The left's whiplash over the Electoral College has finally culminated in complete incoherence.
At first, Democrats and the media barely paid any attention to the constitutional structure of presidential elections, assuming that Hillary Clinton would win handily thanks to the "blue wall" of Rust Belt states and supposedly superior funding and organization. When she lost, Democrats at first decried the representative nature of the Electoral College — and then tried to exploit it with a campaign to convince electors to switch their votes away from Donald Trump.
That "faithless elector" project wound up backfiring on Clinton supporters and Trump opponents. While activists predicted a significant drain of support from Trump — activist attorney Larry Lessig claimed that nearly two dozen electors had contacted his organization for potential legal support — only two electors changed their vote from Trump, both in Texas. Meanwhile, Clinton lost five electors from three different states, which had the net effect of increasing Trump's margin of victory from 74 electoral votes to 77 (306-232 to 304-227).
Now that electors have fulfilled their roles almost entirely as written, Trump opponents have shifted away from casting the Electoral College as a last bulwark against the bad choices of the voters, and back to a historical anachronism that defeats the purpose of democracy. While electors gathered to cast their votes and it became clear that the faithless-elector project had laid an egg, The New York Times editorial board demanded an end to the Electoral College.
By overwhelming majorities, Americans would prefer to elect the president by direct popular vote, not filtered through the antiquated mechanism of the Electoral College. They understand, on a gut level, the basic fairness of awarding the nation's highest office on the same basis as every other elected office — to the person who gets the most votes. But for now, the presidency is still decided by 538 electors. [The New York Times]
That argument is flat-out wrong. The presidency doesn't get decided by the personal whims of 538 electors, but by the voters in the states they represent. In fact, that was precisely what Trump's opponents and those who now want to eliminate the Electoral College hoped would happen. They invented a new purpose for the institution as a check on popular votes within each state rather than a direct representation of them, trying to convince electors that they had a duty to oppose Trump.
It didn't work, in large part because it ignores how electors get chosen. Voters do not cast ballots for electors; the names they see on the ballot are the nominees of each party, who select their own electors for their own slate. Generally speaking, electors come from the ranks of party officials and activists whose loyalty is unquestioned. As we saw in the vote, those assumptions proved to be 98.7 percent valid.
The Times' editorial also highlighted the supposed unfairness of not "using the same basis as every other elected office." The reason for this is that the presidency is not at all "like every other national office" — and it never has been.
Unlike governors, whose state governments have total sovereignty within their borders, the presidency governs over states with their own sovereignty under the Constitution. The role of the presidency is at least somewhat limited to foreign policy and questions that are at least loosely connected to interstate issues and enforcement of other provisions of the Constitution. For that reason, the framers of the Constitution wanted to ensure that the president would have the greatest consensus among the sovereign states themselves, while still including representation based on population.
That is why each state gets the same number of electors as they have seats in the House and the Senate. It reduces the advantage that larger states have, but hardly eliminates it entirely; California has 55 electors while Wyoming has only three, to use the Times' comparison. Rather than being an "antiquated system," as they write, it's an elegant system that helps balance power between sovereign states with national popular intent, and it forces presidential contenders to appeal to a broader range of populations.
The editorial points out that Republican votes in San Francisco are "worthless" under the current system. But that has more to do with the way the states choose to allocate electors than it does the Electoral College. California and 47 other states allocate electors on a winner-take-all basis, which gives their states much more power in presidential elections. States could choose other allocation schemes if they want to prioritize "democracy" and proportional representation over influence, but none of the high-population states do so.
In this case, the nature of the popular-vote lead is instructive on why smaller states won't go along with the Times' demand to end the Electoral College. Clinton won the overall popular vote by nearly 3 million, but won California by 4.3 million and New York by 1.7 million. Donald Trump won 30 of the 50 states. Relying on the popular vote would have voters in the largest states determine the outcome and lock out the majority of the states, as it would have in 2016.
A popular-vote system would change the entire dynamic of presidential campaigns. Rather than spending time in states with smaller populations, candidates would spend their time trying to fight it out in the most populous locations. That might be good news for California, New York, and Texas, but it's bad news for most of the South and Midwest. Had a popular-vote system been in place in 2016, the Trump campaign would have oriented itself toward it and might have competed more in coastal Democratic strongholds, wasting less effort in other states.
Instead, the Electoral College system worked exactly as intended. The candidate who built the best consensus among the states through their popular votes won the presidency. The problem for the Times and others opposed to the outcome is that their candidate didn't beat the winner.