Every four years, millions of Americans wind up on the losing side and thus disappointed by the presidential election. These wins and losses too often color how we see our political institutions. This is certainly true of the often misunderstood Electoral College.
It was an Al Gore elector from California who launched the current effort to nullify the state-by-state presidential election process. John Koza’s proposal, called “National Popular Vote,” would use an interstate compact to manipulate the Electoral College and create a quasi-direct election scheme. The instability of the compact would most likely push the country toward more centralized, federal control over all elections.
The American Founders, particularly the Framers of the Constitution, recognized that who wins or loses power in one or two elections is a shortsighted way to think about political institutions. Rather we should ask what incentives an institution creates and whether it tends toward stability.
Remarkably, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists mostly agreed on the genius of the Electoral College. By turning the election of the President and Vice President into a state-by-state affair, the constitutional system contains election administration, as well as disputes, at the state level. It establishes a two-step process which, although blurred today, allows for checks and balances even late in the process.
The Electoral College exerts a powerful influence on political campaigns and parties. It forces candidates to build broader coalitions than would otherwise be necessary. This is evident this year. Joe Biden cannot win simply by running up his vote total in California or Illinois. (Even 110 percent voter turnout in Chicago cemeteries won’t do it.) Donald Trump cannot win by appealing to just one region of the country, either.
Considered this way, the 2000 election was a triumph of the constitutional structure. Al Gore’s narrow popular vote plurality came from winning huge margins in relatively small urban areas. If Gore’s coalition had been just a bit more diverse (or if he had simply won his home state of Tennessee), he would have become president. The same thing happened to Grover Cleveland running for reelection in 1888. Cleveland won a popular vote plurality with massive margins in Southern states, but he lost the West and most of the North, including all of the five most populous states. Of course, Cleveland would return to the White House four years later after putting together a broader coalition that won both the popular vote and the Electoral College.
How is the Electoral College influencing the 2020 election? The Biden campaign shoveled resources into Georgia in hopes of “expanding the map” of swing states. A Democrat last carried the Peach State in 1992, but polls were close there this year. Likewise, the Trump campaign’s strategy seemed built around traditionally democratic states like Michigan and Pennsylvania where Trump won in 2016.
Because both parties are dynamic and constantly adapting to win future elections, no party is at a permanent disadvantage in the state-by-state system. Election analyst Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com points out that, after 1988, many pundits were sure Republicans had a lock on the Electoral College. (They were likewise certain, right up to November 1994, that Democrats had a permanent majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.)
The Electoral College reminds us that we are a compound republic. More than that, it uses the system of states to distribute power over elections and to contain election disputes. A national popular vote would mean national recounts, national rules, and, ultimately, national control. It would also nationalize any election fraud, allowing a phony vote in Chicago to cancel out a legitimate voter in Oklahoma City. Regardless of any given election outcome, the state-by-state constitutional process of electing the President is worth defending.