Ever since the photo-finish presidential election in 2000, in which George Bush prevailed by a mere 5 electoral votes, despite losing by one-half-million votes in the national popular vote, there’s been criticism of the Electoral College. Following the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s convincing win with a 77 electoral votes, despite Hillary Clinton’s run-up of almost 3 million more popular votes, the criticism has been intense. No surprise.
The anti-College fever, primarily of Democrats, has continued unabated. Last week Democrats in the Connecticut House passed legislation designed to work around the Electoral College and award Connecticut’s seven electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
The National Popular Vote scheme would take effect once states with 270 electoral votes — the winning number — have approved it. The Nutmeg State would bring the tally to 172 (all in blue states. The state’s senators should take heed: the scheme is not a good idea, especially for Connecticut.
First off, Houston, we do not have a problem. The 2000 and 2016 presidential elections are only the fourth and fifth where the winner lost the popular vote, out of 58 contests, with the other three being elections in the 19th century. That means the Electoral College is batting 53 for 58. Not bad. As Winston Churchill observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
The anti-College frenzy focuses upon three broad criticisms. First, the College doesn’t reflect one-man-one-vote. Well, it wasn’t designed to. The College is a blend of the pure democracy of the U.S. House, with one elector per U.S. representative, each of whom represents about 750,000 Americans today, and our federal system, with one elector for each of the two U.S. senators from each state (plus three for the District of Columbia).
We are both a democracy and a federation of states. The Electoral College was designed specifically to prevent the tyranny of big states over small states, as was the U.S. Senate, which affords all states, large and small, equal representation. If we do away with the Electoral College, we might as well do away with the Senate.
In 2016, the Electoral College worked precisely as intended. It prevented Hillary Clinton’s 6-million-vote victory in California and New York from cancelling her 3-million-vote loss in the 48 other states.
The second knock on the Electoral College is that voters in most states feel their votes don’t matter, that the entire contest is waged in a handful of swing or “battleground” states.
Yet, if we did away with the Electoral College in favor of the national popular vote, the election would still be decided in a handful of states — populous states such as California and New York. Even though both of those states are deep blue, the GOP candidate would still fish in their waters, because swinging 1 or 2 percent into the red column would be worth more than swinging 1 to 2 percent in a smaller state. Voters in small states, such as Connecticut, would be permanently and completely disenfranchised.
Moreover, candidates would campaign in big media markets (which, of course, are in big states) in order to reach as many potential voters as efficiently as possible. This would favor media personalities and celluloid campaigns. Candidates would never have to meet voters one-on-one, as they do currently in small swing states.
The third rather trendy critique of the Electoral College is that it favors poor rural red states over prosperous populous urban blue states, suggesting, perhaps unintentionally, that poor peoples’ votes should be worth less than wealthier peoples’ votes. More importantly, this critique recasts current trends into timeless immutable facts. That most small rural states are Republican today reflects politics today. Democrats might do well to develop a rural agenda.
The poor-prosperous characterization also sees unchangeable reality in what are only currently prevailing economic conditions. The idea that prosperous urban states are subsidizing poor rural states forgets that New York City would have gone bankrupt in 1975 but for a federal bailout and that Detroit did go bankrupt a few years ago.
Moreover, 1975 may repeat itself with several more densely populated blue states in disastrous fiscal condition, including California, Illinois, New Jersey and, yes, Connecticut, with its last-place rankings on most measures of fiscal condition and its capital city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy today.
According to the continuing chorus of critics, the divergence of the popular vote and the Electoral College vote in 2016 proves conclusively that the Electoral College is an anti-democratic anachronism. The greater truth is that the critics don’t like the anti-Democratic result of the election. While President Trump is a unique, once-in-a-century national leader, his victory as a Republican is wholly consistent with the overwhelming national GOP consensus. Republicans control the Senate, the House, 33 governorships and the vast majority of state legislatures nationwide.
Democrats should forget about changing the rules and start worrying about their performance.
As appeared in The Hill on May 1, 2018.
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Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.