
That suggests that electors were originally meant to exercise their judgment even if it was contrary to the popular vote, but now the Electoral College decision, coming on Dec. 19 this year, is just a formality. So-called faithless electors have been rare and have never affected the outcome of an election.
Given the current demographics of the nation, let alone our deep division, this system will be around for a long time.
Here’s the process for amending the Constitution: Both the House of Representatives and the Senate must approve a joint resolution by a two-thirds majority, which is then submitted to the states. Three-fourths of the states — 38 — must ratify the proposed amendment for it to take effect.
It’s also possible that an amendment could be proposed by a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures, but that’s never happened, and three-fourths ratification still would be needed.
Given that the Electoral College empowers less populated states, blunting Hillary Clinton’s big wins in California, New York and Illinois, there is not a single chance on the coldest day ever in hell that 38 states would approve changing to a straight popular vote to elect the president. (Clinton won 20 states.)
The National Popular Vote movement seeks to tackle this another way, by pushing state laws that pledge electors to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This idea has passed in 10 states and the District of Columbia, which together have 165 electoral votes. It would take effect when states accounting for 270 electoral votes, the number needed to win the presidency, pass the law.
However, all of the jurisdictions that have passed it voted for Clinton, and Republicans control 31 of the nation’s 49 legislative chambers (Nebraska has just one) and 31 governor’s offices. This idea is as dead as a constitutional amendment.
So it’s clear that efforts to get rid of or dramatically alter the rules of the Electoral College are quixotic and misdirected. That activism would be better focused on engaging the roughly 45 percent of eligible voters who didn’t cast ballots this year.
Overall, it’s true that demographics are shifting in Democrats’ favor, but the strength that the Electoral College confers on rural states slows the impact of that change.
The winners of elections do not necessarily reflect the majority opinion of the population represented (which is one good reason to be gracious in victory). It sounds overly simple to say this, but the winners of elections instead represent the will of those who actually turn out to vote. In a presidential election, that means in key states.
This is why voting rules and voter turnout are so important. This is why both parties work hard to register those sympathetic to them, why Democrats seek more liberal early voting rules and why Republicans like ID laws and poll restrictions.
If political parties and candidates want to win, they must reshape the electorate for their particular election. Barack Obama was elected twice precisely because he achieved this, winning 69.5 million votes in 2008, the most ever.
The lesson can be applied to local politics.
Every month, roughly 50,000 Hispanic U.S. citizens turn 18 and become eligible to vote.
In Garfield County, about a third of the population is Latino. Many are citizens either already of voting age or who will soon reach that threshold. Just for example, getting them to register and vote would alter the composition of the local electorate.
To paraphrase the sitting president, if you want government to reflect your values, don’t whine. Vote.
Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.