Boston University

The Electoral College Safeguards American Democracy by Yifei Shen @Boston University

On November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump officially won the Presidency of the United States, beating his opponent, Hillary Clinton, by a count of 304-227 Electoral College votes. However, Trump lost to Clinton in terms of “popular votes” by a margin of almost three million votes. Therefore, many people argue that the Electoral College silences people’s voices and thus makes America “undemocratic.” On the contrary, this system matures the American democracy by preventing a majoritarian rule from occurring.

The Constitution originally states in Article II Section I: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.” Later, Congress introduced and installed the Twelfth Amendment to further perfect the Electoral College system.

When the Founding Fathers were in the process of writing the Constitution, they wanted to avoid a majoritarian rule in America, which asserts the full decision-making power in the majority of the citizens. Under the majoritarian structure, the majority of the population rules every aspect of society, overwhelming the minority. By creating the Electoral College system, the Founding Fathers ensured that the minority also gained a voice in the voting booth. As a result, the general elections behaved like a “pendulum” swinging back and forth from the majority to the minority, especially in recent years.

If we break down the 2016 Presidential Election results into individual towns across the United States, one can see that the country is more “red” than “blue” in terms of area. However, the popular vote suggests otherwise. In this case, one can argue that conservatism (Trump voters) is the majority in terms of area but minority population wise. And so, the Electoral College plays a significant role in striking a balance between the loosely defined term “majority” and thus making the American democracy a unique and mature one.

Especially nowadays, the United States has been more politically divided than ever. In fact, polarization can threaten the stability of democracy as an institution. Milan W. Svolik has stated the following in his work When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents: “In line with classic research on the role of societal cleavages in democratic stability (Lipset 1959, 83-96), our arguments imply that elites with authoritarian ambitions succeed in subverting democracy only when given that opportunity by a factious public” (37). In short, the politicians tend to follow the will of their voters more under a “centrist” political atmosphere. In other words, polarization produced more extremist and uncompromising politicians who tend to not conform to the will of the public.

The Electoral College system again solves the problem of polarization undermining democracy. To reiterate, it resembles a pendulum that swings back and forth from both sides of the aisle in order to strike a balance. Therefore, the states can vote out a president if they do not like his or her political decisions and ideologies.

The Electoral College gives the minority a voice at times. Without it, states like California, New York, and Illinois get to decide the Presidency of the United States. Moreover, it recognizes the existence of the conservatives in those populated blue states. Even though Trump is a populist who did not win the popular vote; he won the General Election fair and square under the Constitution. And also, his victory reflects the idea that some people are tired of “the establishment.”

2 Comments

  1. Hunter Irons

    November 12, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    Considering how contentious President Trump’s election still is one year later, your thesis regarding the importance of the Electoral College safeguarding the United States’ democracy remains relevant. I thought it was especially vital that you emphasized both the original intention of the Founding Fathers and the obvious problematic nature of a few states dictating the course of our elections and subsequent politics.

    I was shocked to discover that prior to Presidents Trump and George W. Bush, only three other Presidents have failed to win the popular vote (John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison). Equally surprising was the fact that this did not occur once in the twentieth century! I could see how some could use this information against your argument by stating that “if this has only occurred five times, then obviously the Electoral College does not serve much of a purpose”. However, this could be countered by noting how important five presidential elections can be in relation to American democratic success. You could also defend your thesis against this argument by simply referring to your point regarding the Founding Fathers’ goal of deterring “majoritarian rule”.

    Finally, when you were listing the states that tend to influence elections the most, Texas was left off of the list. Again, critics can (and have) use this against the argument for keeping the Electoral College intact. However, I believe it can be argued that the previous rebuttal against majoritarian rule can be used in response to this criticism. Also, I would have to imagine that many who have criticized the Electoral College in the 2000 and 2016 elections are likely defenders of minority rights. This sheds light on potential hypocrisy.

    Overall, I really enjoyed reading your post regarding the importance of the Electoral College. It would be nice to know whether people who criticize it are actually concerned with democratic values, or are simply unhappy with the person elected.

  2. Rachel Burke

    November 14, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    Very interesting and controversial post. In the United States post-2016 election, many liberals are throwing the Electoral College to the wolves for not giving Hilary Clinton the presidency. I find this a rather difficult issue in the discussion of right and wrong, for as you pointed out, the Electoral College has been a central part of the United States democracy since its infancy.
    The biggest criticism I have after reading your post is the assumption that the Electoral College is less polarized than the American citizenry. Ideally, this is the goal, but as Obama’s administration showed, gridlock is a major problem even in the highest levels of our government. The 2016 election was unique, I agree, in how polarized the American public was. Many conservatives deemed it unacceptable to vote for Hillary Clinton because of her email scandal, and many liberals were put off from Donald Trump due to his lack of credentials and locker room talk. Still, at the end of the day, Clinton had (as you pointed out) 3 MILLION more popular votes than Trump. You point out that states with highly urban areas often hold more power in the popular vote (California and New York), but on the contrary, we often watch elections biting our nails to see what states like Ohio and Florida decide.
    The Electoral College basically gets to say, “no, trust us, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” And sure, perhaps there are times when this is correct. But it is hard for me, and many liberals, to wrap their heads around how a woman with a political resume like Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly less qualified to be our president than a businessman.
    Another point you made was about the Electoral College swinging like a pendulum to allow minorities to have a voice in the federal system. In our two-party system, this is really more about a win or lose. When the minority of voters wins the presidency, the majority loses. You imply we should avoid majoritarian rule, which I agree with. It is unfair to continuously stifle the needs of the minority simply because they make up a smaller percentage, their needs must be heard too! But the minority that Donald Trump belongs to—the upper upper class—holds enough power without the title of presidency as it is. The 20th century saw no use of the Electoral College, yet two of the past five elections (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) have been won by candidates that lost the popular vote.
    I think that because this was the first time roughly anybody living (the last electoral college win prior to Bush was Harrison in 1888) ever lived under a presidency not won by the popular vote, this issue has been brought to head more than ever before. And because this issue is so new, many are grappling with whether the Electoral College is democratic or not. Though my gut says no, I do think that my opinion is heavily influenced by my political leanings. Whether it erodes democracy or does not, we can agree the Electoral College makes it much easier to say, “that is not fair.”

Leave a Reply