The Pros and Cons of the Electoral College

Politics is a game, in some ways akin to football.  A win depends on how many points are on the official scoreboard, not on how many yards have been covered.

For a stable society to exist or a game to be successful, certain rules must be followed.  They may be simple or complex, few or many, handed down orally or through a complex code, but they underlie a structured order.

Adherence to that structure is essential even in politics, which is an ongoing process with no eternal answers.  It is natural in politics that conclusions and procedures once generally accepted are inevitably subject to change.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his letter of September 6, 1789 to James Madison, "[n]o society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law."

The presidential election just held raises the issue of the usefulness of the Electoral College (E.C.) in the U.S. today.  Many Democrats, including the largely Democratic media, comprising ardent Clinton supporters disappointed in her defeat, have called for a change in the U.S. Constitution and specifically the E.C., since Donald Trump's election to the presidency of the U.S.

The 2016 election took on highly unusually emotional overtones in support of the different candidates.  Questioning the authority of the E.C. seems to be a continuation of that emotion rather than a rational proposal.  As such, it borders on breaking the official rules of the existing system.

The issue of the case for and the validity of political or social disobedience has always been present in life and in literature.  Questions arise about whether it is morally or politically right to disobey and refuse to accept the existing rules.

The classic argument about disobedience is presented in Sophocles's play Antigone, the story of the princess, the niece of the ruler Creon, who defies the ruler by insisting on burying her brother against the rule of the state that forbids celebratory burial of offenders.  What ensues is a clash of opposites and principles: the individual confronts the ruler and the state; the woman confronts the male ruler; blood relationships confront impersonal law; and divine law confronts man-made law.

Antigone argues that it was not Zeus who made the laws, nor are the government's orders more basic than the unwritten and unfailing laws if the state is acting against humanity.  The ruler Creon holds that obedience to his least command is essential. 

Without accepting the extreme position of Creon, objective observers must be surprised by the continuing discussion on the part of the Democrats and the Democratic media as to whether Trump's election by the E.C. is valid.  Unlike the case of Antigone, there is no question of disobedience based on serious discussion of constitutional principle or moral outlook, but simply questions of political expediency.

One can make the case that not all existing constitutional rules are appropriate today.  They need to be changed, as is the case in every generation.  It is understood by all that the Declaration of Independence says prudence dictates that the government, and constitutional rules, not be changed for light and transient causes, yet it is right and a duty to change what is improper and undemocratic.

In the present situation, the Democrats criticize the fact that the E.C. formally casts the votes for president and vice president.  They argue that the E.C. must be changed or abolished.

The E.C. was created as a compromise between election of the president by vote of Congress and by the popular vote of citizens.  The E.C. was, as James Madison argued in Federalist 39, a mix of state-based and popular government.  It votes without tumult and disorder, avoiding both passion and interests.

Of course, the E.C. means violation of political equality, but it does result in representation of a geographically broader and more diverse base than does a simple popular vote.  However, three issues arise.  The E.C. does not consist of educated and informed electors, as was intended.  The E.C. today is a formality and only ratifies the result.  And it is arguable that the E.C. choice avoids someone with a talent for "low intrigue and the arts of popularity."

The essential practical issue is the definition of the "will of the people" in a democratic system meant to prevent arbitrary power.  The Democrats' argument rests on the reality that Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more votes in the country as a whole than Trump.  Therefore, they maintain that the E.C. should honor the popular national vote since it has a right to act independently of the decision of the voters in the individual states in exceptional circumstances.

There are two problems with this argument.  One is that to have the election result based on the popular vote in the whole country would bring great practical and logistical difficulties if the vote were close and disputed in a number of the states.  At the least, the E.C. produces a definite winner, as in the present case, with Trump getting 57% of E.C. votes.

The second problem is that it concentrates on and gives too much weight to two states.  In 2016, Clinton had a majority in California of 4.2 million and in New York of 1.6 million.  A country-wide vote minimizes the smaller states and rural areas largely inhabited by whites.  In California, the score was Clinton 61.7% to Trump 31.62%.  In New York City, it was 78.59 % to 18.6%, and Clinton had Manhattan by 86.3% to 9.8% and the Bronx by almost the same margin, though not Staten Island, too.

Without those two states, Trump had a popular majority of three million votes.  Clinton won a popular majority in only 13 states and D.C., while Trump had a majority in 23 states.

It is a fair argument that the role of the Electoral College, which at its origin did not receive any severe censure and indeed received general approbation, should be reexamined.  It is no longer true that a small number of persons, selected now by party leaders in their states, have the information and discernment necessary to make the best choice of the president.  But an objective and desirable analysis of this constitutional problem is not to be confused with using the E.C. as a weapon to deny the validity of Trump's election.   

Evaluating the effectiveness of the Electoral College is legitimate, but the current Democratic critique sounds more liked political football than a serious intellectual  effort.  Political criticisms must be expressed, but don't alter the scoreboard or move the goalposts while the game is being played.