The Electoral College is a civic abomination
The Electoral College is an abomination. It's long past time we abolished it.
The Electoral College was a dumb idea when it was first proposed. Today, it's the Constitution's most egregious affront to elementary fairness. In a just and properly functioning political system, it would be eliminated without delay or regret.
Why do we have the Electoral College in the first place? If we begin at the beginning and look for guidance to Alexander Hamilton — the presumed author of Federalist Paper No. 68, which discusses and defends the Electoral College — we discover what sounds like the musings of a dorm room full of mildly drunken undergraduates seeking to apply to the world the overly pious lessons of an "Intro to Political Theory" course.
Wouldn't it be nice if voters didn't cast ballots in favor of the president directly but instead voted for a group of people of "information and discernment" who would themselves make the final choice of who will stand at the head of the executive branch of government and serve as the commander in chief of the armed forces? The idea, apparently, was that there should be an extra layer of distance between the people and the choice of president — and that this layer should consist of a group of citizens (electors) who freely deliberate about the choice, like a temporary Congress filled with people who don't serve in other elective offices, with the outcome of those deliberations treated as legitimate by the people even when it countermands the result of the popular vote.
How Hamilton or anyone else with a knowledge of political history could have considered this a workable idea is beyond me.
But don't take my word for it. We know the idea is ridiculous because the institution has never functioned in any way like this. Yes, there have been a handful of elections, including two within the last two decades, in which the winner of the electoral vote has won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. But that isn't because the electors pondered the results of the popular vote, deliberated about it, and then overruled it.
In fact, during the Trump transition of 2016-2017 a small number of anti-Trump scholars and citizens tried and failed to persuade electors to act this way, switching their votes away from the electoral vote winner (Trump) to some other person, either the winner of the popular vote (Hillary Clinton — who just argued in The Atlantic that it's time to kill the Electoral College) or a different Republican — really to anyone other than the singularly unfit man at the head of the GOP ticket.
That didn't happen, or come remotely close to happening, because it's a recipe for an outcome that would understandably be viewed as democratically illegitimate, with ordinary citizens wondering just who the hell these electors think they are to meddle with and overturn the outcome of an election.
In practical terms, then, the actual people who serve as electors are irrelevant, as is their capacity for deliberation. The electors nearly always vote the way their state voted in the popular election. The process is automatic, rendering the formality of an actual meeting to cast ballots beside the point. Which means that what matters is not who votes but how many electoral votes a state is allocated. That is determined by adding together a state's congressional and senatorial delegations.
And that's where the problem lies — because there is a significant representational imbalance between heavily and sparsely populated states.
At this point, we run into a classic debate in American politics — about federalism, population density, large states versus small states, and the cultural character of rural versus urban and suburban areas of the country.
Is the U.S. a single nation with a single population of citizens? Or is it a conglomeration of 50 mini-nations with 50 distinct bodies of citizens bound together into a unit that is and should remain less than the sum of its roughly equal parts? The Articles of Confederation that preceded the federal Constitution sided strongly with the latter. The U.S. Constitution written in 1787 attempted to strike a balance between the two extremes, with the Federalist faction (led by Hamilton and James Madison) leaning in the direction a single nation and the anti-Federalists favoring a more state-centered arrangement. (Progressives have tended to lean much less unambivalently in the direction of viewing the country as a single nation in which the power and distinctiveness of individual states is minimized.)
The need to get anti-Federalist (and Southern slaveholding) buy-in for ratification of the Constitution led to a number of the founding document's most distinctive features. One was the Bill of Rights. Another was the upper chamber of Congress, which gives two senators to every state, regardless of population. This meant that the least heavily populated state at the time of ratification (Delaware, with 59,000 people) had the same representation in the Senate as the most heavily populated state (Virginia, with 747,000 people), despite the latter having nearly 13 times the population as the former.
That's a lot of extra power for small states. But it's nowhere near the boost they enjoy today, when the most populated state (very Democratic California) is 68 times as heavily populated as the least populated state (very Republican Wyoming). It's this dynamic that is producing a situation in which, just over two decades from now, one-third of Americans could be represented by 70 percent of the Senate.
Let's assume this makes sense — because states should be considered roughly equal political entities regardless of population, and because the more rural, low-density populations of small states possess certain qualities (like civic virtue?) that deserve to receive outsized influence on our political system. I don't buy either claim and rather doubt that most people who live in larger states would either. But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it's persuasive — that for the good of the country small states should be vastly overrepresented in the upper chamber of Congress.
But then how do we explain the Electoral College, which builds off of this imbalance and applies it to how we choose the head of the executive branch — and through the president's appointment powers the judicial branch as well?
Consider the difference between voting for president in California and Wyoming.
In 2016, roughly 14 million people voted for president in California compared to 255,000 people in Wyoming. Clinton's California win gave her 55 electoral votes, while Trump walked away from Wyoming with three. That might sound like a big advantage for the Democrat, but when the electoral result is compared to the relative size of each state's population it's the opposite. In fact, an individual voting for president in Wyoming in 2016 had three times the influence on the Electoral College as an individual voting in California.
So let's summarize: The Senate hugely amplifies the power of small states. (This comes on top of Republican gerrymandering of House districts, which does the same for rural areas within Republican-controlled states.) The Electoral College then does the same thing when it comes to choosing the presidency, and with incredibly significant consequences — giving us George W. Bush instead of Al Gore and Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton, not to mention Neil Gorsuch instead of Merrick Garland.
That's all three branches of the federal government operating to systematically hand more political power to fewer people. If this happened in one branch of the federal government, perhaps it could be justified. But across them all? That's grossly unfair, as growing numbers of Americans are coming to recognize.
Too bad the system is also designed to stymie efforts to change it, with the process of amending the Constitution, which is what would be required to adopt direct nationwide election of the president, depending on support from at least some of the very low-population states that benefit so disproportionately from the current arrangement. The result is an extremely low probability of ever reforming the system.
The only question remaining is how long people will continue to revere and abide by the nation's fundamental law when they've rightly come to the conclusion that it's increasingly a force for injustice.