Remember that time the Electoral College saved you from bailing out New York City?
If you were following the news in 1975, you might. Massive mismanagement and liberal overspending had driven the city to the brink of bankruptcy. The mayor and the governor of New York were demanding a federal bailout. They wanted taxpayers from across the nation to be on the hook for their blatant failures.
President Gerald Ford told them to “drop dead.” At least that’s how the New York Daily News put it. Ford likened the City government’s irresponsibility to an “insidious disease” and declared that he was “prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City.”
Ford’s stand would have been more difficult if presidents were elected by the national popular vote. After all, New York City was and is the nation’s largest, and the Empire State was then the second-largest state. But with the Electoral College, presidential elections are fought out state-by-state. That means even the largest state has limited power. While Richard Nixon had won the state in his 1972 reelection landslide (he lost only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia), Nixon had won the first time without New York.
Because of the Electoral College, no big state or city can control the president. Ford knew that he could stand up to New York City and still have a path to reelection. In the end, Ford compromised on a bill with loan guarantees for New York City but still lost New York to Jimmy Carter in 1976. But that’s not the only reason Ford lost the election—unlike Nixon, Ford also failed to win Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin (he did add his home state of Michigan).
When James Madison warned against a popular vote for president, he specifically worried that big states like New York and Virginia would have too much power in that kind of election system. In other words, no president would ever stand up to New York City. And people in smaller states, especially those who live in rural areas and small towns, could be ignored.
Many of those demanding a national popular vote actually agree with Madison—they know that big cities would have tremendous power under such a system. But unlike Madison, they want it to happen. Where Madison cared about checks and balances, they see only impediments to getting their way. This includes Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from New York City, who seemed to chafe at the Democratic National Convention’s focus on “white moderates.” She has repeatedly called for abolishing the Electoral College or adopting the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV).
The most obvious risk of giving big cities so much more power is that they will once again demand bailouts from federal taxpayers. Detroit infamously went bankrupt in 2013. Chicago is staggering under massive debts and unfunded liabilities. And, according to Truth in Accounting, New York City continues to be the very worst city for outstanding liabilities per taxpayer. All these cities, and many more, would love to put you on the hook for their decades of bad decisions.
Thanks to the Electoral College, presidential candidates and presidents can stand up to big cities. Moving to a national popular vote would make it much more likely that big cities would get bailed out with your tax dollars.