Defending the Electoral College since 2009
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” former White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama Rahm Emanuel once said. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
Some Electoral College opponents seem to view the events of January 6, 2021, through this lens. Will they finally achieve the elimination of a presidential election system they have long hated? The issue is simmering while a special counsel continues to investigate the events of that day.
The hyperbole surrounding the matter teeters on the edge of hysterical.
One member of the House January 6 select committee blasts the system, declaring that it “has become a danger, not just to democracy, but to the American people. It was a danger on January 6.” An Atlantic headline agrees: “Without the Electoral College, America would never have come so close to an overthrow of its government.” The system is “dangerously susceptible to manipulation,” Professor Kate Shaw concludes.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Electoral College opponents are throwing mud at the wall, hoping something sticks. They don’t want to acknowledge the truth: The Electoral College prevented anarchy in 2020.
However bad 2020 was, things could have been significantly worse. But for the Electoral College, we could still be fighting over election tallies.
The Electoral College’s unique blend of democracy and federalism (state-by-state action) provides many benefits that sometimes get taken for granted. One of these was particularly important in 2020: The system confines disputes to one or a handful of states. The remaining electoral votes, in other states, remain above the fray. The country is thus given a clear set of problems to resolve one way or another before moving on to a definitive election outcome.
We don’t have to litigate and spar over every vote nationwide.
Without the Electoral College, such a benefit doesn’t exist. Close elections would necessarily end in turmoil, with partisans fighting over tallies in every precinct in every state. There would be no easy way to stop the fighting.
This is more than a theoretical problem. Popular vote totals are usually closer than electoral vote totals, as former FEC chairman Bradley Smith pointed out in a 2008 law review article. He estimates that recounts may have been necessary in as many as six presidential elections between 1880 and 2004 if a national popular vote system had been used.
Do we want recount chaos in one out of every six elections?
The system we have is better. As a matter of history, the Electoral College has demonstrated its remarkable ability to control chaos at least four times: In 2000, the country was able to focus on a finite number of problems in Florida. In 1960, election problems were isolated in Texas and Illinois, if Richard Nixon had chose
n to pursue his claims. In 1876, problems were isolated to four states. Finally, in 2020, problems were isolated to a handful of states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Simultaneously, the Electoral College highlighted potential problems in cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia. This was not inevitable. But for the Electoral College, Americans would have simply seen a 7-million national popular vote margin and never stopped for a harder look. Because of the Electoral College, several states know where potential problems lie, and their state legislators can address these issues before 2024.
The Electoral College has other benefits, of course. It encourages coalition-building, and it motivates candidates to reach out to a wide variety of voters. It penalizes those who rely upon isolated pockets of support in one region, one state, or among voters in one special interest group.
The reason we’ve had so many close elections in recent years is because both political parties are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge these coalition-building incentives. Thus, neither side is winning so much as it’s avoiding losing.
The first party to look inward, fix its own flaws, and work on coalition-building will win in a landslide.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said.
He was right. The Electoral College has proven its ability to control chaos. It can restore unity in our country, too, if we let it.
Tara Ross is a retired lawyer and the author of several books about the Electoral College, including Why We Need the Electoral College (Regnery Gateway).
Time is running out
There is a real, immediate threat to the constitutional way we elect our president. National Popular Vote is 76% of the way to implementing their dangerous plan.