It is not surprising to recount that in the presidential election of 2016, Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than her opponent yet lost the presidency; however, it might be surprising to know that the Democratic Party’s nominee for president has won the most votes in seven of the last eight presidential elections, but has only held the office after four of them.
The reason that this has happened twice in our lifetimes is because of a relic of the 18th century that originated as a concession to slave owners: the Electoral College. Debates about this system and its purposes have abounded for decades, especially after a similar outcome occurred in the election of 2000. But following the elections in 2016 and leading up to 2020, Democratic candidates for president have called for its abolition. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has introduced legislation to elect the president by popular vote, and in March, Colorado became the most recent of 11 other states and Washington, D.C. to sign on to an initiative started by state legislatures to throw their electors to the winner of the national popular vote.
Understanding historical context matters because veneration of the framers of the Constitution is a popular talking point of those in favor of the Electoral College. However, the system today would be unrecognizable to what the framers envisioned and voted on at the Constitutional Convention. Jill Lepore’s book “These Truths” traces the founding of the Electoral College back to 1787, when James Madison fearfully rejected the popular election of the president. He argued that a system like this would give too much power to the North, as the South, while populous, was home to a large slave population who could not vote. In this sentiment, Madison echoed a fear that led to the defeat of a proposal to directly elect the president by popular vote.
Instead, the delegates to the Convention proposed an Electoral College, a system whose effect was two-fold: it would apportion votes for the presidency based on a state’s entire population, and not on the number of voters — with the caveat that slaves would be represented as three-fifths of a person, thus giving slave owners in the South more concentrated political power. In addition, it would remove the election of the president out of the hands of everyday people.
The system itself is racist and designed to appease slave owners, but there is a second aspect of it lost to history: the framers intended for the Electoral College to be a mediator between the “excesses of democracy” and the election of the president, a term which referred to their belief that majority rule would leave the rights of the minority liable to unfair oppression. In the election of the president, this fear was rooted in the possibility of a demagogue rising to power. The original purpose of the Electoral College was for the delegates to the College to use their own judgment in electing the president. States were given their own liberties in deciding how they would appoint men to the college: about half of the 16 states in 1796 had state legislatures vote to appoint them, while the other half had the people vote to elect them.
In the 19th century, two phenomena occurred: states began moving entirely to the popular election of the Electors to the College and they also moved to winner-takes-all systems, the latter of which was not anticipated by the framers. In any case, the framers designed a system whose purpose was to make a decision on behalf of the people regarding who would become president. Today, it does no such thing, making its continued use a blatant defiance of logic — in 2019, the Electoral College is merely a vestige of a political apparatus of the 18th century.
There can be endless debate about the Electoral College and whether it incentivizes campaigning in more or fewer locations, and what the actual goals of our electoral system should be. Where the Electoral College falls dangerously and inexcusably short is in its illegitimacy: nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the president should be elected by the popular vote, according to a survey co-run by The Atlantic and The Public Religion Research Institute. In a system that repeatedly does not honor the will of a popular majority, how can Americans have faith in their political institutions?
This was evidenced when Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, as the U.S. was forced to reconcile the election of the president by a system that is inherently undemocratic in a society that views itself as democratic. Trump himself instinctively defended his loss of the popular vote by saying that he actually did win it, because five million people voted illegally (there is no evidence to support this claim). If Trump was vindicated by winning the Electoral College because it was a politically legitimate system for electing the president, why did he need to defend his loss of the popular vote?
At NYU, we learn to question the reasons behind institutions and policies. We are obligated to join scholarly debates and constantly challenge the status quo and wonder why, and for what reason, the systems around us exist. When we do the same with the Electoral College, it becomes clear that it is one of our country’s most vestigial political apparatuses. It must be abolished before it leads to unrest that democracy cannot endure.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 22, 2019, print edition. Email Gavin Arneson at [email protected]